19 Months and Counting: 5 Critical Success Factors for Development Directors
A recent study indicated that the average development director lasts just 19 months in his or her job. There’s lots of thought-provoking writing on the reasons for this rapid turnover, so we’ll leave that topic to others. But, having just passed the 19-month mark in my first development director job, it seemed like a good milestone to take stock of the factors that helped me find success and satisfaction.
Having come from the for-profit world with a background in consulting and banking, I had lots to learn about fundraising and nonprofit management. While I had spent many years on nonprofit boards and had seen the workings of successful development functions at many organizations, nothing beats experience.
So, here are five things I’ve learned, firsthand, that are integral to being a successful development leader:
- Get aligned with your executive director. Collaborating with your executive director on setting goals and defining priorities and your overall strategic approach is critically important to the success of your efforts—and your personal job satisfaction. Ensuring you both buy-in to what needs to be achieved and how you achieve it means you can work as partners and support each other.
- Stay connected to the mission. It’s easy to get bogged down in the mechanics of appeals, acknowledgements, databases and logistics. Stay energized by coming up for air from time to time. Take part in one of your organization’s programs, visit a facility and talk to the people being served, or just sit with one of your program staff for lunch and listen to his or her stories. When the going gets tough, these moments will help you remember why you are doing this work.
- Avoid traps. While time is finite, it seems the options for ways to spend it are infinite. Before pursuing a board member’s pet project or some other potential new opportunity, ask yourself, “How does this align with our strategic and tactical goals?” and, “What do I hope to achieve from undertaking this project?" Not every action has to be about short-term gain, but understanding and measuring the ROI of your actions lets you make tradeoffs and better decisions about how to spend your precious time.
- Implement policies and procedures. I benefited from joining an organization with an established development function that had clear policies around accepting, processing and soliciting gifts. The organization also had defined procedures and a strong database solution. Fundraising is about making personal connections, but a solid infrastructure will ensure details get managed and will allow you to rest assured that critical data is captured and handled consistently.
- Get out of the office. On my first day on the job, my executive director told me, “Remember, this isn’t a desk job.” He was right. I’ve learned that nothing is more important than making personal connections—and not just with donors. Relationships with other community members, local businesses, other nonprofits—and your program staff—are critical. These personal encounters build and deepen relationships, reveal opportunities and can often lead to serendipitous outcomes.
I hope some of these learnings resonate with your experience. Let me know if there are other factors that have helped you to find success and satisfaction in your development job.
Marc Bellanger is vice president of development for the Buzzards Bay Coalition, an environmental nonprofit based in New Bedford, Mass. For the last two years he has led the organization’s fundraising activities, including managing its signature peer-to-peer sporting events. Prior to joining the Buzzards Bay Coalition, Marc had a 15-year career in banking and management consulting. He has a BS from Georgetown University an MBA from Babson College. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Samaritans Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention.