Before You Fire Your Development Director

by Joan Garry

Before you land on your Development Director as ‘the’ problem, take a ride through my checklist.

Let’s start off with two questions.

1) What should Executive Directors and board chairs care most about?

2) What do EDs and board chairs often seem to care most about?

If your answer to #1 was, “The impact of the organization’s work,” 10 points for you.

And if you answered #2 with, “Will we hit our numbers?” You’re 2 for 2.

The reason for this is probably obvious. If the organization misses its numbers it can become a lot more difficult to have the desired impact. A focus on the numbers is hardly unfounded.

One more question… Who is most often the individual held accountable if the numbers fall short?

The Common Answer: The Development Director.

Sometimes it’s even the right answer. Sometimes.

So how do you decide when it’s time to prepare a severance document? Or is there a better solution here?

Read on for my “Before You Fire Your Development Director Checklist.”


Here’s the thing. Sometimes, EDs that complain the most that good Development Directors are very hard to find are the same EDs that actually hit their revenue goals year after year. Even with poor-to-mediocre Development Directors.

And sometimes organizations with a first rate Development Director can fall short.


Before I get to the “Before You Fire Your Development Director Checklist,” it’s essential to remember that a Development Director is a quarterback. Even a great QB needs a good team around him. Not even Tom Brady can win a Super Bowl without a good team around him.

And for those of you hiring your very first Director of Development with no staff support, a) congratulations! b) manage your expectations and c) get out and tell the team you just hired a QB.

OK, now on to the checklist.


1) When was the last time the Executive Director made a direct ask for money to an individual or foundation? If it’s been longer than a month, your ED is part of the problem.

2) Does your board have a fundraising committee? If no, your QB has a gaping hole on the team.

More on building a great Board Fundraising Committee

3) Are the Development Co-chairs of the Board enthusiastic fundraisers? Or were they politely coerced to take the job?  If the chair or co-chairs of this committee do not embrace fundraising, you have a board problem.

4) When was the last time your board had a fundraising training? Longer than a year? Hampering the success of your Devo Director.

5) Is Development on every single board meeting agenda? Important things make it onto agendas. Things that are not seen as mission critical are not. If it’s missing from the agenda because fundraising makes your board feel uncomfortable, that’s too bad. It’s an important part of their jobs.

6) Does each member of your board fill out a fundraising plan at the beginning of each year? This plan should include commitments they are making to ask for money, prospects they believe should be asked for money, corporate sponsors they are connected to, and foundation contacts they have. Where does the Devo Director get her prospect lists? How do you hold board members accountable to make their give/get? With lists/contracts like this. If the answer here is either “no” or “we ask them to but they never do,” the accountability rests with the board chair. Not the Devo Director.

7) Is the Chair of the Board Nominating Committee a timid or reluctant fundraiser? This often happens because otherwise, you’d put her/him on the Development committee. But here’s the problem. A timid board nominating chair will soft pedal the give/get or will say, “We have a great development director and we always hit our numbers,” or, “There are so many ways you can reach your give / get – don’t worry about your rolodex.”  And so what do you wind up with? A weak team that’s not invested in winning.

8) Does your board and staff just love special events? Well, that’s swell but if you’re lucky, $.70 on the $1.00 drops to the bottom line. And that doesn’t include the staff time or the board meeting time dedicated to the centerpiece discussion.  (Promise me that if you ever sit on a board and the conversation moves to the kind / cost of the centerpiece that you will run screaming from the room.) Don’t get me wrong. Special events are a key way to market and evangelize your mission. But each member of the quarterback’s team has to understand that making a direct ask for support is a key part of her/his job. And by the way, the entire time your organization is up to its eyeballs in that special event, individual asks fall by the wayside.

9) Did the ED or the board add revenue to the budget that the Development Director protested?  Yes, I do know Development Directors who low-ball their numbers to ensure success. But many are just realistic. They understand that “money is programs” and they want to raise the most they can. So they submit a number and then are told by Audit and Finance that they need to add another $200K or another $50K someplace. All of a sudden, the numbers no longer belong to the Devo Director. And so why should she be accountable for them?

10) Does the organization have a clear vision, a strategic plan, tangible evidence of success, and stories of impact?  I’m sorry to report but these things cannot be taken for granted in every nonprofit. And without them, your lead salesperson has a much tougher sell.


  • Give real thought to the answers to these questions. Where exactly does the accountability rest? Has your Devo Director been set up to succeed?
  •  Recognize that a Devo Director needs a good team to win. She needs to build a strong staff (if she has that luxury) and she needs a board and an ED who embrace fundraising and who partner with her to succeed.
  • To be fair, you also want to evaluate the extent to which your Development Director has raised the issues she faces and has offered solutions (a good example would be serving up first rate fundraisers as board prospects.) A first rate Devo Director sees these problems and initiates conversations to raise them and offers suggestions about solutions.


