Finding the Right Development Director

If your development program is to thrive, your school must recruit and retain the right development director, a professional always eager to learn more in a fast-changing field. He or she should be a leader and follower, a teacher and student. Leading a school’s fund-raising efforts is an energizing challenge but not an easy job.
Some development directors stay at one school for 10 to 30 years. Such a long tenure is more likely when the school head and development director share common values and ideas as well as a mutual commitment to fund-raising success. Unfortunately, in recent times, many school heads have had to search for new development directors every two to four years. In an enterprise like development, which depends upon building personal relationships, that is an alarming trend.
Why don’t development directors stay longer? Several reasons for this stand out:
  • Poor fit. Just as the right chemistry between the school head and the development director makes fund-raising success possible, the wrong chemistry undermines effectiveness. If the relationship is not collegial and trusting, both parties become unhappy.
  • Low pay. At many schools, development director salaries have increased more slowly than elsewhere in the nonprofit world. Often, skilled development professionals can earn much more by taking a different job.
  • A wider choice. More nonprofit organizations are hiring development professional every year. Opportunities abound for skilled fund-raisers.
  • Burnout. Even the best development director cannot meet every institutional need. Some school heads and trustees have unrealistic expectations about what a development director with a small staff can achieve in a single year. In addition to the planned agenda, the development office is often asked to handle many unexpected tasks: a visiting dignitary, a new event, a student trip, a query. The director tries to please but after a few years will grow weary.
Whether because of these factors or others, every year schools are forced to search for talented new development leaders. The hiring process is always a challenge because, although applicants may be plentiful, qualified candidates are not easy to find. To lay the groundwork for success, a school should clearly define the scope of the job before a new director of development arrives. No one model is right for every school, but fund-raising with a focus on major gifts is always at the top of the list of appropriate responsibilities. In addition, in many places, alumni relations and school communications are part of the agenda. Some development offices also facilitate the school’s strategic planning.
Regardless of the specific responsibilities, candidates are sure to want to know the answers to questions like these:
  • Is the development director responsible for the website, the master calendar, or the many non-fund-raising events?
  • What part of the school’s database does the development office manage?
  • How many and which school meetings will the development director be asked to attend?
  • Does the development director manage his or her own budget?
  • Is it possible or desirable for the development director to coach a team or to teach a class?
Although development programs inevitably evolve and change, the more your school can define in advance, the smoother the transition to a new director will be.
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all list of development responsibilities, there is no profile for the ideal candidate. To the contrary, top-notch independent school development officers have highly varied educations, resumes, and work experiences. Some come on board with in-depth knowledge of their schools. Others may have to learn on the job about the institutions they serve.
Nevertheless, as in all jobs, relevant experience counts. A candidate who has managed annual and capital drives at an independent school has particular appeal. However, it is possible for candidates who are intelligent and energetic but less experienced to get up to speed quickly by studying hard and consulting with peers.
In addition to professional qualifications, the following are personal characteristics your school should look for:
  • Creativity. Talented development directors have initiative and a zest for new ideas. They focus first on fund-raising concepts (what are we trying to accomplish and why?) and only thereafter on fund-raising techniques (how are we going to do it and when?).
  • Flexibility. All development directors have a multifaceted job that requires working with a variety of people. The director must interact patiently and successfully with colleagues, trustees, and volunteer leaders.
  • Communication skills. Successful development directors communicate confidently and well, often with constituents from diverse cultures. They speak effectively and persuasively. They write quickly and with ease.
  • A passion for detail. In development, success or failure is often in the details. Records must be accurate; names must be correct; gift acknowledgments must be prompt. The best development directors are computer-literate, careful, and consistent.
  • Eagerness to grow. There are few college degrees in development, but there are many opportunities to learn. The best development directors continue to learn throughout their careers and set aside time for professional growth.
  • The ability to lead. Good development directors enjoy a leadership role and know how to build consensus. Staff members are happy to be on their teams.
  • The ability to follow. Development directors also must follow the lead of the head of school. The most successful development professionals understand the head of school’s objectives and priorities and support them well at all times.
All these factors aside, the question remains: How can your school make sure to hire the right person? It is always essential to interview widely and with care. Most heads ask others — for example, the board chair, the capital campaign chair, the business manager, and a few key volunteers — to help assess candidates during school visits. In addition, finalists should meet with every member of the development office staff.
Too often, schools rush through the last important step: meticulous reference checks. Conversations with those who know the candidates should be probing, candid, and clear. Reference checkers should ask each person whose name the applicant provides to give the name of someone else who can also evaluate the candidate. Failing to check thoroughly may lead to a poor choice for the school.

Written by Helen A. Colson. ​Excerpted from the Handbook of Philanthropy at Independent Schools.