The Relationship Every Development Director Needs

by Seth Rosen

Getting this relationship right is absolutely crucial to a successful fundraising program.

It could have been a disaster.

Here I was, a brand new, first-time Development Director. I had to help organize and plan an ambitious New York City gala. Celebrities. Live entertainment. High profile guests.

A ton of moving parts.

And to be honest, I was green. I didn’t really know what I was doing.

But I got lucky. Really lucky.

My Board Chair was the incredible philanthropist and visionary, Jeff Walker.

Jeff realized that I probably wasn’t ready to be in this position. If he were like most people, he would have become frustrated by my lack of experience. He might have put me down, or at least made me feel that way.

Rather, he treated me with nothing but respect. He was my collaborator. He was honest with what he expected (he isn’t one to pull punches) but he always did so kindly.

In my mind that experience remains the gold standard of how the Board and staff can work together to create an extraordinary outcome that brings must needed resources to people in need.

But such a good experience is far too often the exception than the rule.

So today I want to share with you the three items that make up the foundation of a successful DOD/Development Committee relationship, greatly informed by my experience with Jeff Walker.

If these three commandments are not in place the relationship will never work.


Although it is rarely talked about one of the most difficult relationships at any nonprofit is between the Director of Development and the Board Development Committee.

I can’t even call this a dirty little secret because everyone knows it, but people just hate talking about it. It’s like how no one will say out loud how much they really hate kale.

No offense intended if you love kale!

Imagine, for a moment, that we could draw cartoon thought-bubbles above people’s heads at Development Committee meetings. They’d probably look something like this:

Board Members:

  • “What exactly am I supposed to be doing here? I have no background in fundraising, why am I on this committee?”
  • “I feel like I’ve asked all of my friends for money, and if I ask again they’ll never speak to me.”
  • “I just don’t have resources like Board member Smith. How can I actually contribute on this committee?”

Director of Development:

  • “I’ve been fundraising everyday for over a decade! Why does the committee always second guess me?”
  • “Please do not get bogged down in the colors of the gala invitation. I need you to help sell tickets, and your time is way too valuable to focus on fonts and colors.”
  • “My staff and I are working like crazy to raise money for this organization that we believe in and love. Why are you creating more work for us that won’t lead to new revenue?”

Not good.

But here’s the thing. Getting this relationship right is absolutely crucial to a successful fundraising program, and to hiring a retaining both top-notch fundraising talent and excellent board members.


Commandment #1: Thou Shalt Be Honest With Each Other

Far too often, nonprofits are not honest with board members about their development obligations. This starts at the board member interview when an organization must:

  • Give a prospective board member a written job description that includes a board member’s fundraising obligations, including any give/get. Do not just go over this verbally! Something will be forgotten, leading to resentment.
  • Before joining the Development Committee a Board member needs a written description of a) what the committee does and b) the duties of each member. Board members need to know exactly how they can contribute to the committee, and include ways beyond having them make a direct ask.
  • Finally, and perhaps most important, the Executive Director and Director of Development must have a frank discussion with the Board Chair and potential Development Committee members about what a committee member should not be doing. The board should not be managing event details. That’s the staff’s job. Instead, they need to be selling tables and sponsorships. Being transparent and honest at the outset will make all of the difference.

Commandment #2: Thou Shalt Respect Each Other

Let’s cut right to the chase: fundraisers work for organizations they believe in, and Board members volunteer for organizations they believe in. Everyone is on the same page and only wants the organization they love to succeed. This should constantly be at the top of everyone’s mind because, bottom line, everyone is just working to help the organization’s clients. Do whatever it takes to leave your ego at the door so there’s plenty of room to focus on the people in need.

Treat each other as collaborative partners. Directors of Development and Board Development Committee members should be generous and supportive of each other. Push each other, but do so as partners pursuing the same goal.

My former Board chair Jeff and the equally amazing Jennifer McCrea explore the idea of generosity in fundraising in their book The Generosity Network. It truly is a must-read for all Directors of Development and Development Committee members.

Commandment #3: The Executive Director Must Attend Board Development Committee Meetings

In my book this is a non-negotiable. Fundraising is a primary function of an ED, and he or she must be engaged in development activities that take place at the Board level.

And just as important, if either the Development Director or Board Development Committee is not fulfilling their responsibilities the ED needs to be ready to step in right away and facilitate a conversation or change.

An Executive Director that is not attending Board Development Committee meetings cannot be fulfilling his or her fundraising duties.


In the comments I’d love to hear what are your commandments for a successful DOD/Development Committee relationship. Please post them to myself and others can learn from your experience!

And finally, everyone who does Development sometimes has some of these relationship issues. Please share this in your networks with those who work in fundraising or serve on development committees. Perhaps it can help them.

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