I happen to currently be working with a number of nonprofits who are seeking to hire the perfect development officer. It’s got me thinking about what to look for in a candidate, and how to best assess someone’s likely ability to perform the job as you need them to perform it.
Of course, this will vary from organization to organization. But if you’re seeking someone to fill a one-person or two-person development shop, there is remarkable similarity in the performance habits (practice) and innate qualities (psychology) that will spell success.
Let’s begin with performance habits. A great place to start is with my buddy, Joe Garecht of the Fundraising Authority,’s recently put-together list of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Fundraisers. After reviewing that, we’ll look at innate qualities and strengths culled from my own Old MacDonald’s Theory of Outstanding Fundraiser Qualities: E-I-E-I-O.
ACTION TIP: I’d recommend using both of these lists when you interview folks for fundraising positions. Ask them what they consider to be the top 3-5 traits of effective fundraisers, See what they come up with!
NOTE: If all they come up with is the ubiquitous “I’m a great people person,” run (don’t walk) them out the door. The fact that a person is not a recluse is lovely to know, of course – but it’s pretty much true for any job. Folks who think all they have to do to succeed as a development officer is be friendly and chatty are going to miss the forest for the trees. A development officer must act within a context, and this is what you’re probing for in your interview. Can they be strategic? Do they know how donors think? Do they know how to find out? Do they know how to uncover problems and address them ? Do they know what success will look like? Do they know how to measure and demonstrate success? Can they plan and set specific goals and measurable objectives?
“I’m a people person” doesn’t quite get to the heart of what matters. Here is what does:
My favorites from Joe’s list are #1, 3 and 5. Let’s take a look.
1. They Pick Up the Phone
Every highly effective fundraiser I have ever met used the telephone as a primary fundraising tool. When they need to get in touch with a donor or prospect, they don’t send an e-mail first… they pick up the phone and make a call. Then they follow up with an e-mail. Successful fundraisers love the phone because it puts them quickly and directly in touch with their donor and helps to build the relationship they have with the person on the other line in a way that e-mail cannot.
2. They Focus on Metrics
Good fundraisers know that they don’t have lots of time and resources to spare. They will never be able to get every possible fundraising activity done… so they have to spend their time doing what works. The only way to know what works, and what doesn’t is to track metrics and return on investment (ROI) for all fundraising tactics.
3. They Ask for Referrals
The single best way to generate new prospects for your non-profit is to ask your current donors, volunteers, board members and friends to introduce you to their network. Great fundraisers know this, and make it a point to ask board members and donors for referrals at least once per year.
4. They Diversify Revenue Streams
Woe to the non-profit that relies on just one or two revenue streams. When one of them dries up, the organization goes into a frenzy, programs suffer, and heads roll. Highly effective fundraisers spend time and energy diversifying revenue streams for their organization. If the non-profit relies on grants and events, good development pros launch a major gift program or an annual giving campaign. Even within a singular tactic diversification is key. Thus, if the organization’s major donor program receives 50% of its funding from a single large donor, great fundraisers push to meet new prospects and increase major donor revenue streams.
5. They Strengthen their Board
Efficacious fundraisers know that their non-profit’s board of directors can and should be a major source of development support for the organization. For this reason, successful development professionals work hard to strengthen their board of directors. In order to strengthen their boards, highly effective fundraisers provide training, support and encouragement to board members, organize board giving campaigns, and constantly seek out new supporters who are capable of joining the board and making a positive impact.
6. They Prioritize Work
Highly effective development professionals follow the 80/20 rule, and spend most of their time focused on those activities that offer the highest rewards for their non-profit. They test new things, keep what works and cut the rest. When they have too much work on their plate, they delegate what they can, and spend their time focused on the strategies that will raise the most for their organization over the long term.
7. They Practice Their Craft
Great fundraisers are constantly working to become better at what they do. This means that they read fundraising strategy guides, attend non-profit seminars, conferences and training opportunities, and work with their peers to practice things like making asks and writing better fundraising letters. Honing your skills can mean the difference between being a mediocre fundraiser and really knocking it out of the park for your organization.
The outstanding fundraiser is similar in many ways to a farmer (aka ‘Old MacDonald’). S/he sings a similar tune and also works in a nurturing, productive space that enables cultivation and growth. S/he must embody all of these qualities:
E = Ethics
Donor trust is of paramount importance. Ethical behavior must shine from a fundraiser in order to counteract the perception that fundraisers are little more than sleazy salespeople. To earn and keep trust, good fundraisers are donor-centered and take care to do no harm. They are always thinking of how to be of service to their donors. They believe in the value of their organization’s mission (much like a good salesperson believes in the value of their product). See the Association of Fundraising Professionals Guidelines for Code of Ethics for guidance.
