How to Build an All-Star Development Team

Coley Jackson, Senior Vice President President of Business Development

Hiring in development? Read this first

To maximize opportunity and reach revenue goals, nonprofit executives must strategically consider the structure of their development teams. Many senior leaders make the mistake of hiring staff members who are too similar to them in personality. Effective leaders hire people who have the right skills and personality strengths to do a job, whether they are like the leader or not.

As a development leader, when building a strong fundraising team, you should first look inward at your own strengths and weaknesses. Concentrate especially on your weaknesses. You will not make your weaknesses into strengths, so focus on finding people who fill those gaps.

Likewise, look at the strengths and weaknesses of your staff. Find the gaps in your current team and hire staff who can bring balance and enhance areas that are lacking. Just because someone is a great fundraiser does not automatically mean they would be a great team leader. So, be on the lookout for someone who fits your specific need.

Also, when personnel are limited, it is easy for leaders to place staff into roles where they are not the best fit. At nonprofits, we all must wear many hats, but when it’s in your power to adjust roles and move people into positions that fit their skillset and personality, do so. Employees thrive when they are in positions that suit their interests and strengths.

For example, if you tasked me with coordinating all of the details of a large donor event, I would likely fail. The event might happen, but the food or entertainment may not show up. Detail-heavy work is not my forte.  I can direct, coordinate, assign, and raise event sponsorship money, but managing the minute details would be catastrophic.

In short, organizations succeed when each team member occupies the right role, using his or her skill set and strengths to work toward organizational success.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most common fundraising roles and the skill sets and personality types needed to fill them:

Director of Development

  • The director should have the capability to see the big picture, make plans, and then execute by properly assigning tasks to the appropriate staff.
  • The director should exhibit some attributes of authority and leadership, as well as be respected by team members and other senior leaders.
  • An effective director is able to “manage up” and keep senior management on task with their fundraising responsibilities as well.

Major Gift Officer

  • A major gift officer must enjoy building relationships, meeting with people, and hearing their stories. It’s equally important that a gift officer can recall these details after donor meetings, in order to compile useful and accurate
  • He or she should be personable, likeable, and have the ability to establish a rapport with many different types of people.
  • A major gift officer must have the ability to create big-picture plans that move their donors forward.
  • It is ideal for this person to have strong written communication skills, and the major gift officer must be a very good verbal communicator.
  • When identifying someone with the potential to be a good major gift officer, it is important to put them in a role that can build these skills and not load them down with tasks that do not reinforce their strengths.

Development Writer

  • A talented writer does not have to be a people person, but he or she must have a strong understanding of the audience and know how to emotionally connect with individuals through the written word.
  • A writer must obviously have a solid foundation in usage of the English language; he or she must be able to take complex issues, disseminate them into concepts that the audience can understand, and show the reader how the issues impact their daily life.
  • The ideal development writer can tell a good story that moves the reader to action.

Development Associate

  • A development associate must be very detail-oriented. He or she must understand your system and be able to process gifts, keep records, manage the database, generate thank-you letters in a timely manner, set meetings, and often assist with events.
  • A development associate must be able to “manage up” and help keep other team members organized and on task.
  • Word of caution: Do not hire a development associate thinking that you have placed your next major gift officer in queue. If a person’s personality and talents excel in an associate role, often these same characteristics will not translate well into a major gift officer role. The converse is also true: Do not hire someone who would make a great major gift officer and put them in a development associate role as a starting point. Rarely do the skillsets correlate, and you are more likely to frustrate and discourage a new employee rather than motivate them for a major gift officer position down the road.

If you’re a senior leader hiring for your next development position, consider your highest priorities based on your current weaknesses. Don’t become too fixated on the experience illustrated on a candidate’s resume. Delve deeper and discover the skills that they have and most enjoy using, and whether those skills can ultimately help your organization achieve success.

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