Linda Wise McNay, PhD
How to Search for a Development Officer
There are two schools of thought in conducting a search for a development officer. You can hire someone who loves the organization and teach him to raise money. Or you can hire a great fundraiser and teach her about your organization. Of course, the best of all worlds is to find the most skilled candidate who loves your organization.
I’ve been raising money for Atlanta nonprofits for thirty years. During that time, I have worked in every nonprofit sector, and I’ve had every development role. Along the way, I have been privileged to work with many quality individuals engaged in great teamwork for admirable causes. It will come as no surprise, then, to know I have also hired my share of colleagues. And I have come across a few folks I would prefer not to hire again.
The average tenure of a development officer is only fourteen months! That is not good for the individual and certainly not for the organization. I have a theory why that happens, and it has everything to do with expectations. This staffing change that comes all too quickly is because the expectations of those hiring do not match those of the persons being hired.
Everyone generally gets a one-year honeymoon. At the end of that first year, if a development officer has done a great job, that individual will go down the street to another nonprofit and take a similar job paying more money. If dollar goals have not been met or the development officer has not done a stellar job, then the development officer’s employment is terminated. And the cycle of hiring starts all over again. Wouldn’t it be better if we could do a better job of matching expectations initially and save both parties a lot of time and money?
I have to truly believe in any organization where I work. If you work at the Humane Society, you should really like cats and dogs!
A development office might include a chief development officer, an assistant, an events coordinator, a major or planned gifts officer, a director of annual giving, and a director of donor research/grants. The staff could be larger or more specialized or one person may need to perform all of these tasks in a small shop. Skills required and attributes might include writing, research, high integrity, excellent speaking skills, listening skills. High energy and perseverance are all desirable.
Getting Started – the Job Description
A complete and accurate job description is required to begin a development search. Don’t just publicize the last job description. Review it. Update it. Are there tasks that need doing that are not included in the job description? Are there items listed in the position description that are no longer desired or required?
Consider why the last development officer left the organization. Was it of his own accord? Was she leaving for better pay? Was there an exit interview conducted with HR or the supervisor that might offer insights into the hiring process for the new candidates? Is there an opportunity for overlap with the new hire or potential future phone calls for any questions that may come up? Will the last development officer be a positive advocate for your organization?
Are there any qualified internal candidates? Are there any internal candidates who think they may be qualified, but are not? These internal folks, whether they are employed at the organization, board member relatives, or others need to be handled delicately. It may be helpful to offer interviews for all internal candidates even if they are not finally selected.
What Salary to Offer?
Once the job description is finalized and approved, now you must determine the appropriate salary. Was the last salary too high, too low, or adequate? If you want someone with better skills, you are going to have to increase the offering. I have found that even if the job remains basically the same, you may have to pay more. That is why I am a big advocate for rewarding good people! In fact, I always recommend to my clients that they hire the most qualified candidates they can find and then be nice to them!
Beyond salary and benefits, candidates want to know if they will have a budget, staff to assist them, and reasonable goals. Be clear up front if these goals are set in stone or if the candidate gets to help craft the goals.
Sometimes organizations use their whole development budget to hire someone and then there is no budget to raise money. You need both salary and budget dollars to recruit good candidates.
If this is a new position, make sure you have a desk space set aside in advance of a hire. There is nothing worse than pointing to a closet as a future office!
Make sure to include professional development in the budget so that your new hires can network with other professionals and continue to learn and grow in their careers. A 2017 Art Museum Development Association (AMDA) survey showed that professional development opportunities were five times more important to development employees than salary.
Post the job description on your website and share with employees, board members, and volunteers. These insiders already know the culture of your organization and may have some good recommendations for you.
Post the ad for the job in the local nonprofit listserves or where fundraisers will see it. I always post on the local Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) website and announce at monthly meetings.
I usually let the ads run for two weeks and let the resumes accumulate before I begin interviewing. You don’t want to interview candidates too soon and then keep them waiting while you interview others who may trickle in. Thirty candidates is a nice pool from which to choose.
The Interview Process
I review resumes to see which candidates actually have the experience I am seeking. Did the candidate actually read the job description/ad and respond appropriately? I am looking to see if the candidates are currently employed, where they work, and how long they have been at their place of employment. Be wary of any candidates who may have less than one year in place or who move too often.
I telephone-interview the top candidates by appointment and invite in the most promising ones. If I like them, then I invite the candidates back to meet the development team, my boss, and chief volunteers. All candidates benefit from having the same interview situation: location, interviewees, length of the interview, same questions asked. You can then compare apples with apples.
What questions should be asked in an interview situation? Nothing illegal, of course. Check with HR if you have questions. You can ask, “if you were an animal, what animal would you be?” But that really isn’t relevant to fundraising. I like to ask how much an individual has raised and what was the largest gift he has received. The response gives me an idea of whether the candidate is comfortable in asking for money or if he has only been helpful to the process.
You seek to know if the candidate has the skills and personality to do the job at hand. It should be clear that the candidates have reviewed your website and done their homework on your organization. Candidates should ask thoughtful questions. I have one client who wouldn’t hire a candidate because the candidate didn’t ask any questions.
I worked in a museum, and before the interview, I would check to see if the next candidate was one of our 50,000 members or a donor to our organization. I would ask what the individual’s favorite piece of art was in the museum. It was easy to spot who had never even been in our museum.
I once had a candidate burst into song and sing opera to me—in a coffee shop! Again, not really relevant to the job at hand.
