How to Hire Your First Development Director

The only thing worse than not having fundraising staff is having bad fundraising staff.

How to Hire Your First Development Director
7 mins read

A scenario to help you avoid common mistakes when hiring development staff.

To help you avoid the mistakes many others have made in hiring development staff, we’ve stolen a script of a scene with consultant Leyna Bernstein as she talks with an executive director contemplating hiring fundraising staff for the first time.

Olivia, in a tired voice: As you know, I’m the executive director of a nonprofit, and we’ve decided we need to hire a development director. We don’t have any dedicated fundraising staff right now, and I spend too much of my time raising money. I just can’t keep this up.

Leyna, eyebrows raised: So your goal in hiring a development director is to free your time from fundraising?

Olivia: Yes, of course. But even more than that, we need to raise more money.

Leyna, with a sympathetic look: Well, actually the goal of hiring fundraising staff is not to free up the ED from fundraising; it’s to maximize the use of the executive director’s time in fundraising. You will probably spend the same amount (or even more) of your time fundraising, but you’ll raise more money doing it.

Olivia: Wait a minute! I’m going to spend the same amount of time fundraising? (She almost drops her bagel, but catches it.)

Leyna: Yes, but your time will be spent more productively. With your new staff on board, you’ll have someone to get the thank you notes out on time, the e-blasts written, the fundraising letters out. Also, this person can track grants, keep on top of deadlines for grant reports, fill out the CFC forms, make sure everything happens on time.

Olivia: But if this person is doing all those things, won’t I have more time I can devote to strengthening program quality and managing the budget? (Olivia notices cream has curdled in her coffee and she waves at waitress for new coffee and cream.)

Leyna: Umm, probably not. You’ll need to spend the freed-up time on relationships with foundations, with donors, with government agencies, with board members, and on writing grants and letters. (Leyna grimaces as she accidentally bites her tongue.)

Olivia: But wait a minute! The work you’re talking about — tracking deadlines and sending out fundraising letters — that’s not for someone as highly paid or skilled as a development director, right?

Leyna: Right! If your organization doesn’t have dedicated fundraising staff, the first position to hire is not a development director. It’s a development coordinator or associate. I like the title “development coordinator” because it reminds everyone that this person is coordinating activities, not doing fundraising on their own.

Olivia: Actually, hiring a development coordinator feels right. But how about helping us with fundraising strategy and getting into major donors, which we really haven’t done before? (Nods to self in satisfaction with fresh coffee.)

Leyna: Right now you don’t have any staff dedicated to fundraising. You need both high-level help with strategy and lower-level help with the details. So first, remember a lot of fundraising is in doing the details right. And instead of paying someone at a development director salary to do support work, hire a development coordinator and then a fundraising consultant for strategy.

Olivia: So what qualifications do I look for in a development coordinator?

Leyna (trying to pick poppy seed out of teeth unobtrusively): Someone who knows the nonprofit world and is above entry level, and who is interested in fundraising. This person must know their way around the web and be able to string together coherent sentences. They won’t be writing the spring appeal, but they’ll be working with a lot of written material. Someone who sees this as an opportunity to build a career in fundraising or in the field you work in. It’s probably going to be their first job in fundraising.

Olivia (hands Leyna a toothpick): What about someone in sales?

Leyna: Not unless they have the other things I’ve mentioned. Retail sales is all about people. This is more about systems and details and supporting others. Someone who’s worked in a sales environment supporting the salespeople might be good.

Olivia: Okay, now how do I find such a person?

Leyna: Well, you can put it out there on Craigslist, etc., but you’re better off networking with board members, volunteers — especially younger volunteers, someone on staff who has good all-around administrative skills and who also volunteers for another nonprofit. Who are your great support staff? Great interns? Great volunteers?

Olivia, ruefully: I bet you see a lot of nonprofits acting stupid around hiring development staff.

Leyna: Well, here are the three stupidest things I see nonprofits do. First, they think they should hire a development director when what they need is a development coordinator. Second, they forget to budget for the costs beyond salary, like software, computer upgrades, the cost of more mailings and collateral, association dues, professional development, and cultivation events. Third, they want to make a big leap with major gifts, so they decide they want someone with a lot of experience with major donors. But they forget that Major Gifts Officers and Development Directors are seldom a department of one. Fundraisers with experience and well-honed skills need support staff and systems in place to enable them to function well.

Olivia: I have to confess I don’t like the idea of having to train someone completely new to fundraising.

Leyna: You won’t have to do it all. Get them into fundraising circles like DER (Development Executives Roundtable), AFP, or other groups of people who are doing fundraising, not consulting in fundraising. Ask your experienced board members to coach or mentor them. Send them to grantwriting classes and fundraising workshops so they meet others and get new skills and confidence.

