Navigating Greener Pastures in Challenging Times

By David H. King, President & CEO at Alexander Haas

Despite the pandemic, development officers continue to leave relatively secure positions to take on new chief development roles, amidst the upheaval in the institutions they are joining. Over the past few months, several colleagues and friends have reached out for advice on how to navigate such an important life change, wanting to make sure they’re as successful as possible given the increased pressure on fundraising in these unusual times.

Even in stable circumstances, accepting such an important new role can be challenging, both for the hiring CEO or director and for the development officers themselves, evidenced by the continued high turnover rate among new development directors. Several factors contribute to why new chief development officers often stay such a short time, leading both the development officers and organizations into a cycle of frustration and disappointment.

By focusing on three key ideas, both candidates and their organizations are likely to find more productive success over the long term during these challenging times.

Common Expectations. Development professionals take new jobs for a variety of reasons – more money, additional responsibility, prestige, or sometimes just to leave an unpleasant situation. Organizations hire new development directors with great expectations, often with the idea that a new person is going to somehow boost the institution’s fundraising overnight or meet unreachable goals by doing things a new way. Between the new employee’s ambition and desire to do a good job without complaining and the organization’s unrealistic expectations, the new staff member is often cast prematurely into a no-win situation even before they’ve had time to understand the challenges and opportunities of the job. Clear and open communication about expectations from the beginning is the key to success, both for the person taking on a new position and the one hiring.

Appropriate Acclimation. To be successful, a new chief development officer must have time to understand the organization’s mission, budget, culture, and development operation. This acclimation that would usually take place naturally around the water cooler or other casual interactions around the office are even more elusive in this era of working from home and meetings by Zoom. Despite the financial pressures to immediately produce, new staff should expect and be given the opportunity to get to know their new organization’s nuances and opportunities and to onboard through a deliberate, thoughtful process to be successful over the long term, without just stepping into the expectation of immediate results.

Build the Plan – Work the Plan. This may be the most important reminder for new development directors and hiring CEOs alike. Development is a disciplined, systematic process that engages an organization’s current and prospective donors in providing financial support, both in the short term and over the long haul. As such, a new development director must have the time to both develop and gain consensus on a strong strategy and plan to accomplish these goals. Effective fundraising is more than a series of ad hoc tactics – it’s the establishment of a solid plan that is well executed and modified along the way. Especially in these times of heightened expectations for fundraising, this principle should continue to guide new chief development officers and their organizations, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to current circumstances.

Given the important financial challenges that have emerged over the past year, recruiting and maintaining effective chief development officers will become even more valuable for hiring organizations and those seeking greener pastures. For both, this can be an exciting time for new beginnings and the opportunity to create new fundraising strategies responsive to our post-pandemic environment. Perhaps this can be the moment we break the cycle of such rapid turnover in the development field.