Confessions of a Development Director: "I think I am a Fraud"

burnout confessions of a development director fundraising two year development phenomenon Sep 06, 2021

Confessions of a Development Director: I think I am a Fraud

Why Development Directors Only Last 18-24 Months and What Can Be Done About It


Dear Kevin, 

I am finding so much comfort in your content and it’s providing me some hope. I am coming up on 18 months at my current nonprofit and feeling the pressure mount. I can tell the board is not happy with my performance, but in my defense, they are asking me to do way more than I had originally committed to and their expectations are unrealistic. But this keeps happening. I stay somewhere for about 2 years and then move on. It’s the same thing every time. I feel the pit in my stomach thinking about starting to interview again. I keep trying to blame this on the organizations, but maybe it’s me. Am I a fraud? Do I actually suck at fundraising? Should I change careers? 

Your Fundraising Framework is helping me to set expectations and shows me what areas to prioritize. Maybe I can make it over this hump. 

-- Janet (Denver, CO)




It’s rare to find a profession with so much turnover. Small to mid-sized organizations tend to have a revolving door in the fundraising positions. As a third party, I see departures from both the organization’s perspective and the fundraising professional’s perspective. 

To answer your question - you’re probably not a fraud, so put that out of your head. If I had to take an educated guess without knowing your full story but having heard from 100+ people like you, I’d say this is a little on you and a little on the organization. 

As with any career - you certainly can do more to raise money, hone your skills, stay focused, say no, and raise more money. 

On the other hand, the organization is likely setting you up for failure by expecting too much, failing to think through and plan properly, not understanding your position and its needs, not providing enough support, not having enough patience. 

Here are some additional thoughts: 


Three Reasons for Development Turnover


I am going to oversimplify this a bit, but here are the top three scenarios I see play out almost like clockwork. 


1. The employee departs. 

Either they feel like they are going to get let go so they start to interview elsewhere before they need to or they say what you said in your email “it is different than what I committed to.” 

I can relate because that’s the reason I left one of my development director positions. I was hired to raise money for the annual fund, to grow the donor lists as a whole, and to contribute to the development of systems and processes. All things I am damn good at if I say so myself. All was fine until I was asked to raise 10 times as much and run a capital campaign without any additional help. For the same pay. That’s an awkward position. Say “I can’t” or “I won’t” and be fired or say “Okay” to something that’s impossible and then always feel like you’ll fail (which also means be fired). It sucks, but it happens all the time. 

2. The organization terminates the relationship

An organization hires someone. . I see quite often these unofficial agreements that the fundraiser will raise 4 times their salary (but no real agreement or metrics on how to measure that). The board or executives don’t feel work is being done. They increase pressure after 12 months and then they finally have enough. Last month someone reached out to me who had been fired for not hitting their goal after 2 years, they were $1,000 off according to their calculation and $10,000 off according to the organization. Little did the organization know they would lose more than $10k in the transition. 


3. There is a mutual decision to part ways

This is most typical and it is usually a combination of the two previously mentioned situations. The fundraiser knows he or she is not going to hit the goal and the board is well aware a target is getting missed. Blame who you will - it’s determined it’s not worth the effort for the fundraiser to stay and/or the large salary for the nonprofit. They both think the grass is greener. 


How Turnover Happens

  • The organizations tend to make an error in expecting the development director to do too much in too short a time. 
  • The development directors tend to take too long in “developing relationships” before plunging right into the uncomfortable asks. 
  • The development directors usually do not have proper training. I would say more than two-thirds of the development directors I have worked with had no formal training and worked their way into the position from a different role. 
  • The pressure on the development directors is incredible. Seeming harmless comments in meetings like “Janet - here’s another thing for your to write grants for” are actually deflating and overwhelming. The budget increases year-over-year while the number of donors stays relatively the same or decreases. 
  • Nonprofits, especially small to mid-sized ones, require that employees take on multiple roles and attend countless meetings resulting in little to no time for fluid donor cultivation. I’ve been development director at a school and asked to take on lunch duty once a week on top of 6 hours of meetings per week. That’s one day of the week without any progress on actual fundraising. 

I should mention that, of course, the best development directors usually are at least attempted to be, if not are poached by other organizations. With great development directors few and far between, it’s not unusual to get quests for recruitment. But this is about changing every two years so that probably doesn’t apply.


How can we fix Development Director turnover?

  • Organizations need to expect that a new development director will not be fully functioning for 18-24 months. I call that their runway. Many pay lip service to this but their real expectations or budgetary constraints say otherwise. 
  • Organizations should have a plan for the development director for his or her first 12 months - making sure to introduce and pass off as many relationships as possible to give the development director the best chance at succeeding.
  • New development directors need to measure their efforts and outcomes and help the organization see the ROI and value they provide. Development directors should expect that the organization will change its goals, expectations, and fundraising efforts (no organizations operate in a bubble) and be ready to defend their work and impact.
  • New development directors need to take action, take more risks, set more in-person and zoom appointments, stop hiding behind their desk/email, and make stuff happen quicker. It’s easy to get comfortable at the beginning of a new position and buy yourself time. But 12 months go by quickly. If you aren’t making good progress, you could be setting yourself up for failure. 
  • Together, the organization’s leadership and the development professional should be in more regular communication before and after every fundraiser - aligning and evaluating all efforts as you go - this stops surprises. 


Vetting Each Other


Organizations ought to be wary of the individuals who have a resume full of 18-24 months before changing organizations. Wary because if the fundraiser was not able to overcome whatever issues came up once out of three or more attempts, the individual might not be committed or may need more than the nonprofit can give of they may need a coach which is not a cheap expense. Also, the first two years can be a big cost, or close to net-zero if they are lucky. And two years of time is a lot to invest just to start over. 

Fundraisers should do the same research for the organization. If the organization is unable to retain talent, there could be issues that make it hard to get started, tough to stay, and difficult to succeed.


>> Read more about this Two Year Development Phenomenon™ here.