How to Hire a Great Development Director
It’s a question most nonprofit leaders face during their tenure: How do I hire a great Development Director to help my organization thrive and achieve its mission?
Whether you’re ready to hire a seasoned veteran or a rising star, there are a number of considerations to keep in mind. In this article, three nonprofit executives share their top strategies for hiring the ideal Development Director for any organization.
1. Determine the skill set you need—and don’t compromise.
When Haven House Services, a nonprofit agency providing community-based services to at-risk youth and families in Raleigh, North Carolina, began searching for a Development Director two years ago, the organization made sure to explicitly describe their ideal candidate and desired professional experiences in the job description. “This was a new position for us,” says Michelle Zechmann, Chief Executive Officer of Haven House. “So we were really clear that while we had put much of the infrastructure in place, this was going to be a startup position.”
In particular, Haven House was looking for someone who “was able to hit the ground running and had experience with events, donor relations, and communications,” says Zechmann. “We also needed someone who was able to assess our internal processes and procedures to make sure we were being as effectively as possible.” To help identify the right candidate, Haven House’s interview questions addressed existing needs around major gifts, communications, and development strategy. In addition, the interview team posed a number of “scenario” and “competency” questions for candidates—such as how they would help a Board member engage a potential large-gift donor, or how they would navigate soliciting grant information from colleagues under tight deadlines.
2. Engage staff and Board members in the hiring process.
“An effective interview process includes comprehensive questions and participation from staff, Board members, and stakeholders,” advises Ruth Peebles, President of The INS Group and former Executive Director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness. Boards of Directors can form a Resource Development Committee responsible for writing interview questions and conducting interviews with Development candidates, Peebles suggests.
Haven House conducted two rounds of interviews with Development Director candidates: the first with the organization’s CEO, Human Resources Director, and Chief Financial Officer, and the second with Haven House’s Board Chair, CEO, and four other Board members.
In addition to including Board members and staff in the interviewing process, Peebles advises organizations to include a larger swath of stakeholders—including partners, donors, and volunteers. Bringing in stakeholders from outside the organization can help nonprofits assess candidates’ ability to work collaboratively while emphasizing the importance of stakeholders’ contributions to the organization.
3. Ask candidates to identify specific fundraising successes or outcomes.
Haven House’s interview questions addressed candidates’ development and donor stewardship philosophies while also asking about specific “wins” around fundraising. Sample questions included:
- Tell us about a favorite donor from a previous organization—what makes them your favorite donor experience?
- What is the most challenging gift or major gift you have ever personally solicited? What made it tough? Were you proud of the outcome? If you could do it again, what would you do differently and why?
In addition to having candidates share their experiences, organizations should reach out to three references and ask them to describe specific successes that candidates have achieved.
4. Hire a candidate who is passionate about your organization’s mission and vision.
Development work is difficult, often requiring employees to work long hours during the evenings and weekends. “Candidates must be truly passionate about the mission and vision of the organization—or similar work,” says Peebles.
Treat Harvey, Senior Donor Engagement Officer at the Triangle Community Foundation, echoes this sentiment. A longtime supporter of the arts, Harvey channeled this passion during her tenure as Development Director for the Carolina Theatre of Durham, where she focused on growing the organization’s donor base from 300 to 800 individuals over a span of four years.
Those efforts paid off in 2015 when the Theatre announced a $1.6 million deficit—a true financial crisis. Over the next year and a half, Harvey was able to leverage the relationships she had cultivated with donors—as well as a matching $600,000 grant from the City of Durham—to help the Theatre reach its fundraising goal seven months early. Today, the Theatre enjoys a robust following and sustained development efforts.
5. Ensure the Executive Director and Development Director are on the same page about fundraising and development strategy.
“The best Development Directors I’ve seen have a great relationship and shared vision with their CEO or Executive Director,” says Harvey. She warns nonprofits not to hire a Development Director and expect them to solve all the organization’s fundraising and financial woes singlehandedly.
“Development is about the cultivation of relationships. It’s a process. It’s not about one miracle person asking for money in a vacuum,” explains Harvey. “It’s an integrated system and strategy.” She recommends that organizational leaders ask themselves two important questions before starting the interviewing and hiring process:
- Does the CEO understand realistically what fundraising is?
- Does the Board of Directors support that vision and strategy?
In the first sentence of its job description, Haven House emphasized the collaborative relationship between the CEO and the Development Director. During interviews, Haven House also shared their four-year Development plan with candidates and explained the different internal teams the Development Director would participate in and prepare reports for, including a Resource Development Committee and management team. These efforts helped clarify expectations and ensure that the organization’s new Development Director would be ready to work on Day One.