Director of Development: How to Find and Retain One

3 Experts Weigh In

When it comes to finding and retaining a qualified, competent Director of Development, the nonprofit industry faces its fair share of challenges. There seems to be a revolving door for these folks, whose average tenure with a nonprofit is about 24 months.

This employee retention problem leads to stunted fundraising efforts and generates frustration and distrust from the board and donors. We have to stop ourselves and ask “why?” Why is it so difficult to keep directors of development on our staff? Why is there such instability at this most critical position within our organizations? How do we fix this problem?

I asked three of my nonprofit colleagues about this issue. Ruth Partrick is a 30-year veteran of the nonprofit industry, specializing in organizational development, staffing, and grant writing. Patricia Glasser Shea is an expert in nonprofit leadership, philanthropy, gender equity, and social justice. Finally, Linda Sutherland was the public face of Health Start Coalition of Orange County (FL), where she has worked tirelessly for two decades as its executive director. She retired last year.

Following is their take on the topic.

Q: What are the most challenging things about finding and then retaining a qualified Director of Development?

Ruth Patrick: Once the development director is on board, a challenge is to continue to ask and receive feedback on learning needs and growth opportunities of the development director and making it a priority to act on the feedback.

Patricia Glasser Shea: There aren’t enough trained professionals in the field. Plus, those who are trained are working in higher education, making more money than most nonprofits can afford.

Linda Sutherland: I found​ the salary requirements a significant challenge.

Q: In your opinion, what is the best combination of personality and skill set for a Director of Development?

Ruth Patrick: A strong, good match personality is 75 percent of the new hire mixture and fund development knowledge is 25 percent. The personality of a great development director is one who puts the needs of the client, customer, and donor before themselves. They are creative problem solvers, good listeners, willing to do the best job possible, open to making errors and learning from mistakes, comfortable asking questions, and unafraid of technology. They speak with confidence, are good writers, respect confidentiality, and are ethical. The ins and out of fund development can be taught, or a mentor partnership can be established. It also would be helpful if the candidate has a good understanding of the nonprofit sector, customer relationships, and components of a diversified fund development strategy.

Patricia Glasser Shea: Empathy, patience, EQ, writing, speaking, attention to details, and a stable ego.

Linda Sutherland: AAn outgoing personality is a must as well as good organizational skills.

Q: What would be the one piece of advice you would give an Executive Director as they hunt for a Director of Development?

Ruth Patrick: Develop a rubric that includes 10-15 requirements and to score each resume using the rubric. Recommend a rating between 1-3 rather than 1-5 to simplify the initial process. The top 25 percent of the applications with the highest score would be interviewed. The scoring should include the most important skills, knowledge, and experience for the highly qualified hire.

Patricia Glasser Shea: Bonuses should be based on performance and longevity.

Linda Sutherland: Take your time to find the right fit and hire them on a probationary basis to make sure they can produce.

Q: What is the key to a positive, healthy relationship between an Executive Director and their Director of Development?

Ruth Patrick: Trust and respect for each person’s role and responsibility, willingness to ask for and give help and advice, shared problem solving, and maintaining a weekly schedule of update calls to discuss past, current, and upcoming activities and projects.

Patricia Glasser Shea:
Awareness and understanding of their interdependence.

Linda Sutherland: Stay in constant communication with frequent reviews, and give clear expectations.

Q: With the high turnover of Directors of Development, how do you make sure your donors are connected to the mission of the organization and not the people working in it?

Ruth Patrick: There are several specific actions that should be in place to help donors maintain a long lasting relationship with the organization including:

  • First, have one key point person and have that person be a key communicator, but not the exclusive communicator. Others can make calls, sign letters, extend invitations, meet for coffee, etc.
  • Second, the key point person should be responsible for keeping donor records up to date and ensuring that all communication from others with donors is also added to the record.
  • Finally, keep donors updated on organization needs, lasting impact, success stories, etc.

Patricia Glasser Shea: The ongoing process of frequently connecting cannot be tied to a person. Instead, take a systems approach to donor engagement.

Linda Sutherland: This is difficult since relationships with donors are important. A constant reminder of the mission using personal stories helps the focus be the mission

Q: Any advice on alternatives to hiring a full-time Director of Development?

Ruth Patrick: Consider hiring a retired development professional who can assist with campaign planning and the more complicated pieces of the fund development department while the search process is underway. The seasoned professional also can assist with training the new hire and coaching. Also consider recruiting from local chambers of commerce, as many of their staff have marketing and relationship expertise. There also may be an option of hiring two part-time employees to work together, coordinate, and share the workload.

Patricia Glasser Shea: Be the CEO and Chief Development officer. Then, hire great support staff, event management people, social media folks, etc.

Linda Sutherland: I always found using the various skills of all the employees in all aspects of their job position to continually bring up the cause and reason for and use of the funds to be important, but having someone focus on development can be quite an asset if they are effective.