Olivia, sotto voce: Don’t look now, but I think George Clooney just came into the restaurant behind you.

Leyna (rapidly swiveling around and standing up): Where?!

See also:

About the Author

Leyna Bernstein ( is a nonprofit leadership consultant who specializes in executive director and development director search and board development. She has raised money as a volunteer and as the board fundraising chair for three organizations. Before opening her own consulting practice, Leyna was a senior staff member at a Bay Area nonprofit support center, and was a human resources executive in the corporate world. She is based in Albany, California. Leyna’s lifelong, unrealized ambition is to be on Dancing With the Stars, preferably with George Clooney.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

30 thoughts on “How to Hire Your First Development Director

  1. Great advice! (Maybe I love it so much because it is the advice I give already!) I appreciate the way it is told:-).

    1. I always enjoy reading pieces by people with whom I agree! That is one of the reasons I enjoy reading Blue Avocado, and especially anything Jan has to say. Leyna

    1. Perfect timing for me – I am trying to pursuade my Board that we need more basic pairs of hands to look after details than strategic thinkers – as an ED that part I find easy its all the follow up I find overwhelming because there is no time!

      1. You are right about needing more detail help, and this underscores what Jan has to say about time being our most precious resource. For-profits tend to have more administrative and support staff than nonprofits; perhaps because businesses don’t have to conform to cookie-cutter overhead cost structures.

    2. Excellent scene! More executive directors (and board members) need to see this before trying to build their teams. Smart and funny.

  2. I never thought of it like that. I would love to hire another staff person and should really consider a Development Coordinator. Thanks!

  3. Your comments about software and training/professional development opportunities is also a critical place where organizations fall short.

    1. Leyna, while I found your article absorbing I got the impression you only work with highly trained/skilled and enlightend ED’s. Is that correct? If it isn’t, I’m very curious about some of your assumptions:   Are you assuming that most Executive Directors are skilled fundraisers?  Because it’s been my experience that is, in fact, very rarely the case. Do you find something different? “Sales is all about people?”  Yes, it is.  And that’s exactly what fundraising is all about.   People.  Relationship-building. No?  I agree wholeheartedly with you on training. Heck, in nine out of 10 jobs I paid for my own books and training. But why limit your organization to the in-the-box stuff found in traditional associations and coursework? How about a Dale Carnegie course or an internet marketing workshop? Particularly in today’s economic climate do you really want to be emulating the majority of your peers? It seems to me that, while hiring a development coordinator will certainly bring about some improvement, you’re then tied to the limitations of the head honcho (the ED in this case), when the whole idea is to bring in knowledge that’s not currently present. Why be only moderately better when, by hiring a passionate, skilled development director — and giving them latitude to shine (that’s the real kicker) — you could take a huge leap forward? Speaking from personal experience as development director in a number of small shops, my greatest successes have come from the opportunity to shine.  As soon as an ED begins taking the red pen to a DD’s work, you typically see results – and morale – go down. An organization looking to grow sustainable funding is going to hire a true "development" Director – so give them room to "develop" and let them do their job.  You’ll also free up your ED to do her/his job. One of the best writings I have found on this topic can be found on Tom Ahern’s blog: Actually, now that I think about it…EVEN if you are blessed with a seriously gifted and skilled ED, why go down a path that only brings incremental improvements when smarter leveraging can bring about improvements many orders of magnitude better?

      1. To Anonymous know-it-all: this is one of the most self-serving, self-righteous things I have read in a long time. You’re so off base it’s hard to know where to start. But maybe: "fundraising is about people." If cliches work for you, great.

        1. Hey, Anonymous 2, Fundraising IS about people. It IS about building relationships. Big faceless corps don’t give you money. People do. Stable nonprofits do have a base of lots of donors who give to them. Each of these people has their own reason for giving. But their collective power creates the unrestricted money that allows the nonprofit to function. I hope you have learned something here today. Mazarine

      2. I’m glad that my piece stimulated your thoughtful response. There is plenty of room for multiple ways of approaching the question of when to hire a DoD.

  4. It’s funny because this was exactly the recipe we followed by hiring our last DoD, who was really more of a coordinator/ grant writer (very smart!) that we wanted to groom into a DoD and we had a high level consultant to help with strategy for her but it did not work at all. In the end we wasted so much money on this model.

    And, it’s even hard to find a good consultant that will actually roll up their sleeves and do the work. Most just want to advise and charge an arm and a leg for their time with little return on investment. At the end of the day, we were lacking a valuable skill set – LEADERSHIP – from a lead fundraiser – leadership to move the board along, leadership to move an ED along who did not necessarily have much experience fundraising to begin with.

    I could def. see a Devo Manager of some sort working if the ED is a strong fundraiser and can guide/ manage the process within a smaller org….however don’t know if you can underestimate the leadership needed in smaller orgs. around fundraising and the ability to lead the board as well as an ED in fundraising.

