If you're already doing some fundraising or work in the nonprofit sector, you’re probably becoming aware of the various functions in the development departments of your colleagues.
After more than two decades in the field, I see THREE types of fundraising leadership tracks out there:
This is where I started, what I call "the beginning," meaning in a new nonprofit with a new fundraising role I started from scratch. It's been a huge advantage for me to learn in real-time how a nonprofit organization is born and to start a fundraising program from the ground level. I managed to do it only with the mentorship of so many senior fundraising professionals in Chicago; I learned how giving fundraisers can be.
Many fundraisers in young or small social service organizations start out as generalist fundraisers as I did. This means you’re doing all the work…licking envelopes, going to the post office, drafting email copy, spending a lot of time on fundraising events and managing volunteers, and doing other outreach that might be programmatic. You might even be doing something that combines fundraising and program outreach. There's no harm in starting out here. The key is just learning how to focus and manage...and evolve.
THE DEVELOPMENT OFFICER
This is like the generalist, but as an organization’s dedicated, full-time fundraising person…someone who CHOOSES to be a fundraiser, as opposed to the ever-popular "I fell into it" fundraiser. The development officer (the most generic title for a fundraiser) spends 100% of their time on fundraising-related activities. The development officer delegates certain things up to the executive director, chief fundraiser, or board and may or may not have staff and volunteers.
I want to emphasize the executive director has a fundraising responsibility regardless. Like the board, the fiscal health of the organization is on the executive director, but as the development officer, you handle the day-to-day functions and pull your E.D. out as a big gun when necessary. You also have the responsibility of giving your E.D. a regular “intelligence brief” of things they need to know and may want to know.
At a thriving nonprofit, the development officer may become a director or manager with a team and decision-making role. A nonprofit will have entered a stage of organizational development (another article) where they have the resources to pay full-time fundraisers that generate revenue (and at ~10x their salary). If you're the chief fundraiser, you and the E.D. must be partners in fundraising, and you BOTH must have access to members of the board of directors, as they have ultimate fiscal responsibility, which includes giving and getting (i.e., fundraising).
These fundraisers are experts in at least one area. They may be managing a portfolio of a specific type of donor, perhaps in a planned giving program, major gifts program, annual fund, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, or another niche. They could also be “behind the scenes” as a CRM specialist, writer, or researcher. As experts, these fundraisers are generally not going to be asked to lick envelopes or unjam the copy machine like the generalist of a small NPO would.
I started out as a generalist fundraiser, so I was a gift processer and spokesperson and everything in between…including plumber. Then, as my career progressed and my nonprofit grew, I chose to focus on individual giving, donor acquisition, and membership.
My work became more focused and fulfilling for me and beneficial to my organization.
(Depending on who you are, you might bounce around the three tracks. And with enough time and experience, you’ll find yourself a leader in the field. While I personally moved through each track chronologically, in my heart, I’ll always be an advocate for the generalist at the small nonprofit.)
THE LESSON: Especially when starting out, it's important we explore our own career development.
Because when you're aware of where you're going in your career and where your nonprofit falls in the stages of its own organizational development, you’re able to make informed decisions resulting in successful outcomes for both you and your organization.
February 29, 2020 | Updated October 2020
Craig Curtis Morris
Cognitive-behavioral therapist, social scientist, and international fundraising consultant rendering the nonprofit sector powerful through training and coaching at FundraisingClarity.com.