July 22, 2014

You Can Attract & Keep Talented Development Staff

Excited woman with boxing glovesWhen I met Kathryn, she bubbled with enthusiasm about the nonprofit where she served as Senior Development Director. Using her years of fundraising expertise, the nonprofit had the potential to obtain millions in individual donations. Two years 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 the study, Underdeveloped reported that at many nonprofits, the highest-ranking fundraising position had been vacant for months or even years. Worse, 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 you will discover share four mindsets to increase your nonprofit’s appeal and improve your ability to garner donations. To help you measure your nonprofit on each one, I included a quick test for each

1. Shared Goals 

When Peg Lowery was 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 talent. Why? Because of what happens in their absence. Without shared goals, development staff identify and work with potential art donors and discover that their focus should have been on science fans.

Question: Do You Agree on Your Goals?

Measure: Pass out index cards at your board and management meeting. Ask everyone to write your nonprofit’s top three key goals. Collect and calculate if you find agreement or work to do.

2. Focus on Others 

We need a new roof. We need scholarships. 

We need. 

Many nonprofits are 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 realistically. They understand that to receive donations,  they must help donors to fulfill their needs and work together to reach mutual goals. Ideas like this bubble up: “Let’s ask Mike, who owns the shoe store owner, to donate shoes. Then we can do a publicity blitz and get his picture on the front page.”

Question: What is the Focus of Your Thinking?


  • 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 to kill is the Great Fundraising Myth. The myth states that nonprofits can hire staff to do their individual donor development.

They can’t.

Nonprofits can hire staff to organize efforts and to make them 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 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. Enormous expectations of time decreases suggest that the myth is alive. To attract talent, kill the myth.

4. Be Realistic

Did you expect your last computer upgrade to be seamless and immediately benefit your nonprofit? While you might have harbored hope that it would, underneath, you expected slower returns. When it comes to raising donations, it’s natural to hope for returns now. Wise nonprofits understand that it takes time for development experts to form relationships and help the nonprofit fine-tune its processes.  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 the organization will earn.

Question: What will happen to our income? When?

Measure: Ask your board and staff leaders to share their expectations about new revenue and its 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. You will reap the rewards.

More Resources about Development Challenges

Watch: Three Common and Dangerous Nonprofit Development Myths 

Watch: The Three Reasons Nonprofit Development Directors Fail

Read: Create a Remarkable CEO-Development Relationship

Need more help with your fundraising? Karen is available for a mini-consult or more. Click here to email or here to set a time to chat.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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