The Dark Underbelly of Non-Profit Development

by The Fundraiising Authority

The Non-Profit Underbelly

If you’re in non-profit development, chances are that over the past two weeks you’ve read about the recent CompassPoint study Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Non-Profit Fundraising.  Everyone is talking about it (e.g. here, here and here).

The truth is if you’re in fundraising, deep down you already knew what the report found:

  • Most development directors are unhappy and would like to leave their job
  • Most executive directors feel like they can’t find development directors who are qualified for the job
  • Many non-profits have no written development plan and don’t use any kind of donor database
  • The vast majority of organizations reported that their boards are not doing enough to support fundraising

As someone who has been in fundraising for a number of years, this report really doesn’t shock me.  What it does do is shine a light on the dark underbelly of the non-profit development world… it’s something we all know but don’t like to talk about in public very often.

The way I see it, the findings noted above are symptoms of a larger problem, one that has two main causes:

#1: Non-Profits Are Ashamed of Having to Resort to Fundraising

How many times have you heard an executive director or board member approach a prospect and say something like, “I’m really sorry to have to ask, but we rely on fundraising to keep our doors open.  Would you be willing to buy a ticket to our annual dinner?”  I have heard that fundraising gem far too often.

Why are you sorry to have to fundraise?  Why do look forward to the 80% of your day when you can work on programs and outreach and dread the 20% of your day when you have to do fundraising?   Can you imagine working at a company where the CEO constantly apologized for having to sell things?

This is one reason why so many non-profit executive directors love grants.  They don’t seem like fundraising.   They’re more like writing a report, and if you get a good grade, you get the money.  So many folks at non-profits would rather do anything then look someone in the eye and ask them for a gift.

How many development professionals have walked into an interview for the top fundraising job at a non-profit and have had the executive director casually (and constantly) talk about how much she hates fundraising?  How many non-profit websites have you visited where when you checked out the staff listing, the program people were listed above the development staff?  I notice things like this, and the answer is… most!

When non-profits are ashamed of having to fundraise to support their missions, development offices become miserable places to work.  Who wants to work for an organization that is ashamed of what you do?  Who would choose, day in and day out, to be out in public asking people to part with their hard earned dollars to support the mission of a non-profit that would rather they didn’t have to hire you at all?

How many times do we have to say it?  Non-profits, listen up: Your mission matters.  Without fundraising, you will not be able to carry out that mission.  Neglecting your fundraising is neglecting your mission.  Businesses like to sell more in order to generate more profit.  Non-profits should like to fundraise more in order to do more good in the world.

#2: Non-Profits Refuse to Pay Development Staff What they Are Worth

Looking for a job in non-profit development is a miserable task.  You walk in and hear that the goal for the position is to write and implement a plan to raise $1,000,000 per year.  The last person in the job failed and was fired.  There hasn’t been anyone in the job for 8 months.  The board “isn’t a fundraising board,” so they don’t provide much help.  It’s going to be an uphill battle.

Then, you hear the punchline.  The job pays $40,000 per year.  You have to share an office with two other people.  No, they won’t buy you a laptop so you can work in between donor meetings.  Yes, they have healthcare coverage, but you have to pay 85%, they only pay 15%.  And only for you.  0% for the rest of your family.  You also need to work some nights and weekend.  When can you start?

Seriously?  Who puts up with this?  Are you treating your development staff this way?

If the same person was walking into a comparable for-profit sales job, one that was responsible for generating $1,000,000 in sales per year, they’d get $100,000 per year at least.  Plus their own office and better benefits.  Plus any technology they needed to get the job done.  And maybe a performance bonus too.

I know, I know… this is a non-profit.  I can hear you saying it… development professionals shouldn’t expect to make the same as their for-profit counterparts.

I say: Why not?  And if you’re not paying your folks 100% of what they would make in the corporate world, how about 80%?  Or 70%?  Or even half?  At most non-profits, the true number is more like 35-45%.

My favorite is walking into non-profits that raise money and give the majority of it out in some form of grant funding to other projects and organizations, and where the person responsible for bringing the money in (the development director) is making $50,000 / year but the person responsible for spending the money (the program director) is making $85,000 / year.  Fundraising is hard work.  It takes skill and patience.  Why aren’t you hiring people who are good at it, giving them the tools they need, and paying them a salary that is not only livable but shows the priority you place on fundraising at your organization?

