The Crisis of Development Officer Short Tenures: Common Mistakes and Solutions
Do all short tenures always indicate an incompetent development officer?
Let’s talk about one of the most damaging parts of our fundraising: How our development officers are evaluated.
People outside our profession often marvel at our short tenures in positions. Harder to see are the legions of fine development staff, working hard and succeeding, but judged to be failures by people who aren’t knowledgeable about our profession. These short tenures damage development efforts with poor consistency and severed relationships. While there are a few reasons for short tenures one of the most significant in my opinion is that we are not effectively evaluated.
Do all short tenures always indicate an incompetent development officer? In my 31 years in our field I have met a few lazy, scared and overwhelmed development officers in a group of thousands of effective, hard working and successful colleagues.
Here is my list of the key issues that create poor evaluation of development officers and some solutions
It’s all about solicitation
Not sure how old you are but you have probably run across 1970’s B slasher movie “Friday the 13th”. The main character is an evil fellow/ghost named Jason. He wears a hockey mask and sneaks up on teenagers and kills them in creative and needlessly violent ways. But Jason simply can’t be killed. I have seen Jason skewered like a prawn, burnt like S’more Marshmallow, pumped full of bullets………yet he keeps coming back again and again !
It’s a twisted analogy for the common and decimating top misconception about fundraising. That’s its only about asking for money. That fundraising is solicitation and everything else is just window dressing or “excuses”. That we just have to “hustle” and call a bunch of rich people and ask them straight away for large checks. It’s the lie that refuses to die.
If you as a Board Member or Executive Director cannot recite the Cycle of Fundraising 5 steps then you should learn it. It’s the essential structure of fundraising. Are there ineffective development officers? Sure. Are their development officers outside of their depth? Sure. But it’s hard to know unless you know what their work should look like.
My appeal is …be sure. Know for sure that your development officer is ineffective or perhaps needs training. Because short tenures of development officers are severely damaging to any nonprofit that needs fundraising. It’s a hard thing to quantify, the damage short tenures do to fundraising. If you want to compare, study an organization with development officers that have long tenures. You will see the difference in revenues, stability of funding and in the relationships they nurture.
Who’s doing the judging?
Imagine a panel judging a doctor’s annual performance at a hospital. The panel is made up of a bus driver, a baker, a lawyer and an accountant. They know little about medicine but are here to judge this doctor’s calls. Why did you perform this procedure? Shouldn’t we see improvement in your patient’s condition by now? It’s ludicrous because medicine is a highly respected profession.
While the match isn’t perfect, the analogy is true. We are constantly judged by people who don’t know our profession or worse believe they are highly knowledgeable. Too often the sole focus is on solicitation because….that’s what people believe fundraising entails. They look for corporate sales as a parallel, something many people are familiar with. They look for “wins” and “closings”. Sorry it’s just not the same.
Know the whole picture
Before you judge a Development Officer’s performance know the whole picture.
I know a great development officer who was working for a medium sized nonprofit who started a job that had no Major Gifts program and in a year she had built up a powerful pipeline of a hundred prospects for a difficult cause. She had worked with a Researcher, gone out and met hundreds of prospects, qualified them in face to face meetings. But she had only 5 solicitations completed simply because these were rich powerful people and scheduling moves for them had taken time. They didn’t have empty calendars. She had over 60 prospects in Cultivation. The Board review panel, ignorant of the Cycle of Fundraising and frankly not interested in learning about fundraising looked at her “wins’” and deemed her a failure. She was let go. Two months later one of her newly cultivated prospects asked where the development officer was because he wanted to make his gift. The gift was 25% of the whole budget of this organization. Wow. Yet nobody on that Board, nobody stopped and said “well we screwed up”. Nobody stopped and realized that they had fired Development Officer that had actually been successful.
Another part of the whole picture is the financial context in which money is being raised. Are leadership cool under pressure? Too often an organization has long term financial issues, over spending, past debt and the CEO/ED /Board are under great pressure to balance the budget. When push comes to shove and the numbers aren’t balancing who gets the blame? Yes a development officer might not be successful; they may be ineffective but make sure and check the larger context? Are they being asked to raise an inordinate amount of money too quickly? Sometimes new staff are asked if they can raise a certain amount of money and they say “yes, I think so” or something like that. Please stop and think, a new employee doesn’t want to sound defeatist or incompetent. Problem is, 11 months later that same staffer is held to that promise! That person commonly had no idea of the issues involved in raising that money.