As I said earlier, ED’s and boards complain that good Development Directors are really hard to find. Maybe these same ED’s and board chairs need to look at the whole thing differently. It seems high time to redefine what it means to be a successful Development Director.

Next: Learn how your organization can improve its fundraising capabilities.

22 thoughts on “Before You Fire Your Development Director”

  1. Joan,
    I enjoy your posts, very helpful. Non-profit organizations tend to fall into the trap of becoming a fundraising business, rather than a program driven business. It’s time organizations realize that operating a dual bottom line helps to keep the fundraising and programming in balance, a dual focus on mission (program) and net revenue.
    Given that premise, should the board development committee and the ED focus on the P/L of the programs first? Development, whether through events, donors, or grants, needs to look at the programs losses. There are times when a loss is okay and made up by the efforts of the Development Director, but that doesn’t give the program the excuse not to focus on profitability. Programs tend to believe that the money will come from development, so why worry.

  2. Love it Joan. You’ve hit that nail on the head once again. I’m thinking of starting a fan club: “Devo Divas for Joan.”

  3. hi johnny. i’m afraid the answer to your question is it depends. some organizations get restricted funds from foundations or the government for particular programs. these programs will have P/Ls that have to watched carefully. but often you look at the budget for the entire organization as one full P/L. one thing boards often do not do is require quarterly estimates about where expenses and revenues are. back in the corporate world, i had responsibility to provide quarterly estimates so there were not often surprises. regardless of the organization you have (one with lots of restricted grants driving programs or one with largely unrestricted funds, this kind of discipline by the board can help keep all members of the team accountable.

  4. Joan, I enjoyed your post very much. It’s funny how great minds think alike. In one of my past posts on the subject, I also referred to fundraising as a team sport, except I compared it to pitchers for my beloved Chicago Cubs who tried to strike out the other side instead of relying on the rest of the team to play defense. Fundraising is the responsibility of the ED and Board, as well as the DD. More organizations need to understand this.

  5. thanks richard. and as a digression, one of my fellow board members a few years back was a woman named laura ricketts who now OWNS your beloved chicago cubs!!!!!! lastly, where does YOUR great mind work?

  6. Joan, I have been in the Portland, Oregon area and active in the nonprofit community for years. I am returning to Illinois this week to be closer to my aging parents.
    You will have to connect me to your friend once I am reestablished in Rockford, my hometown. I have a follow up interview with an organization in early June, but plan on making the rounds with my contacts this summer.
    Hope we can get together for coffee.

  7. Thank you, Joan and Richard. I use the team sport analogy as well–football, of course. But then what else can you expect from a Steeler fan! But I digress…. I’ve been using this construct in many ways–everything from how to recruit staff and volunteers to how to evaluate their performance. It’s a metaphor that’s easy to understand, and it’s become an integral part of training I offer to boards as well as professional staff.
    It’s important to note, too, that quarterbacks don’t have a prayer at being effective if you tie their hands.

  8. richard. i’d have quite a long commmute for that coffee i’m afraid. i am in montclair nj, a close NYC suburb. do let me know if you’ll be out east and i’ll do the same! thanks for your good work and your good comments.

  9. i have another metaphor i use when i talk about building boards or staffs. it’s the dinner party metaphor. best dinner party ever: a diverse group of people – different life experience, different politics, different communications styles. (good food of course) (wine helps too). and cassandra, you keep using your football analogy. i’m a die hard yankee fan with a nephew who pitches for the phillies. so i’m all about bball. 🙂

  10. Love the content here. The whole process is complicated, especially for one person development departments. I’ll be using some of your thoughts at a presentation I’m making for Nonprofit Missouri next week titled Walking the Fundraising Tightrope. It HAS to be a team approach, with clearly defined goals. You need the board and ED as key players, not just cheerleaders!

  11. hi mike. glad you found the post helpful. hope you’ll subscribe (if you haven’t already done so) so you get a weekly notice about new content. best of luck with the presentation.

  12. Hi Susan,
    This is a deep-seated challenge that begs for further illumination. For example, many DOD job descriptions are extraordinarily unrealistic, focused on metrics that may or not be relevant to the size and shape of the organization in question. This is a setup for all parties to be disappointed.
    A director should be sought who can work within the org to understand the aspirations, assess the potential, identify what’s needed to attract the support, and draft a plan – with involvement and support of the CEO, board, staff, and other volunteers, and provide leadership. So, it seems, the most important priority for the DOD is to change the strongly held views of the very folks who, in their wisdom, hired her.
    I imagine that many of the best DOD candidates who consider current job descriptions are hoping their potential employers will turn out to be more reasonable than the documents they generate. Or the candidates will just pass. Neither scenario serves anyone well.
    Thanks for your post. It points to very important challenges.

