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Under Investing in Fundraising: The Myth of the One Person Development Shop

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By Armando Zumaya, Vice President at BRIDGE Housing Corporation

That title sounds pretty wonky, but it’s one of the most crippling and common afflictions that hampers the non-profit world. Now there are many variants of the “One Person Development Shop”. Some organizations are well served by a single development officer for a range of reasons. Some have stable and long term donors who only need maintenance. What I am focusing on is the institution with growing financial needs and one development officer that supposedly does all aspects of development.

Few CEO’s or Board Members think their organizations have grown enough and it’s time to plateau fundraising. If you want more impact, you will invariably need more money. If you want more money you have to ask honestly “are we staffed effectively to fundraise?”

Don’t ask your Development Director. Is that an odd thing to say? Not really, because depending on your relationship they are going to tell you they can do it all. Many of us will try hard and don’t want to seem incapable; we don’t want to say “no”. If you add Major Gifts and Planned Giving to their list of job tasks they won’t complain, but quietly look for another job because they already organize and drive the annual fund, website, gala, corporate relationships, donor records, foundation proposals etc.

The problem here is that too many nonprofit leaders including Board Members, well intentioned as they are, may not understand development work, the skills sets needed and how long it takes for many of these strategies to come into fruition and raise money. The classic notion that fundraisers have a magic rolodex of rich people who they can call on is still prevalent. If you hear this from some of your organization’s leadership, it’s an indication that this person may not understand your job. Obviously, Board education and training is part of the solution here. Fundraising often is an uncomfortable and undesirable task to too many nonprofit leaders outside of development officers. It’s avoided, at the bottom of the agenda.

The quiet ongoing crisis I see is that the solo Development Director is often a young person who tries to break into our profession and then burns out. We are losing great talents, future leaders every year, because they are simply asked to do too much, with too little support or training.

The solution is bold and clear: the board and additional nonprofit leaders need to honor fundraising and fundraisers. It’s not just about education. Our people are heroines and heroes. Treat your fundraisers like they are the engines of your institution. Fine tune them, give them all the support they need and help them set up metrics for progress.

Small teams of fundraisers can replace the solo development director even for small institutions. The smallest team I suggest is a three-person team supported by a prospect researcher. Consider a combination of Individual, Corporate, and Foundation fundraisers, supported by administrative help and a full-time, part-time or freelancer providing research support. Of course every situation is different but this type of small nimble team, well led, can transform your institution and far out raise their salaries early on.

Prospect Research is essential to small nonprofits – lead generation to use the business/sales parlance. Yet it’s the least understood. It’s also rare to find prospect research in some capacity at small to even medium-size nonprofits. It’s considered a big-institution luxury. If you have a small team, who they spend their time on is crucial. The outside world also sometimes sees research as the dirtiest secret of fundraising, when it’s not dirty or a secret. It’s just smart fundraising.

If you can truly only afford one Development Director, make their work clear and feasible. Work out the actual hours it takes weekly, monthly to do each component of their work. Be wary of adding to their list of job duties without asking where these new hours will come from?

Take a look at successful development shops and ask: how are they staffed? Ask other development officers who don’t get a paycheck from you for their opinion of your staffing and set-up.

When you hear the refrain that we can’t afford more fundraisers, does the same apply to the programming-side of the house? While few ED’s and CEO’s come from the fundraising side of the house, they may be more familiar with the programming priorities of a nonprofit. So programming needs are more commonly acted upon. I generalize here, but I have seen this all my career: a lack of money to grow fundraising, while spending and staffing in programming continues on.

So, if you do decide to hire more development staff, set realistic expectations based on the time it takes to build relationships amongst their donor populations.

Finally, as a board member, CEO or ED, get down with us in the weeds and understand the fundraising process. Everyone can fundraise in their own way; everyone can grab an oar and push the boat forward. Real fundraising by non-development staff and lay people often involves making a key introduction, hosting a dinner, getting your institution in the media and many other things that don’t involve asking for money. If you empower and support all your fundraisers, your institutions will grow beyond what you could imagine.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Armando #

    I hope this article is helpful to folks, please forward it to those you think might get something out of it, happy to answer questions.

    May 13, 2014
  2. Spot on!

    May 15, 2014

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