How to Be a Great Development Director

by Fundraising Authority Team

Non-Profit Development Director

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to lead the search for a development director for several different non-profits, and over the course of my career have served as the development director for several organizations.  I have spent a lot of time thinking – what makes a development director “great”?

While great fundraising professionals come in all shapes and sizes, I believe that there are three key characteristics that are shared by all truly great development directors:

1.   They Lead

Great development directors lead, they don’t follow.  They believe in the mission of the organization they are working for, and are willing to step out front and forge a strategy for resourcing the future needs of the organization.  Leading means being able to make decisions, take initiative, and bear responsibility for both successes and failures.

Leading isn’t for everyone… not everyone in an organization is capable of writing a plangetting people invested in that plan, and making decisions that will directly effect the success of the effort.  The most successful non-profits have true leaders heading up their development operations.

2.  They Ship

Great development directors are, by nature, entrepreneurial:  they understand that in order to reach their overall goals, they are going to have to figure some things out along the way.  They develop a plan, and are prepared for failures and setbacks along the way.  As things happen, they make decisions and adjust course, all the while understanding that the success of the organization is in their hands.

In short, they figure out how to get the job done… they are the adult in the room.  Seth Godin calls this “shipping” (as in figuring out how to ship products out the door in a business).  A great development director ships…  he or she figures out how to get things done.

3.  They Work

Great development directors aren’t afraid of work.  They didn’t get into development because they like going to lunch and being invited to events.  They got into development to make a difference for a cause they believe in, and they work hard to make as big a difference as possible for as many people as possible.

The best development professionals are also the hardest working… they’re not afraid to make asks, go to meetings, work the phones, write appeals, and support and encourage their staff, all in the same day.  The best fundraisers I have known are the ones about whom you constantly hear, “I just don’t know how she does it all.”

It’s a Decision

Here’s the best part: being a great development director is a decision that any development director can make.  Sure there are some people who are born leaders, born shippers, born workers… but there are far more people who choose to be that way, who learn, practice, and do it, because they love the mission they are supporting, and they know that what they do makes a real difference, every day.

Photo Credit: Steve Wilson


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Joe Garecht July 7, 2010 at 10:17 pm

What do YOU think makes a great development director? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below…

MIKE February 8, 2013 at 1:09 am

Great Development Directors CARE!
They COMMUNICATE effectively because they listen until they understand. They ACHIEVE results with an attitude that there is no choice but success. They are RESOURCEFUL finding the human and material resources needed to accomplish whatever is the task at hand. And finally (as you said) they are ENTREPRENEURS, who are innovative, creative, divergent thinkers – professionals who aren’t just ahead of the curve but are defining it!

Alplily October 14, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Yes, but be wary of continually expecting too much from your DD. DDs are often choose this career path because they DO care, because they ARE entrepreneurial, etc. Don’t take advantage. If your DD is regularly performing miracles, with too few resources (“I don’t know how he/she does it all”), at the cost of their own work/life balance, it is not sustainable. It is the path to burnout, which happens far too often in our sector, especially for DDs.

Joe Garecht October 15, 2014 at 4:35 pm


I couldn’t agree more! 99% of non-profits under-resource their fundraising programs and over-burden their DD’s… that’s why there’s so much turnover in our industry!


claire axelrad May 20, 2015 at 2:34 pm

Great article Joe. I’d add that good DODs are exuberant. I don’t mean this in the sense of perky rah-rah, but in the sense of being optimistic and taking initiative. An optimist is future-oriented and tries to do things that haven’t been done before. They see potential, don’t rest on their laurels and aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They understand that people invest in hope, and offer others the opportunity to make a real difference. They are the opposite of passive. They have an uncanny ability to see a problem and take action to address it. This aligns with a quality of effective salespeople – what Daniel Pink calls ‘buoyancy – the combination of a gritty spirit and a sunny outlook.’ It’s a quality that enables folks to survive repeated rejections – understanding that these rebuffs are temporary, contained and due to external factors.

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