Developing the Underdeveloped

February 5, 2014


Many nonprofits are caught in a vicious cycle. Declining fundraising leads to the development director’s departure. This disrupts donor relationships, makes it difficult to recruit new development staff and leads to further fundraising declines. This cycle is taking place throughout the sector, and a new study released by The Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and CompassPoint finds that half of all development directors anticipate leaving their current jobs within two years or less.

Last month, Southern California Grantmakers, along with California Community Foundation, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation and Weingart Foundation, co-hosted a discussion for funders on helping grantees overcome these challenges. This discussion grew out of the new study, entitled: “UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising,” which reveals the cycle that threatens the ability of many nonprofits to raise the resources they need. Aside from high levels of turnover and lengthy vacancies in development director positions throughout the sector, the study revealed deeper issues, including a lack of basic fundraising systems and inadequate attention to fund development among nonprofit board and staff leaders.

Three Los Angeles nonprofit leaders joined the conversation: Kay Buck, executive director of Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, Angelica Salas, director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and Lisa Watson, chief executive officer of Downtown Women’s Center.  Each shared how they changed their own organizational approaches to fund development in order to ensure increased success.

  • It’s not you, it’s us.    A successful development strategy starts with an engaged board that is fully committed and involved in fundraising and a staff engaged in a “culture of philanthropy,” serving as ambassadors of the organization. All three leaders said that it takes time and what Buck called “managerial courage” to bring about this type of organizational culture change. Salas shared that her board and staff engage in practice “pitch sessions,” where they offer each other feedback in order to hone messaging to clients, donors and external partners.
  • Good fundraising plans make for strong organizations. A fundraising plan that is tied to the organization’s strategic plan is critical to ensure that board and staff are clear about the importance of fundraising and how meeting fundraising goals impacts the organization and its ability to serve its constituents. Watson described how her organization developed a five-year road map, so that board and staff could see the trade-offs in staffing and program offerings if fundraising goals were not met.
  • Know your role.  Both board and staff should be clear on their roles and responsibilities toward fundraising, so that the development director can better execute the fundraising plan. Salas said that every board and staff member has a fundraising target as part of her or his annual goals. Watson reported that since all their major donors were once volunteers, volunteer coordinators and managers are clear that relationships with their volunteers are also viewed as donor cultivation.

The philanthropic sector is also getting involved. Southern California funders at the event pledged to work smarter and in more coordinated ways to support and strengthen nonprofit fundraising capacity throughout the sector.

All three leaders have experienced the revolving door of development directors in the past. By transforming organizational culture, approaches and attitudes towards fundraising, each organization has helped to develop a more successful and sustainable infrastructure and broken the vicious cycle.

Vera de Vera serves as director of the Community Building Initiative in El Monte, a major partnership program of California Community Foundation with local residents and business, civic and community leaders striving to improve educational opportunities for children.

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