A Call to Action for Non-Profit Organizations

It’s time to change the culture of philanthropy at most non-profit organizations.  It’s time for charities to be proud to ask for money, because more money means they can do more good.  It’s time for non-profits to pay development directors and staff members what they are worth, hire enough team members to do the job, and equip them for the difficult but important tasks ahead.

Non-profits, wake up!  You could be doing far more for those you serve, if only you would embrace and prioritize fundraising at your organization.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley


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Peter Lawson June 9, 2014 at 11:46 am

Hi Joe,

I just wanted to let you know that this helped me when I really needed it. I’m a part of a small missions organization and am in the middle of fundraising myself. I know it was written for large non-profits with a designated fundraising person, which isn’t me. But I really felt like it applied to me, especially reminding me to be proud of what I’m doing when I do fundraising, so I wanted to thank you for that.


Joe Garecht June 9, 2014 at 11:10 pm


Glad to hear it! Thanks for your comment, and keep up the good work!


Hedgehog August 14, 2014 at 3:57 pm

This hit home. I work for a nonprofit that supports a government agency. I raised $1 million last year nearly by myself. I write and manage all of our grant proposals, and also manage our growing membership department. I’ve done everything from help guide our recent rebranding, to planning and coordinating events for 400+ people. I also manage and design our social media and other outreach and much of the organization’s marketing efforts.. I average at least 48 hours a week, often much more (it was 60+ hours a week for several weeks this summer). By all accounts, we are doing better than we ever had. Yet, I have not had a real vacation for nearly a year. I make $44K a year. The administrative staff and program staff make more than I do. I enjoy and value what I do, and like my coworkers, but I am feeling really used and taken advantage of. Between the stress of my job, and the added stress of not getting ahead financially in life (after paying my income-qualified mortgage, I have just enough to get by), or putting enough away for retirement, I am approaching burnout. When I allude to this I get no support from our Executive Director — because he gets no support from his Board to better pay his staff.

What do you recommend to staffers like us? How do we best make a case for ourselves, especially when the board sees any increase in pay as “feathering our own nests at the expense of the ‘mission'” (staffers at the agency we support make much more money than we do). I’d print out this article and place it in mailboxes, but everyone would know it was me! 😉

Joe Garecht August 15, 2014 at 11:14 pm

Thanks for your questions, and I am sorry to hear about your situation, which is all too common at non-profit organizations. Sadly, what your non-profit needs is a complete culture change in how it thinks about philanthropy… not just in terms of paying its fundraising staff better, but about investment in development activities as a whole.

(As an aside, if a board member tells you that s/he sees an increase in pay for fundraisers as something that is done at the expense of the mission, ask him/her if s/he does a good job at their office, and if they care about their job and do the best they can to help their employer succeed. If the person says “yes,” ask them if they are willing to forgo all future pay raises to help their employer succeed. I’ll be the answer is “no way!” You have the same right to earn a decent living as do your board members).

But, I digress… My suggestion is that you show your board members and other staff members Dan Palotta’s excellent TED talk called “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong.” — It hits your points exactly, without being focused just on fundraiser salaries, and is a good start for launching a conversation at your organization about a new culture of philanthropy. You can find the talk, in its entirety, here:

Good luck!

TATA MAYAAH EVELINE September 28, 2015 at 8:03 am

Hi Joe,
My organization is planning its very first fundraising event December 2015
The purpose is to support the under deserved in poor communities especially those suffering from cancer and orphans with education.
We really need your advice on how to go about it.
Your web site is so inspiring. Thanks Joe.

Joe Garecht September 29, 2015 at 1:13 pm


Congratulations on your upcoming event. We have LOTS of article on how to run great fundraising events. You can check them all out at the link below (there are several pages of articles, be sure to click through all of them!):


jana November 13, 2015 at 4:57 am

Program staff are listed first on websites because that’s what manifests the mission of the organization. Without programs what are development staff raising money for…?

Joe Garecht November 13, 2015 at 10:24 am


It’s a symbiotic relationship. Without programs, there’s no fundraising… but without fundraising, there are no programs. I believe that fundraising can and should manifest the mission of the organization as much as the programs do. If your organization is a non-profit, it is a FUNDRAISING organization. You don’t just do good work. You raise money to do good work. Be proud of that fact!


Michelle Eyres February 26, 2017 at 4:45 pm

I am a nonprofit fundraiser. For the last 10 years, I have worked 7 as an unpaid development person. I LOVE my work. I am not ashamed in the least. I just wish I could find a position. I’m not sure why but the competition in Portland, OR is tough. I have to work for a worker’s comp administrator as a claim’s rep. YUCK. I wish I could get back to the work I love.

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