My early work background was in HR and my master’s degree was in HR. So, I am more comfortable in interview situations than some development professionals. It is not rocket science , but it does take a bit of practice.
You may not receive enough qualified candidates through the normal channels. You may have to contact other organizations or be more proactive in finding just the type of person you want. I reach out to colleagues in the field who may have rising stars in their organizations who are ready for the next step along their career paths.
As I interview, I purposely rank the candidates as I see them. If I really like someone, that candidate becomes #1 and is the candidate to beat. It is easier to do that ranking as you go along. If you wait to the end, you may forget which candidate was which and who said what, especially if you conduct a large number of interviews.
I like to see my favorite candidates at least twice. Everyone can have a good interview day or a bad interview day. You are looking for consistency.
Check official references on your top candidates. And I check “unofficial” ones. I would never contact anyone’s current employer, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I usually know someone who knows someone who knows the candidate. This provides invaluable, more insightful information than references listed by the candidate.
My whole development career I have interviewed candidates whether or not I had any openings in the department:
- Young people who think they want to work in my department or in development in general.
- People from the corporate sector who think their skills translate into development work. (I always let them know the salaries are less and the hours are long!)
- And there are folks who are just looking for their next development job.
By interviewing when they were available, I usually had a good idea of who I might hire if and when I did have a development opening. Plus, I love meeting new people. And of course, from time to time, I might be able to recommend them to other colleagues within the organization or down the road.
Once you have your top candidate, think about the offer. Are you willing to negotiate? How badly do you want/need the candidate? I always try to make the best offer I can upfront and tell the candidate that is the case. Be prepared to share all of the benefits of working at the organization and of working on your team. Sometimes we get so preoccupied with who we want and what we are looking for that we forget to “sell” the candidate on why it’s great to work at our organization. Allow the candidate time to respond; overnight, over the weekend, a week. Hopefully, you’ve made a nice match and the candidate will respond promptly and in the affirmative.
Good development candidates are hard to find. They may be juggling multiple offers. If you get a no, try to find out why. Is your salary competitive? Is the commute too long? Could you offer flexible hours to accommodate candidates you really cherish?
You may not find the perfect candidate. You will have to balance keeping the position open longer to find a better candidate or decide to hire the best candidate in the pool and offer training to get the candidate up to speed.
I once started a job when my boss was out of town on vacation for two weeks. While it may have been flattering that he trusted me to adjust, I was basically lost. It would have been much better if I’d had a true orientation by someone in the know (if not my boss) or had waited to start the job when he returned.
Get Off to a Good Start
Make sure you are set for your new hire’s first day. Where will he sit? What should she wear? Is the computer set up and functioning with the new email? An organization coffee mug or a flower on the desk is a nice touch. Assign someone to squire the hire around and meet everyone and see where the lounge or snacks or coffee pot reside. Take your new development hire to lunch. You want the first-day experience to be a great one. And I am always delighted when a new hire comes back for day two!
I was the first person hired to do development work at my college. I had to fight for the job. School leaders weren’t convinced a woman could do the job. And I have always worked for men either in the top development job or in the CEO role. While 80 percent of development jobs are now held by women, we still have a ways to go to make our staffs more diverse.
Diversity in Fundraising
You need to have a staff that reflects your donor base and your prospective donor base. Each year I mentor someone in the Diversity Fellows Program in our AFP chapter. I get to become acquainted with a whole diverse class of future development officer candidates.
Fundraising may be the least understood department in the whole organization. It will be important for the person doing the hiring and or the CEO to be supportive of the hire. People in other departments may think fundraising is a glamorous, high-paying job where you get paid to travel and attend events with wealthy patrons. What they don’t realize is the number of hours required and that you miss a flight, or a donor/prospect stands you up, or your luggage traveled to another city. Development hours are long, and expectations are high.
Mentor your new hires or encourage them to identify others who will mentor them through the trials and successes of their jobs.
Fundraising is Fabulous!
Fundraising is critical to the success of nonprofits. Fundraising is a fabulous career opportunity. Whatever time you invest in recruiting, hiring, training, and supporting an individual will be returned to you in multiples if you can retain your outstanding development employees over the long term.
Featured Book from CharityChannel Press:
by Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE
Fundraising is one of the hottest careers in the United States. So no, you are definitely NOT crazy!
It is also probably one of the least understood careers, sometimes even by those who are in it. Fundraising as a Career: What, Are You Crazy? was written to enlighten anyone who wonders about a career in fundraising, wants to advance in their mid-stream fundraising career, or hire a development person onto staff:
- If you are interested in starting a fundraising career in the nonprofit world, Fundraising as a Career: What, Are You Crazy? gives you an insider's view that will equip you for success. Linda Lysakowski helps you examine the many possibilities in the field of development and assess whether you have the right skills, personality, and enthusiasm for the job.
- The book is not just for those starting a career in fundraising. It's also essential for those already in the career. If this is you, it will help you increase your chances of promotion, diversify your skills and talents, and find career satisfaction.
- Nonprofit employers looking to hire a development staff person, and wondering how do you find the right person, will find Fundraising as a Career immensely helpful. The book outlines the qualities to look for in a development person and how to invest in development in order to reap the rewards of a strong development office.
In Fundraising as a Career: What, Are Your Crazy? you will find:
- A list of the qualities that make a successful fundraiser
- Options for expanding your horizons be becoming a generalist or a specialist in one of the many areas of fundraising
- Help setting career goals for yourself
- Hints for getting ahead in this profession
- Help deciding when it’s time to move on--to a better position in another organization, to a higher level within your organization, into consulting, or leaving the profession altogether.
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