When Should You Hire Your First Development Director?

by Seth Rosen

While making any hire is often as much art as science, here is my three-question checklist to decide if it’s time to make your first development hire.

Life is filled with big important questions.

Why are we here?

Why doesn’t MTV play music videos anymore?

Can I get through a weekday without spilling coffee on myself? This one is a biggie for me.

But if you are an Executive Director of a relatively young organization there is likely one truly big important question that has been keeping you up at night.

When should I hire my first paid development staffer?

OK, maybe it’s not keeping you up at night. But this actually is one of the questions that Joan and I are most often asked, and I can see why. Hiring your first development director is a big jump forward.

Nonprofits simply can’t meet their missions without generating revenue and unless your organization has a fee for service component, fundraising is how you get dollars in the door. While many organizations can go without a development staff early on, a professional fundraising operation is crucial for long-term sustainability.

But what if you hire someone too early in your organization’s lifespan? Would it be a waste of your organization’s resources to hire someone now? On the other hand, what if you wait too long?

While making any hire is often as much art as science there are three easy questions you can ask yourself to tell if it’s time to bring some professional muscle to your team.

Here is my three-question checklist to decide if it’s time to hire your first development director.

Question #1: Can You Afford To Hire Someone For A Full Year?

Yep, a full year.

But the new development person will bring in enough money – and more – to pay for himself or herself right away, right…?

That’s entirely the wrong way to think about it. It’s magical thinking and rarely happens like that.

Any new development hire needs time to assess your current fundraising program, implement systems, and meet donors before big money will come your way.

Not to mention, since you didn’t have a fundraising professional to this point, perhaps your database isn’t so up-to-date?

Does your website have a reliable online contribution tool?

If not, it will be even more time before the money starts rolling in.

Hiring development staff without enough resources to really allow them to make their mark places them in a highly pressured and uncertain situation. So make the smart move and be sure you can pay someone for a full year before you make a hire.

Question #2: Are You Leaving Real Money On The Table?

By real money I mean actual gifts that you are unable to close because you don’t have time to make the asks. Are there new gifts or renewals you are missing out on because you don’t have time to steward donors in the way they need to cultivated?

If the answer to the above is yes, it may very well be time to hire a development staffer. But if you really can’t say for sure that you’re missing out on gifts, it would be wise to wait before you start recruiting.

Question #3: Do You Have The Time To Supervise And Train Someone?

Let me be clear: no development person will ever be successful without a close working partnership with the Executive Director. Nothing kills fundraising success faster than a development hire who is pushed into a situation with no support.

As the Executive Director of an organization you will need to:

  • Introduce your new hire to your existing major donors and board members.
  • Work closely to execute the fundraising plan your new hire will design.
  • Spend considerable time together building a budget and realistic revenue goals.

If you have no time to do the above any person you hire will not reach the true success he or she is capable of and revenue generation will suffer as a result.

Only hire a development person when you can commit to being a true partner in their work.

Ok, so that’s the three-question checklist. I want to make one more important point.

You Don’t Need a Vice President When a Manager or Coordinator Will Do.

Please don’t think it’s critical to hire somebody at the Director level to make magic happen. Not only might a high level person be unnecessarily expensive, that level of expertise may not even be needed yet.

Are you looking for someone to keep you on track with your fundraising and to keep the fundraising administration in order? Would someone with 2 – 3 years of development experience help you reach the next level?

If so, a mid-level person may be all you need right now. As the program grows you can always hire more staff. Often Executive Directors think they need a Development Director from the outset, but often someone who has less experience (and a lower salary) could be a better initial choice.

Your turn. If you already have one, how did you know when to hire your first paid development staff member? Was your first hire a dream or would you have made different choices if you could do it over? Please let me and your colleagues know your tips and tricks in the comments below.

1 thought on “When Should You Hire Your First Development Director?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more on all three questions, and especially the final point. Don’t pay for a Ferrari when you need an F150. At the same time, it costs money to make money, so if you have enough to pay someone for a while without an expectation of 100% return right away, it’s time to invest in the sustainability of your organization with development staff. As an ED, #3 might be the hardest one to get right. You’re hiring someone because you don’t have time to get #2 right in your own, so there’s a tendency to hope that a development staffer will take care of it all the money once you hire. The reality is that there must be a strong partnership amongst the ED, development staff, and the board to really make a development program really produce and become sustainable.

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