What are they carrying?
The Development Officer that is doing the annual fund, writing the grants, asking for Major Gifts, doing the Annual Gala and also supposed to working on corporate giving is common. Believe it or not there are people who specialize in each of these areas. There is a huge gulf in all the issues I have mentioned in these articles between large nonprofits like universities and medium small nonprofits. The former invest heavily in development, have strong staffing specialized around specific areas and also they staff and understand the cycle of fundraising. Big difference. That’s one big reason they raise hundreds of millions a year.
With one Development Officer doing everything at the best you will get a little of each area done. Nothing in depth. Major Gifts can be very time consuming and the most difficult so it often gets put on the back burner. So when your evaluating them don’t expect leaps and bounds improvements in all of these areas all at once.
Now that I have thoroughly depressed you. Let's talk about solutions.
Solutions: Giving your Development Officer a Fair and Accurate Evaluation.
Firstly, please just respect our profession. There are good and bad development officers but if you learn about our work you can judge it more effectively. Development Officers overwhelmingly "called" to this profession, but like many jobs we learn on the job. The assumption that Development Officers, especially young ones arrive completely knowing every aspect of their profession is unfair. There are few schools or degree programs in what we do. There is professional development but it’s often the first to get cut out of budgets . I do a lot of training's online in webinars. Development Officers tell me they appreciate theanonymity of it! Yes there are great bosses who bring their whole team to the training's but its more common to have a solo Development Officers who hesitate to share the classes with colleagues because they fear being perceived as junior or not ready for this job.
Solution #1: Long before an evaluation. Insure that your development officers have the ability to improve their skills through professional development. Budget it and don’t cut it.
Another way to improve oversight of a development team is simply to ask Board Members to not just learn about fundraising but to embrace fundraising. Too often fundraising is treated like a kid treats spinach, we eat it because we have to but hate it. Fundraising is beautiful. If you’re going to be supervising fundraisers learn about it at least in depth and certainly come to recognize that’s its wonderful and not to be feared. Understand the full Cycle of Fundraising. Take a look at what they have in the pipeline, how many people have they actually engaged? What’is the depth of the relationships? How innovative are they in their approaches to prospects and donors?
Solution #2: Ask your development officer and/or outside fundraising consultants to make a presentation for your Board so they can better understand what needs to get done. Make attendance mandatory.
If you’re not active in development it will make it much harder for you to know the work. Plus your Development Officers will more successful if supported by an active Board. If you’re active with them you can literally witness their successes, challenges and shortcomings.
Also insure that other parts of the organization are supporting your development team . There are many ways people outside of Development can hinder their work.
Solution # 3: Support your Development Officer all year long, make sure they are being supported, get active with Development efforts.
One other approach to help with oversight I have seen some organizations implement is to identify a veteran Development Officer from the community to join your Board. Especially an experienced development officer can help lend guidance to your strategy. We have seen investment, accounting and marketing professionals added to Board’s for the same reasons.
Solution #4: Bring a Development Officer on your Board
If your Development Officer raises $5 million dollars in the last year and $4.5 the year before then asking for $5.4 probably is a smart way to set the goal. You can always…ask your Development Officer. Too many organizations set their goals based on what they want in revenue NOT what’s feasible. Every Development Officer with 10 or more years’ experience can tell l you a horror story of a goal set from a number pulled from the air. I have seen goals set based on fantasy, based on how much program over spent, based on how much a new program our boss wants implemented will cost. Because you need $9 million dollars to close a budget hole doesn’t mean we can raise it. Besides luck you have to look at what we have raised in the past and make a realistic guess.
Solution #5: Set realistic goals based on past performance and not other factors.
I am sure I have left something out. I am no HR professional but I am simply acting as a witness after 31 years as a Development Officer. I have consistently seen Development Officers reviewed by well-intentioned people who didn’t understand their job, especially the challenges. Luckily, I have seen places where Boards and/or leadership learn about development and their development staff. Where they identify and overcome challenges as a team, where they invest in their Development Director with powerful professional development.
A Development Officer who can see they will be fairly evaluated; who feels invested in, will stay. They are the long tenures we all want. Our business is relationships when we stay longer we have stronger and more profitable relationships.
So please stop and ask your leadership how we know our Development Officer is successful or not. There is no cookie cutter approach, just some suggestions I have listed here. Good Luck and I hope this helps in some way.