I = Intelligence
I confess to a bias towards intelligence. I can teach an intelligent person to be an effective, focused fundraiser. No amount of experience can substitute for this basic criterion. Effective fundraisers do much, much more than simply ask for money. They gather intelligence, plan and measure with intelligence and evaluate intelligently. They are also emotionally intelligent, becoming attuned to the perspective of their constituents and focusing on what is meaningful to them (‘attunement’ happens to also be one of Daniel Pink’s traits for effective salespeople). They not only do things the right way; they do the right things.
E = Exuberance
A fundraiser needs to be a good coach and cheerleader who leads others – board members, volunteers, the executive director and other staff – to success. Success in fundraising means instilling a culture of philanthropy organization-wide; not being a one person band. So, yes, exuberance is key. I don’t mean this in the sense of perky rah-rah, but in the sense of being optimistic and taking initiative. An optimist is future-oriented and tries to do things that haven’t been done before. They see potential, don’t rest on their laurels and aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They understand that people invest in hope, and offer others the opportunity to make a real difference. They are the opposite of passive. They have an uncanny ability to see a problem and take action to address it. This aligns with a quality of effective salespeople – what Daniel Pink calls ‘buoyancy – the combination of a gritty spirit and a sunny outlook.’ It’s a quality that enables folks to survive repeated rejections – understanding that these rebuffs are temporary, contained and due to external factors.
I = Inspiration
Inspiration is the sine qua non of an effective fundraiser. They must be inspired and also inspire others. This begins inside the organization with leadership and other staff. They must be innovative and strategic in channeling inspiration into appropriate action (e.g., determining what prospect, donor, event or project could use the support of the staff or board member). They must let donors know they’re appreciated, they’re making a difference and their continued involvement will help even more. Do what you must to find inspiration in your work. Connect with your passions if you will inspire others to make passionate investments in your work. Then combine your inspiration with your emotional intelligence and present your proposition to others in a compelling and winning way. Create a movement people want to join.
O = Organization
If you don’t have a plan, don’t work according to plan, don’t monitor your progress towards goals and don’t measure your results then, it’s almost impossible to be effective. If you don’t use timelines, don’t keep meticulous records and use spreadsheets, don’t adhere to budgets and don’t manage your time, then it’s almost impossible to be efficient. A good fundraiser must be both.
Many organizations are looking for good fundraisers in all the wrong places. A good fundraiser can be difficult to find, and not everyone will have a track record. That’s okay, provided you hire someone who embodies the E-I-E-I-O traits, and if you then offer them someone who can train, mentor and coach them. [In fact, it’s a good idea to do this even with folks who have a track record as, all too often, folks who’ve been in the business have not worked in an environment that taught them best practices; there are way too many instances of ‘the blind leading the blind’ – inexperienced development staff working for clueless executive directors and/or boards. Just because someone put in their time does not mean they know how to be effective, efficient or successful]. Outstanding fundraising requires ethics, intelligence, exuberance, inspiration and organization. Find these traits; then offer a supportive learning environment that embraces a culture of philanthropy. You’ll see success!
What are your favorites from these lists? What else would you add?
Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
I’ve worked as a fundraiser for 10 years, and my experience in this line of work has been a little different than what you describe in the Practice section of your article, and I’d like to offer my thoughts.
Relying solely on the phone as one’s first means of contact with a donor is really out of date, and is certainly not the best way to reach many people. When many of my prospects were engineers they preferred being contacted via email, and I have several donors who prefer a text message above all else. Making the telephone the prized communication tool seems like an idea leftover from the 20th century.
This article also seems to be written under the guise that many fundraisers, especially those working for a smaller “shop”, have any control over their metrics, how they spend their time, and how involved their board is with development. I think many fundraisers at smaller organizations often labor under unreasonable expectations and ineffective directions from board presidents, over-involved volunteers, or angel investors who think they know more about great fundraising ideas than the trained development professional does. It is often times the role of an organization’s executive director to handle many of the items included in this piece (board giving in particular, in my experience).
I think asking for referrals from board members or key donors can sometimes be a dangerous practice, since it can be interpreted as asking someone else to do one’s job (as you mention in the piece, a “good” fundraiser is the one responsible for diversifying the revenue stream not the board member). There are certainly some board members or constituents who are appropriate to ask, and will even have good advice on potential prospects, but I do not think this strategy can be offered up as a blanket statement that will garner success.
And lastly, I have never attended a fundraising conference that has been worth the time, money, or energy involved. Rather than listening to bad advice and frustrated colleagues at largely unhelpful seminars, a really effective fundraiser would be wise to spend that time meeting with donors instead. At the end of the day, the most effective fundraiser- and the thing potential employers need to be looking for in a hire- is someone who isn’t afraid to make the ask. After all, you really just want a fundraiser who actually raises money, right?