Your First 30 Days As a New Development Director

by Seth Rosen

Seth Rosen’s 3-step plan to help new Development Directors reduce the chaos of the first month and set themselves up for success.

Here’s the situation. I was hired as the new Development Director at Millennium Promise, a pretty significant nonprofit, and immediately I was thrown into the fire.

Now, fires are par-for-the-course for Development Directors. Your top funder is coming for a site visit at noon? That huge government grant is due this Friday? The invitations to the spring gala needed to be sent to the printer last Friday?! These are just a few of the flames you’ll feel lapping at your feet.

But a fire on the very first day?

I was expected to pitch a major donor that week. A $1.5 million ask. I didn’t know much about the program I was pitching. I knew even less about this very VIP donor. The meeting had been scheduled over a month earlier and absolutely could not be moved.

Of course I made the pitch. I even got the gift (in just a few months), which helped reduce poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Important stuff.

But this was just one more example of the chaos that is fundraising. I’ve been there countless times.

And so along with my good friend Smokey the Bear, I’ve developed a 30-day plan for you, my new DOD colleague (that’s “Director of Development” for the uninitiated), that will leave you feeling like one of New York’s Bravest (what we call firefighters in this fair city.)

Successful Development Directors are a rare breed, and being thrown headfirst into the fire is just another day at the office for us. Those first 30 days as a new Development Director are crucial for getting on the road to success, but it can feel like entering a burning building without even a bucket of water in sight.

Here is my 3-step plan to help you reduce the chaos of the first month and set yourself up for success.

Step One: Stop (and assess)

It is way too easy to sit down at your new desk and immediately get caught up in a crisis. One time, an events staffer insisted that I sign off on a venue for an event. On my first day on the job. I did it, but certainly regretted it later.

You can’t put out a fire before you know the lay of the land. So stop, listen, and think before rushing into anything.

It’s typical for a DOD position to be vacant for many months before a new DOD starts. So there’s going to be quite a lot of backlog and items that need your attention. However, in my experience it isn’t always the first thing that is presented that needs your immediate attention.

My suggestion is to immediately:

  • Get your new staff to talk honestly about priorities and what needs action (and what can be safely ignored).
  • Talk to your ED and Board Development Committee about what they see as the top priorities, and then, with your staff, go through a SWOT exercise.

Step Two: Drop

A very wise person once told me that nonprofit life is so intense because every decision matters, but you can’t always juggle every ball well. Sometimes you need to let one drop, but the trick is deciding which one and why (just so we’re clear that person was my boss, Joan Garry).

I once made the decision not to go for a grant because it was better to submit an excellent application in a later cycle than put in a mediocre application just to say we submitted. I knew if we had submitted we wouldn’t have received an award and could have damaged the organization’s reputation.

When you start as a new Development Director you are going to have to choose which balls to drop so you can prioritize what really matters. Your top priority during your first 30 days is to secure revenue so your agency’s programs continue for the sake of your clients. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by anything else.

Step Three: Roll

Let’s face it your first 30 days as a new DOD will be tough. You may feel overwhelmed. You might have a string of very late nights. You might even need to make a hard staffing choice or two (I have had to let staff go within my first month on a new job).

Roll with it. Remember that being new only lasts for a finite time, and as long as you work in service to your organization’s clients you will get through it and strengthen the agency’s work.

What you can do:

  • Put your best friends on speed dial, and don’t hesitate to reach out through Gchat for some support when you need it.
  • Remember you are there because of your skills and passion for the mission.  As long as you follow steps one and two and act in the best interests of your clients you will be a success.
  • Plan a treat or an indulgence for the end of your first month before you even start. You will need it (and truly deserve it!)

Fundraising is the heart and soul of most nonprofits. So put on your most stylish flame retardant clothing, follow the steps above and make some big asks. Most of all – don’t give up! I promise that by the end of your first month your colleagues will be applauding your fundraising bravery.