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Advice for a New Chief Development Officer or Development Director

I adored our Yosemite Conservancy family of donors and Park Service partners, pictured here at Tenaya Lake restoration event, my first Director of Development role, December 2011.

Congratulations! You’ve just been named the incoming Director of Development or Chief Development Officer – it’s the promotion you’ve been working toward your entire fundraising career.

I’ve been in your shoes before – if you’re anything like me you feel a mix of pride, confidence, validation, and fear. When I was offered my first Development Director role, I received a healthy increase in responsibility as well as salary that I felt I deserved. Finally, it was my time to show what I could do as a leader of a fundraising team. 

Whether you have a week or two in between jobs or just the weekend after you left your last role, here’s what you need to know and here’s how to get yourself mentally ready.

You’ve been seduced

If you were recruited for your new role or if you applied, chances are you have been seduced. The new organization sounds better in every way from your past jobs. The recruiter boosted your confidence, the interview panel resonated with your experience and the way you handled the questions about strategic planning and inspiring the staff. You connected with members of the team, with the Board members you met, and with your new boss. They believe it’s you that can take their philanthropic initiatives to the next level.

It feels really, really good to be seen, to be recognized for your past achievements, and to be wanted. Celebrate this, embrace this, and cherish it.

But don’t be seduced for long. Though you are the chosen person who others perceive will solve all the organization’s funding challenges, the truth is that you will not. You will lead and provide insights and guidance, you will coach your team, you will put new systems into place, and you will work tirelessly, but it’s not you alone that achieves success. If the organization and you have made a mutually beneficial choice to work together, it’s the sum of all the people, workplace culture, the mission, execution of programs, and fundraising and development systems that will ensure success.

You’re human. You are going to grow into this new role, you’re going to shine sometimes, and sometimes you are going to have absolutely no idea what to do. And when you get to the tough conflicts and challenges with funding, you’ll need to be resilient and realistic with your own expectations of yourself.

Enjoy the harmony

The first few months of your new job are going to be positive, on the whole, as you meet the organization’s most ardent and passionate volunteers, Board members, staff, and donors. Meet as many of your nonprofit’s philanthropic supporters as you can – they will not only give you great advice, they may make increased gifts to help you and your team get going! They are going to be happy to meet you and thankful you have come on board. The organization may not have had much leadership in fundraising since the previous person left, or that person may have been terminated or left on their own accord. Ideally you inherit a highly-functioning shop that is ready to go and is eager to meet your expectations. No matter the situation, enjoy the period of harmony, that precious time before too many conflicts are brought to you to resolve, before a tough conversation about a deficit or a donor’s dissatisfaction with a recent report arises.

It’s fun to get to know your team. A new set of problems may feel refreshing compared to the problems you just left behind in your last job.  Schedule a one-on-one with every single team member and develop a short set of questions, ideally 3-5, that you ask everyone. That will give you a great picture of what’s really going on.

Dynamic, innovative, fun, helpful, smart, and the hardest workers I had ever managed – I adored Conservation International’s Development Team. My first Chief Development Officer role.

Figure out the situation you’ve inherited

The best book recommendation I ever received as a new development director was The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael D. Watkins. I have since used this book multiple times to ask strategic questions and to ascertain just what’s really happening with the team and the organization’s fundraising plan. While it’s a business book, not a nonprofit fundraising book, nearly all the advice applies. Once you know if you have inherited a start-up, a turnaround, a realignment, a sustain success, or a team that’s growing quickly, you’ll then have a set of tools and ideas for what to do next.

Say your team is in turnaround mode – they are in trouble. Employees are demoralized, goals have not been met, and big changes in personnel and plans are required. There’s probably a toxic employee who needs to be let go. Perhaps something traumatic has occurred – at one nonprofit where I worked one of the senior leaders committed suicide and another had stolen funds from the organization. Staying on track and feeling a sense of purpose was challenging.

Or perhaps your team is growing fast, there are lots of new employees and people are highly motivated and enthusiastic, but need guidance to work effectively within defined systems.

