We all know the goal is to hire that fundraising "unicorn"—the mythical nonprofit employee or executive who is often expected to magically do everything. This is overlooking one key fact: unicorns don't exist. Take these hiring tips to improve your nonprofit hiring and move your fundraising to the next level.
Hiring for a development director (or equivalent) is prime unicorn territory. I interact with nonprofit organizations and their leaders every day and one of the most erroneous notions I encounter is the idea that bringing in the right development director will solve all of an organization’s problems.
When someone is hired for the position, so many unrealistic expectations have been set for the person that he or she is almost certainly doomed to failure from the start. This partially explains the high rate of development staff turnover that we’re all familiar with. That high turnover, in turn, is incredibly detrimental to effective development programs which must be founded on consistency and excellence in execution over time.
There is no shortage of development job seekers. There is a shortage of quality talent in development. Successful and high-performing development executives and major gift officers already have jobs. They very often have jobs at organizations that have put in place a system and culture that allows and empowers these professionals to be successful. The keys, then, to avoid the development-director-as-magic-bullet pitfall are threefold:
Tip #1: Check your expectations for recruiting
If your organization is hiring in development, particularly for a Development Director, resist the temptation to look for a unicorn. Rather, set realistic expectations about what a reasonable candidate could accomplish. Be honest about structural problems in the organization (like weak leadership, a problematic board, program deficiencies, a weak brand, poor communications strategy, etc.) that won’t be solved by a Development Director or may even hinder his or her success. Seek input on the candidate profile from staff, board members, and industry peers. Be upfront in job descriptions and in interviews about what is expected and utilize feedback effectively to re-tool the position if needed. Once a hire is made, set and agree upon a 12-month plan of activities, goals, and outcomes to clearly structure the person’s path to success.
Tip #2: Build out the fundraising development system
Your development program must be bigger than any one person, even if it’s a one-person shop. Build a functioning development system that a new hire can plug into and within which he or she can be successful. This may entail putting a strategic development plan in place to comprehensively outline development activities and goals. It may entail freeing up part of your budget to make investments in personnel, technology, travel, and consulting to support a new Development Director. A successful development system goes beyond physical resources, however. An organization’s leadership must inculcate a development-centric culture that empowers a Development Director to succeed.
Tip #3: Think creatively about hiring
Good development directors already have jobs and they are already well-compensated. If you are hiring for a development director on a budget, consider looking to your program or communications staff. They already know your organization and its work intimately and can speak to your mission and efficacy. Look for energetic and sharp people as opposed to development veterans. Development skills can be learned easily if a person has the right outgoing disposition, is organized, and has a strong work ethic. Consider hiring and training a young professional with 1-5 years of experience and superb interpersonal and written communication skills. As one such young fundraiser recently told me, “It’s not hard. You have to meet with people and ask them for money.” This individual has done just that and has increased his organization’s revenue by over 50% in under a year.
Recruiting for Development Summary
Finally, in transition periods between development directors, it is critical to avoid letting fundraising operations grind to a halt. Consider hiring a third-party nonprofit recruiting consultancy that can keep the wheels turning and work with your organization for a period of time to manage development personnel and—importantly—execute on development activities, while providing strategic guidance and counsel.
About the Author
Kieran Raval is the Chief Solutions Officer at AmPhil, where he is responsible for developing and scaling innovative solutions that drive value for clients and accelerate the firm’s growth. As General Manager of AmPhil’s Solutions business unit, Kieran leads a portfolio of specialized capabilities that solve persistent client challenges, including Data & Technology, Talent Solutions, and Donor Advisory. Kieran serves as a member of AmPhil’s Executive Management Team and leads the firm’s presence in the Washington, D.C. region.
Before joining AmPhil, Kieran was a corporate strategy leader at Neustar, a premier information services and technology company. There he developed product, go-to-market, and M&A strategies that enabled Neustar’s transformative growth and drove valuation. Kieran led critical sell-side efforts that facilitated TransUnion’s $3.1 billion acquisition of Neustar in 2021. Prior to Neustar, Kieran was a strategy consultant with Deloitte Consulting, where he served clients in global logistics and higher education.
Kieran holds an A.B. degree in Government from Georgetown University and lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and children. Connect with Kieran on LinkedIn here or contact him anytime at email@example.com.