Yes, You Can Attract and Keep Talented Development Staff

When I met Kathryn she bubbled with enthusiasm about the nonprofit where she served as Senior Development Director. Using her years of fundraising expertise, it had the potential to obtain millions in individual donations. Two years and three months later, I saw Kathryn at a luncheon. When I asked about her work, her energy evaporated. “I’m looking,” she whispered.

It’s not easy to hire a great development director. It can be even harder to keep one. Talented development directors are selective about the nonprofits they join. In 2013, the study Underdeveloped reported that at many nonprofits, the highest-ranking fundraising position had been vacant for months or even years. Worse, it found that 50 percent of people in these positions anticipated leaving within two years.

It’s possible to position your nonprofit to hire talented development personnel and keep them. Below I share four critical mindsets that will increase your nonprofit’s appeal and even better improve your ability to garner donations. To help you measure your nonprofit, I’ve included a quick test for each.

1. Shared Goals  

When Peg Lowery interviewed to lead the Manatee Community College Foundation, she queried everyone on campus. What are the top goals here? When she found significant agreement, she accepted the position. Shared goals are like a magnet next to a pile of metal pins. They attract talented professionals. Why? Because of what happens in their absence. Without shared goals, development staff maybe identifying and working with potential art donors only to discover that their focus should have been on science fans.

Question: Do You Agree About Your Goals?

Measure: Pass out index cards at your board and management meeting. Ask everyone to write your three key goals. Collect and calculate. If the cards cite two of the three top goals, you’re on solid ground.

2. Focus on Others

We need a new roof. We need scholarships. We need. We need. We need. Many nonprofits are pretty needy. To solve their challenges, they hope someone will give them money. It’s the if-only-Bill-Gates-would-fund-us thinking.

What attracts savvy development professionals? Nonprofits that focus on others. They understand that to receive resources they must help donor’s fulfill their needs and find ways to work together to reach mutual goals. Ideas like this bubble: “Let’s ask Mike the shoe store owner to donate 100 pairs of shoes. Then we can do a publicity blitz and get his picture on the front page.”

Question: What is the Focus of Your Thinking?

Measure: For one day, keep score on conversations at your nonprofit. Make an x for each one about the nonprofit’s needs. Make a check for comments about helping others to achieve their goals. Attractive nonprofits tally lots of conversations about helping others.

3. Kill The Myth

“I’d like to see it killed.” shares Dr. Derek W. McAleer, Vice President for Development & Church Relations at The Methodist Home in Macon, Georgia. What Derek wants dead in the Great Fundraising Myth. The myth states that nonprofits can hire staff to do your individual donor development. They can’t. Nonprofits can hire staff to organize its efforts and to make it more effective. High-skilled fundraisers prefer opportunities where the myth is dead and buried.

Question: Whose Job is Fundraising Anyway?

Measure: Start with yourself. What do you expect? Jot down how the number of hours you invest per month in individual donor development. Estimate the time you’ll invest six months after hiring. Ask others leaders at your nonprofit to do the same. Large expectations of time decreases suggest that the myth is alive. To attract talent, kill the myth.

4. Be Realistic

Did you expect that your last computer upgrade would be seamless and immediately benefit your nonprofit? While you might have harbored hope that it would, underneath you probably expected somewhat slower returns. When it comes to raising donations, it natural to hope for returns soon. Wise nonprofits understand that it takes time for development experts to form relationships and to help the nonprofit fine-tune its processes. They understand that industry-wide it takes three years for most nonprofits to see significant cash yields from their development staff investments. Attractive nonprofits set realistic expectations about when and how much income will be earned.

Question: What will happen to our income? When?

Measure: Ask your board and staff to state their expectations about income and timing. Then, call three other nonprofit leaders in your field with recent individual fundraising success. What was their experience? Make adjustments as needed to reflect reality and appeal to talented development personnel.


You can attract and keep talented development staff. Know your goals. Help donors reach theirs. Help with fundraising. Be realistic about the timing of trips and the size of your bank deposits. Be a nonprofit whose development staff stays for the long haul. Reap the rewards.


Karen Eber Davis, MBA, is an authority on income growth strategies for nonprofits. Karen helps leaders generate the ideas, resources, and money needed to create extraordinary impact. Her work is found throughout the sector including her column, Your Ingenious Nonprofit, free monthly newsletter, Added Value, and books inlcuding  7 Nonprofit Income Streams: Open the Floodgates to Sustainability! (2014, CharityChannel)

©2014 All rights reserved. Karen Eber Davis