  13. kent. thanks for your comment which digs even deeper than my post. it unearths part of what is happening in the world of fundraising. why turnover is high. why so many jobs are available. until there is a shared understanding of the role of a development director and an ED and a board who can hold up their ends of the bargain, we’ll continue to see these trends and folks like you and me will continue to write about them. thanks again

  14. Thanks for responding. It seems these issues form and have created a “logical” structure that is very resistant to change, despite the importance of changing it. I am enjoying your blog. Just beginning myself. Now following you on twitter.

  15. thanks for the follow. and btw, how many non profits are in the business of change? could we say like ALL of them. changing lives one person at a time, changing perceptions, changing laws. change. far too often the leadership of those organizations whose very mission is change are in fact change resistant. let’s not miss the irony.

  16. I am so glad this article was written. I am currently looking for a job but I have ruled out being the development director of a small non-profit, as all of the factors listed above have come into play. For instance, at one job, in the midst of the recession, the ED talked the board into accepting a budget that had a 32% increase. I didn’t believe it was realistic and made that clear but went along with it because I had just been hired.. What I did manage to do was get them a 26% increase in a year where the average increase was much much less. What was my reward? A lecture on how I wasn’t doing my job well enough. When I tried to bring up the inflated budget, the ED wouldn’t hear of it, stating that it was still my fault and that I should be doing more. To do more I would have had to grow a third, fourth and fifth arm. He wanted to keep me on probation. I resigned two weeks later. Oh and yes, getting the board to do anything regarding fundraising was impossible, but he also kept flouting his own connections and did not let me do my own scouting for potential board members who might be interested. The Board was fantastic, but as a working program oriented board, not a fundraising board.
    I wish we could get every ED of every small organization to read this list of yours. It is a breath of fresh air. Thank you for writing it.

  17. please don’t despair. and stick with development work. it is so important and there are many opportunities out there. you just have to interview them even more closely than they interview you. ask for a document that outlines the board’s fundraising successes (gives and gets). if they don’t have one, flag on the field. ask them about the fundraising prowess / enthusiasm of the person in charge of board member recruitment. ask them to tell you LOTS about the board fundraising committee and the level of success and engagement. a quarterback should not switch teams without knowing a LOT about the rest of the team. and thank you for the kind words. my blog is growing quickly and would love for you to share it with others.

  18. Joan:
    Thank you for pounding this subject from the more
    fundamental aspect and POV and for bringing up the necessity to recognize the
    underlying current of restricted funding and the overall health being in the
    hands of the ED and Board.
    So many times, the formal DevD position is not possible in
    the early stages of an entity’s formation and development, and when the
    position becomes available, the bad habits of compliance and ROI evaluation
    work-around practices have already been formed and ensconced (whether obvious
    and know or not) and are difficult to live with or change for the DevD, if they
    are a leader in best practices.
    When you add to that the frustration on the part of ED’s or
    Boards with too many restricted funds, and their expectations that the DevD can
    turn on a spigot of non-restricted funding, you then have a recipe for at
    minimum butting heads and at maximum, rolling them –not to say the least just misusing
    funds and jeopardizing the entity.
    Many a Development Director has been burned out and/or
    abused to disillusionment simply because they tried to support the cause with
    integrity and compliance only to run into metric-driven ED’s and Boards who saw
    funding levels as the security of the entity and its programs rather than best
    practices and compliance as risk mitigation. This is one reason why the trend
    for DevD’s to want to work for large, established entities is so damaging. Working with start-ups or young charities
    allows the best DevD’s to help form the proper practices from the beginning.
    However, there seems to be pressure to pursue salary rather than where their
    expertise can set up legacy and compliant systems.
    I think the frustrations of those like “bnorman” are a good
    sign that there are healthy, DevD’s out there who simply will not bend to the
    match of bad practices. Your advice
    “don’t despair” is so perfect because we must encourage and reward those who
    see accountability is never an option in any case and is the basis to succeed.

  19. Joan, I’m delighted to have found your blog and love this post. You’ve eloquently outlined some of the key reasons that there is so much turnover in development staff. For years I’ve held that the problem generally is a very bad match between (1)an E.D. and/or board that has no idea how development works and what expectations are reasonable and (2) a development director that has little experience and no real idea how to do their job. It’s not that development staff are “bad” or “flighty.” It’s often that they simply are not given the resources (and training) they need to do their jobs. Or there is no culture of philanthropy within their organization, and the development director is cast off on an island with little to sustain them. Thank you for summarizing the pre-conditions to success in fundraising so succinctly. I’ll not be following you for sure!

  20. Claire. I am also delighted you found my blog. This whole notion I hear all the time that there are no good development people out there just infuriates me. It’s simply not true. There are just precious few messiahs out there.

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