Development Directors are the unsung heroes of a non-profit. Over the years of working on major gifts (and by that, I mean midlevel, major, and planned giving), Richard and I have developed the conviction that a great development director is what makes or breaks a great non-profit.
We believe this because it’s the role of the Director of Development to lead on the funding of the organization’s vision and mission. Without their unwavering leadership, the engine that powers that vision and mission will sputter and languish.
If you think about it, it’s the Director or VP of Development that brings together all the elements of fundraising within their department – but they also bring all areas of the non-profit together. That’s why this is such a critical role. Yet they’re the unsung heroes because many times, they’re not always on the front lines like the MGO, PGO, or even the Director of Direct Response.
The key here is how vital MANAGEMENT is to creating a healthy major gift pipeline. A healthy pipeline has a robust new donor acquisition program, a successful planned giving program, and everything in between that’s keeping donors moving forward in a healthy way, not stopped in a “clog” in the system.
So if you’re a non-profit leader or an aspiring development director who may one day manage a fundraising team, I want to outline for you why this role is so crucial to the health not only of major gifts – but also your entire organization.

  1. The Big Picture — A great development director is the fundraising team’s cheerleader for the organization’s vision and mission. They’re the one that takes the vision and mission and figures out how to fund it. Not only that, but they’re always holding up that vision to the entire development team and keeping them focused on why they’re out there raising those funds. That’s important, because you know how easy it is to lose sight of the bigger picture when you’re worried about meeting deadlines and budgets.
  2. Bring Departments Together — The best development directors bring together both their own teams and the different departments in their organization. If fundraising is going to be successful, there can’t be any siloes within the development department. A good development director knows this and works to create a working atmosphere where the donor is lifted up,and every process, procedure, etc. within that department focuses on that belief and objective. Also, a smart development director knows that for fundraising to work (and specifically major gifts), the entire organization has to have a culture of philanthropy that embraces donors as part of the mission. It’s the DoD who is ultimately responsible for making that happen; this is why their role is critical. This means they’re meeting with the directors of program, finance, and the CEO regularly to champion their department and to lift up donors.
  3. Support Their Staff — A DoD’s role must be one that supports their staff. Too many fundraisers jump ship and move on because they didn’t get that support from their manager. Great DoDs manage their team properly by doing the following:
    • they’re the bridge between departments and upper management and their own staff,
    • they hold their people accountable to their goals and objectives,
    • they meet regularly with their staff to keep them focused, provide input, strategy, and encouragement,
    • they’re dogged about coming up with great offers so the staff can inspire their donors and solicit transformational gifts, and
    • they provide the proper structure and give their staff the freedom to do their jobs without micromanaging them.
  1. Teamwork — Great development directors bring their teams together to help each discipline to understand the importance of the other. They create an environment where the direct-response team understands what their role is in eventually leading a donor to a major gift. Major gifts understand how vital the direct-response team is in supplying that pipeline. Corporate, Foundations, Mid-level, etc., they’re all working together, putting the donor first. It’s the DoD that makes it happen.

The importance of a great Development Director cannot be stressed enough. If you have a great one, do everything you can to keep them. Non-profits in general, place a low value on management. That needs to change. Supporting and lifting up the role of a development director will ultimately help provide for a strong major gift pipeline that will sustain and grow your organization. (Tweet it!)