What I Learned as a First Time Development Director: Tips from the Trenches

Being a great development director is tough. Whether you’re the lone fundraiser on staff or leading a small team of development pros, all eyes are on you to make sure the organization can keep the lights on, the staff paid, and grow its programs to serve more people.

There are a number of lessons that I learned during my first stint as a development director, working for a mid-sized social service agency… lessons that have since been confirmed to me over and over again during my fundraising career.

Here are 6 things I learned during that first rodeo that I think could be helpful to you in your own role as a non-profit development director:

Lesson #1: No Matter How Good You Are, You Can’t Do it All

As the development director, you are the lead fundraiser… and it’s easy to feel like you have to do it all. Many first-timers try to implement every suggestion they get from the board, roll out every strategy they learn at a conference, and increase everything the non-profit is already doing… all at the same time.

You can’t do it all. There aren’t enough hours in the day. As a first time development director, one of the most important pieces of advice anyone gave me was, “You’re never going to cross everything off of your to do list… trying to will only drive you crazy.”

What he meant was… you need to prioritize your work, and realize that not everything will get done. That’s ok. You won’t be able to take every suggestion or try out every new tactic. Don’t worry about it – trying to do everything (instead of focusing only on the most important things) is a recipe for burnout.

Lesson #2: You Will Not Get All of the Support You Need to Do Your Job – Do it Anyway

I have yet to meet a development director who feels like they are getting all of the support, resources, staff and budget they need to do their job the best way possible. During my first stretch as a development director, I worked for a great, supportive organization, but even so I still felt understaffed, under-resourced, and under-appreciated.

Spend some time explaining to the management and board of your non-profit what you need and why you need it. Reinforce that message every so often. Then move on and do your job. The best way to get more resources next year is to exceed expectations this year.

Lesson #3: The Buck Stops with You – You Have to Make Things Happen

buckstopsherefrontsmallAs the development director, the fundraising buck stops with you.

Even though many fundraising directives may come from your executive director or board, at the end of the day, when everyone is looking at the final revenue numbers for the year… they will pin the acclaim or the blame on you, as the lead fundraiser on the team.

That means that you have to make things happen. You have to be entrepreneurial, and figure out ways to get things done. You need to finagle the resources you need, try new tactics on a shoestring, motivate your staff and board to do their best, and get the work done, day in and day out.

Lesson #4: There’s No Substitute for Getting Out of the Office

I realized early on that as the development director, it would be easy to simply sit in the office all day holding meetings, writing e-mails, and shuffling papers. As a leader, some amount of planning and meeting is important… but there’s no substitute for getting out of the office.

My biggest wins as development director were when I went to visit donors and prospects, went out to lunch with board members, made asks over coffee and dessert. The only way to raise the money your non-profit needs to thrive is to build relationships with your donors. And the best way to build relationships is by getting out and pressing the flesh.

Lesson #5: Read the Newspaper Every Day (Seriously)

This one may seem counterintuitive, but bear with me… As a development director, I liked to get into the office a little bit early every morning to read the newspaper (offline or online, it doesn’t matter). Why? Well I enjoyed it, sure… but it also made sure that I had plenty to talk about as I went out to do my fundraising meetings.

As a development director, you will likely be meeting with lots of well-connected businesspeople and civic leaders in your town or city. These are people who are aware of what is going on in your corner of the world… in fact, they may even be making the very news you are reading about.

I can’t tell you how many times I visited a donor in their office and they said something like, “Can you believe what happened over at XYZ Company today?” or, “Did you see the story about Mark Smith in the Daily News?” Reading the newspaper not only ensures that you are ready for conversations like this, but also gives you lots of conversation starters about local politics, business, sports and entertainment every day.

Lesson #6: Your Donors and Board Members are Now Your Peers – Act Like It

If you worked for a larger non-profit early in your fundraising career, chances are you started out low on the totem pole. You may have made calls to set up meetings for your boss, or worked the registration table at your organization’s events, or been asked to fetch a waiter for a donor at a meet-and-greet event. In short, you probably had to do lots of things where it was clear that you were there in a “support” role, not as a peer.

There’s nothing wrong with that… there’s a ladder to climb in every profession, from law and politics to business, medicine, and everything in between… including non-profit development.

But now, as the head fundraiser for a non-profit organization (even if it is a small, one-person fundraising shop), you need to realize that you are no longer in a supporting role. Instead, you are in an executive role at your organization. You are planning strategy and directing implementation. You have lots of responsibility, and lots more clout than you used to. You are now a peer of your donors and board members… so act like it!

When you see a donor across the room at a restaurant, charge over with your hand out to make small talk and tell a joke or two. Stop working the registration table at your fundraising events – have other staff members or volunteers do that. Instead, you should be working the room, drink in hand, building relationships with your donors. Unless they are very old-school, stop addressing your donors as “Mr. Williams” or “Mrs. Donohue.” Instead, call them “Bob” and “Janice.”

You’re the development director… building mutually beneficial relationships with your donors to support a very important organization. Act like it!

Photo Credit: Fly Navy