Don’t Hire the Development Miracle Worker

The board chair of volunteer-based nonprofit calls. She wants my help to obtain income to hire their first staff member. This new employee will run special events, do office management, write grants, and spearhead development efforts. In my 20 years of advising nonprofits I’ve listened to Rolodex full of similar requests to help make this mistakes. I’ve dubbed it, The One Small Step, Giant Leap Nonprofit Gaffe.

Hiring staff is an important next step for volunteer based nonprofits that seek growth. It’s the decision to couple development work with a host of other tasks that is the gaffe. (This gaffe is also made by staffed organizations that hire development directors to fulfill multiple roles, such as communications and public relations.) It’s a gaffe because it’s:

  • Impractical. The job description always requires vast skills. When funded, the nonprofit will struggle to find a candidate to both pioneer the position and accomplish all the tasks.
  • Underfunded. The salary is always entry level. The skills required to help an organization understand development, learn to fundraise, create a culture of philanthropy, plus do other tasks require senior level expertise if not a miracle.
  • Confusing. The stated impetus for hiring is to take the next step and growth. The unstated goal is to reduce the weary board of directors’ workload.
  • Underutilized. If the nonprofit manages to hire a qualified development professional, the board will often fail to listen to the employees’ professional advice. Although they are weary, they find lots of energy to provide instructions. They are, after all, experts—at least about this nonprofit.

In terms of earning donated money it’s a gaffe because:

  • The position is unstable. Realistically, it will take two years for the new employee to develop relationships and possibly more to make them fruitful. Most boards fail to foresee this. They expect the person to raise their own salaries late in year one and certainly by year two. Any potential hire understands that their salary depends on getting the board and others to help with the development work. If this fails, they understand that their job will be in jeopardy—shortly.
  • The approach reflects a lack of understanding about donated income. You can’t hire someone to do your development like you can hire an accountant. The current leaders have the relationships with existing and potential donors.
  • Developing donated income for a new organization is tough. With multiple role job descriptions, unless development efforts always take precedence, the employee won’t have time to do development. Something more important, immediate, and easier always needs to be done.

The One Small Step, Giant Leap Gaffe results in increased expenses and frustration. It results in decreased resources and energy. It leads to high staff turnover.

Giant Leap Forward Options

Here are two solutions from Karen. Pick one of the following roles for the new staff member. Either:

1. Hire someone to help handle the details, so the current board of directors can focus on donated income and big picture issues.

2. Raise funds for two or more years of salary. Then, hire someone with fundraising expertise to lead you in income development. Listen to them. The board and volunteers continue to handle the details until funds are raised to hire a  third person to handle some of their workload.

In either case, plan to work as hard after the hire as before it. It’s your path to the next level and a giant leap forward.

 

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