Development professionals matter

If you’re the leader of a non-profit, I’d like a quick word with you. It’s about your organization’s development director (or manager or VP).

Fifteen years ago, I was invited to join an annual gathering of Christian marketing and development leaders.

The next year, I was asked to host the gathering. Within a few years, the group grew to include the leaders of many large and sophisticated marketing programs at parachurch ministries.

I found it very interesting, and still do, that this gathering was as much about How are you doing? as it was about What’s working?

Naturally, a good portion of our time over the years was spent comparing notes on results, testing, acquisition, lapsed reactivation, multichannel marketing and the like. But surprisingly — or maybe not surprisingly — at almost every gathering, at least one of these development professionals would be in crisis.

It became our practice to allow time to find out who was hurting and why — not so much in their personal life, but in their organizational life. Every year, this marketing gathering would become a sort of “professional therapy session,” as these dedicated men and women talked about their struggles. The experiences were amazingly similar:

  • High stress, low recognition
  • Organizational dysfunction
  • Meddling by departments that don’t understand fundraising
  • Poor organizational leadership and management

But isn’t this common among all ministry leaders? Perhaps. But development professionals clearly face unique challenges and, certainly, lots of pressure.

 How about some love?

In almost every case I’ve seen, the development function is undervalued — along with the people who run it in good faith. They’re under constant stress as the numbers wax and wane.

Performance is highly measurable and visible. Even good performance is variable. You’ll have months, and even years, when results are down, even though the development team is doing a great job. Yet our performance is judged based on this year, this month or even this week!

I have a longtime colleague who (only half) jokes: “When income is up, praise the Lord. When income is down, blame the development staff.”

No wonder the average tenure of a development professional is just a few years. And, sadly, these leaders often move on just before their decisions would have paid off with stronger fundraising results.

 6 ways you can strengthen your development effort AND your development director

Since our business at Masterworks focuses on relationships with development professionals, we’ve learned how to help them thrive. With that in mind, here are 6 ways to help build a better fundraising effort AND a better fundraising leader:

1. Learn the development business yourself

The most successful ministry heads have learned the nuts and bolts of fundraising. They’ve taken steps to truly understand it. Read the fundraising results reports, ask questions and be an informed leader. Show your development team — and the entire organization — that you care enough to get your head into the numbers and get behind the team with support, budget and staffing.

2. Value development as much as ministry

The fundraising function at most organizations is understaffed and overtaxed. But in my experience, nonprofits that thrive do so because their senior leadership places as much value on development as on their programs. They raise its visibility and respectability ministry-wide. And they realize that the mission of the organization will not be realized without the money to make it happen. You must show your entire organization that fundraising is vital to your success AND that your fundraisers are a key — and unique — part of your team.

3. Merge the scientific with the spiritual

After many years in our industry, working on both the client and agency side, I’ve concluded that development is both a science (with proven, objectively verifiable best practices) AND a spiritual undertaking. In other words, you must combine marketing best practices with spiritual disciplines like prayer, faith and discernment. Those who direct fundraising programs — or lead those who direct them — must learn to practice and balance both.

4. Ensure that management teams collaborate with and support fundraising

Development is often not supported — and sometimes even undermined — by other functions. I’ve seen excessive pressure from Finance to deliver and explain numbers. And from Programs to fund ministries that donors aren’t interested in. It’s awfully hard to raise money without good programs that are designed with fundraising in mind. Successful ministry leaders tear down departmental silos. They get key people working together cooperatively.

5. Invest in innovation

Excellent fundraising performance is the result of investing for the long-term (primarily in donor acquisition and retention), executing your program well and never losing sight of what your supporters think of you and expect of you. What’s more, successful ministry leaders accept — and expect — that marketing tests will often fail. They’re not afraid of failure. And they encourage the development director to take risks that could reap big rewards.

6. Pray for your development director

Are you praying for the fundraising at your organization and the people who manage it? If not, why? Make it a priority to regularly speak to God about your financial needs, the work of those who raise money and the involvement of donors who support your work.

Bottom line, the success of your organization is closely tied to the success of your development effort and its leader. Are you taking the necessary steps to help him or her achieve excellence? I have to believe that when you do, you’ll see a happier team and a program that is well tuned for the best possible performance.

Next week we’ll talk about what’s on the minds of these development professionals for the second half of 2015.