    I guess the post assumes your ED should be a skilled fundraiser. Some Boards are the visionary fundraisers and have more functional EDs. Some EDs are more visionary fundraisers and have more functional Boards. When your ED and Board are both more functional and don’t really have the fundraising leadership, well, then you probably need a DoD. I think you really need to assess the whole picture of your org and figure out what is right for your org. It is never a one-size fits all, as I have learned in my decade of running a non-profit. Actually if an org is above 500K in budget size, I would advocate for a DoD Hire if you want to grow. If they are around 500-600K and perhaps want to sustain without burning out the ED or have a little growth, I’d say they could do with a Devo Coordinator if the ED is a strong fundraiser …..

    I’d caution people to give or take advice assuming advice given is relevant to all non-profit orgs, which it isn’t. It really depends on the unique situation of an organization. Know what kind of board you have, know the strengths of your ED, and then decide on your hire.

  5. I appreciate the article and the wise counsel therein. I also can appreciate some of the critical feedback offered. One of my most important board members forwarded the post to me because we’re in the process of changing strategy around fundraising and that might also mean changing the people responsible for implementation. Not being a skilled fundraiser myself, my intent is to bring on-board both the Development Director level staff, AND someone to coordinate related activities and supports. Any thoughts on sequencing?

    1. Bravo! The answer would be “it depends.” Where is your organization at? Do you already have a database and a healthy number of donors? Has your organization already held a number of successful events if events are part of your overall fund development plan? Generally speaking, I would hire the DD first so that they can assess the support needs.

  6. It was perfect timing for me to come across this example. I work for a national organization, focusing on capacity-building for our chapter network. I was just having a conversation with a local chapter board last week about this exact topic. While the mulitple posts above point out that each organization is different, the questions for consideration are what should be the take-away–and the local chapter I’m working with agrees. The list of things to consider and discuss are encapsulated here well. Thank you for helping me give a “picture” of the discussion process to use with our chapters!

  7. I appreciate the article; I was Outreach and Development manager for a small Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Sonoma County California. I started out as a volunteer coordinator just recruiting volunteers, donors and supporters. When I started there was only me and the ED, I lasted through 4 ED’s in 6 years the longest lasted 4 years. In that time I naturally gravitated to Development and Fundraising, early on when I was still a volunteer we did the Terry Axalrod training which was called Raising More Money then and later changed to Benevon. I also took a two year training and certificate program with Indiana University.
    along the way I joined the Association of Fundraising Professionals and took all the training I could get through them, including studying Lynn Twists philosophy and methods. In short it was all about relationship building and individual donors. I love relationship building, net working and interfacing with organizations and governments.
    I am not proficient at getting thank you notes out on time, tracking and writing grants, dealing with data, but I’ll remember a donors favorite color notice, the art on a donors wall and keep track of who married who and who broke up with who.I really do become related to donors volunteers and other supporters.
    I was always trying to work with volunteers to do what I wasn’t proficient at, and until the economy crashed I did very well at it, but I believe the board never understood my roll, they wanted me to be a Development Associate or worse yet they wanted someone who would be both a Development Director and Development Associate for a Development Associates pay! I never broke 20.00 an hour at this job.
    I can see from this article that a Development Director in a Contract position could have much more freedom to assess the over all Fundraising climate and not, be a long term obligation for a small organization, with a Development Associate to maintain the momentum as the organization grows. I was never able to achieve that status, and eventually under unprecedented economic pressures I was laid off and the Ed took on Fundraising, she was then laid off and a new ED now operates with the left over lower paid staff. I agree each organization is unique and maybe that is why having a Development Associate on staff and the Development Director on a contract bases until your organization is large enough to employ a Development Department maybe more effective and less frustration for both the Staff and the Board.
    I think being a Development Director with out a a department to direct is frustrating at best and counter productive at its worst.

  8. Here's my 2 cents for the article in development….My advice on hiring your first fundraising professional article….. Do you know the difference between marketing and sales? Those people are from two different orbits, and their focus can drive you nuts or into happyland, depending on the needs of your organization. I inherited a high energy PR professional who was in disguise as our Development Director. Great PR does not always mean money in your bank account, and you can't eat magazine features. After our PR professional left for a great job in corporate communications ( a much better fit for her), I did a ton of research on development positions and the skill set. We now have a great development professional, who also knows how to close a deal. If you include some of that criteria, your article might save a few headaches. Hiring a talented person who is the wrong fit for your job will give you both many bad days… Hope this helps

  9. It doesn’t matter whether you are hiring a director or simply a developer the most important thing which you have to consider is that he or she must be professional in his work and must have complete knowldge about his professional work.

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