Your coming to the organization injects your team with automatic energy and excitement. Channel that in productive ways to make progress, even if it’s small, and you will be doing yourself a service in the long-run.

Connecting with the Development team at Conservation International, January 2019. My first Chief Development Officer role.

Craft your gameplan

Creating your own 90-day plan gives you concrete and meaningful steps to undertake in order to get off on the right foot. You want to get a few things accomplished in this time, like setting short-term fundraising goals or bringing everyone together for a business and culture planning retreat. But you really want to address past wounds and uncover what needs said aloud so that your team can have closure. The team may need acknowledged for putting in a lot of nights and weekends for gala events, or for exceeding their campaign targets. They may be experiencing whiplash with a series of leaders coming and going. Whatever it is, name it and acknowledge it out loud in the team meeting. Then paint your vision for what’s next, what the group can expect from you and from their work. In this way you do all you can to set a direction that people can understand and support while not ignoring what may have been festering long before you arrived. To be clear, you should not be expected to fix the wound or do something specific right away, but you must listen and ask questions, take good notes, and catalogue what you hear.    

Your 90-day plan will also include how you want to work with your new supervisor, and also how you want your direct reports to work with you. You’ll discover what matters most in your working relationships so that you maintain a sense of equilibrium and avoid any early misunderstandings.

Find Three Peers for Support

It’s highly likely that you will be quite alone in making fundraising decisions. When I left The Nature Conservancy, I left behind 600 fundraising colleagues for a team of eight. Thus, when I had technical or managerial questions, there weren’t a lot of people to ask for advice. And I needed support from people in my role, who had experience with the situations I was facing. I had to develop a short list of people who were already Directors of Development, to have sounding boards and someone to whine to when it all became too much. I recommend having two or three of these wonderful peers in your life.

Hire a Coach

Big leaps and transitions like this are serious and merit real consideration for your mental and physical health. Burnout and negative self-talk are widespread in our sector, all fundraisers have trouble sleeping when their goals are unmet, when departments argue over access to a donor or disagree with your strategy. The worse are employee relations going sour. There’s nothing that will impact your sleep patterns and your well-being more than when you need to terminate an employee.

If you have your own funds or health care benefits that provide for a therapist or executive coach, get yourself one right away. You’ll need support and someone who is entirely focused on your needs and can provide a detached perspective. 

Walk, Run, Play

If you have a gym membership, use it. If you prefer walking, hiking, hopping, stretching, doing yoga, playing with kids, or jogging, do it. Whatever the physical activity is, just do it, every day, even if it’s only 20 minutes. If you don’t move your body, this high-stress job will cause all that energy to go in directions that are unhealthy and over time, destructive.

Be Mindful & Grateful

Being with people who create change in the world is an amazing honor and privilege. I have worked alongside exceptional people, some famous, some under the radar, who have taken action on issues that mattered to them. Partnering with thinkers, dreamers, believers, actors, rock climbers, CEOs, singers, photographers, filmmakers, start-up founders, writers, scholars, chefs, politicians, and scientists is a joy and gives you endless stories to tell your family and friends. Nothing beats bringing together nouns – people, places, and things that make your life richer, full of meaning and purpose. Every volunteer, every donor, every community member, every Board member, every advisory council member, every foundation program officer, every special event sponsor, every task force participant – I honor you and salute you and hold you close to my heart. Spending time with the animals, trees, plants, lands, oceans, and mountains, deserts, rivers, forests, and peoples of this Earth is sacred, healing work. There’s much to do, and it requires money. Good luck.

Working as the Director of Philanthropy at The Nature Conservancy was such an honor, the power of people, places, heart, and intellect shine through. Here is the most important part of any fundraising team – the writers, prospect researchers, coordinators, database managers, and analysts.

2 comments on “Advice for a New Chief Development Officer or Development Director

  1. Sahara Saude says:

    Brilliant grounded advice, as always. Grateful for your wisdom.

  2. Jennifer Miller says:

    So much wisdom in this post – thank you!!

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