7 Unreasonable Expectations That Can Cause You to Lose Top Development Talent

Nov. 4, 2015

Carmel Napolitano


Every organization wants to find a high-performing development professional that possesses the skills and motivation that are necessary to raise millions of dollars to support its cause. It’s difficult to attract that candidate if you have an unrealistic expectation about what a development professional can do for your organization.

In CompassPoint’s 2013 study, UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, which surveyed more than 2,700 executive directors and development directors across the   U.S., “nearly one in three executives are lukewarm about, or dissatisfied with, the performance of their current development directors.”

Organizations can hire for success by managing their expectations. When job descriptions become a wish list filled with unreasonable goals and expectations, it can deter your dream fundraiser from considering the role. It can also contribute to high turnover and long vacancies in the position.

Here are seven expectations that can cause your team to miss out on top development talent:

1. You expect talent to come to you.

Having the greatest mission, team, budget, location or salary isn’t enough to draw your dream fundraiser to you. It’s unlikely that the best development professionals are even scouting the job boards. That’s because they’re happily working at another organization doing what they do best: raising money. Some of these passive candidates are so successful in their current roles that a career switch isn’t a priority. You’ll have to personally reach out to top talent to show them why a position at your nonprofit will elevate their careers.

2. You expect fundraisers to raise a significant amount of money in a short amount of time.

In a study conducted by researcher and fundraising expert, Penelope Burk, author of Donor Centered Leadership, 34 percent of fundraisers cited unrealistic timeframe for meeting fundraising goals as a top reason why they left their last positions. Every organization will have different timeframes for reaching a fundraising goal, depending on a variety of factors such as its size, donor database, board engagement, past successes and resources. While it may be realistic for an organization to raise $1 million within two years or more, expecting a fundraiser to accomplish this goal at a smaller or disadvantaged organization within a year, much less a few months, is not practical since a major giving cycle takes 12 months or more.

3. You expect your fundraiser to bring a Rolodex of donors to his or her new role.

It’s a common misconception that fundraisers have a Rolodex of donors that they can somehow transfer to another organization. What many organizations fail to realize is that this is actually in conflict with the  Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethics. Fundraising coach Marc A. Pitman writes in a blog post, “Fundraising is a long game of building relationships and proving your impact. There are billions of dollars that will be given away this year. But you have to earn it.” He’s right: There are no quick fixes. Fundraising is all about cultivation and stewardship. Fundraisers can’t cultivate a donor if they don’t know who that donor is or what organizations the donor has donated to. It takes time to build these relationships.

4. You expect your fundraiser to be in the office all of the time.

Some organizations want their development professional to engage in months of research or planning before reaching out to donors. Having a development strategy in place is fundamental, but at some point, you’ll want your fundraiser to execute his or her plan. It may not be realistic to want your new hire to be in the office all or most of the time if you expect them to solicit new donors and build connections with existing or potential benefactors. Talk with candidates about their approach and what has worked for them in the past.

5. You expect your prospective fundraiser to reach a fundraising goal without adequate resources.   

A successful fundraising campaign requires the involvement of both the board and CEO. It’s unreasonable to expect your fundraiser to reach a fundraising goal without board commitment, employee engagement or a donor database. If your organization doesn’t have a database or is using a system that is disorganized or outdated, this will be a setback for your new hire. The same could be said of a mission or program that doesn’t lend itself to the fundraising goal you’ve set. If your mission or program is unclear, impractical or ineffective, how will the fundraiser convince donors that your initiatives are worth supporting? When you’re transparent with your prospective director of development or fundraiser about your organization’s resources and substructures as well as any financial difficulties that the organization is facing, it gives them insights on the challenges ahead and the strategies that are essential to address your organization’s issues.

6. You expect all fundraisers to have the same career paths.  

Many hiring managers think that candidates that began their careers in development or nonprofit are better equipped to raise money in the sector. While it’s important for candidates to have a technical understanding of fundraising, multi-sector experiences in and outside of the nonprofit and development fields are just as advantageous. As Burk points out in Donor Centered Leadership, “Creative writing, marketing, negotiating, closing and staff management skills are also essential to fundraising success.” You may be surprised to find qualified candidates who don’t have a traditional career path in development who are just as knowledgeable and successful. There are also all types of training and certificate programs for talented professionals with transferable skills who have the potential to become great fundraisers.  How you choose to source candidates depends entirely on your organization’s risk appetite.

7. You want a top fundraising talent but won’t compromise on salary. 

It’s no secret that a competitive salary is crucial to attract the best fundraisers. Start out by assessing your organization’s budget before you hire anyone.  Is there something you can cut back on to afford a good fundraiser? Be honest with yourself about how much you can afford to pay and consider creative or hidden benefits that might make the role more appealing, from flexible hours to a strong vacation package.

Show top development talent that you’re serious about your organization’s mission and goals by ensuring that your expectations are in line with the S.M.A.R.T. model: The objectives that you set for your new fundraiser must be specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time/cost limited. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious about fundraising goals or what you hope your new fundraiser will bring to the table, but the goals you expect your fundraiser to reach must be achievable and your expectations of the process must be sensible. With the right tools, resources and information, your future development executive will be able to turn your organization’s fundraising dreams into a reality.