Developing Development Directors

Dear Kim:

I’m a 27-year-old Development Associate with a strong writing background and less than two years of experience in the development field. My organization is 90% funded by private foundations, most of which have longstanding relationships with our executive director.

I’ve expressed to my ED that I want to do what it takes to be promoted to Development Director (I’m the only development person in the organization). His response was that a director is someone who “drives” a program. Yet he’s given me little guidance on how I can step up to fulfill this role. His main message is that it’s just “time.” This is a frustrating answer, especially because all of our funder relationships are his relationships.

It seems like grant writing is almost a formality in this world, and the relationships are the most important. He’s the one that has known our funders for years, goes to visit them in New York, etc. Being so green, I don’t yet have the connections to match my motivation and ambitions. What are some ways that I can begin to “drive” our fundraising, even without having any longstanding relationships of my own?

-Backseat Driver

Dear Backseat:

Your executive director seems to be having a hard time bringing you into his relationships with these long-term funders. You are completely correct that relationships with funders are key. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the proposal is a formality, but it is more of a write-up of an agreement already made than a true proposal.

You say that your organization is 90% foundation funded. This is foolish and an accident waiting to happen. I suggest not trying to get in on these long-term foundation relationships, which are working just fine, but instead developing your own relationships by creating and building an individual donor program. Your organization needs to diversify its funding, and you are key to doing that. Your boss will continue to do what he is good at, and you will develop a much-needed series of non-foundation income streams. Learn all you can about major gifts and direct mail and work on those strategies. Individuals account for 85% of all the money given away by the private sector, which is composed of foundations, corporations and individuals. Foundations only account for 10%. Both stability and growth come from having a variety of sources of income and a broad donor base.

In addition to asking about some ways to work inside the organization, your question raises issues of professional development. If you cannot grow in this job, you will want to consider moving on. In the meantime, you may want to volunteer in another organization so that you can have more hands-on fundraising experience. In addition, you may want to join the Association of Fundraising Professionals ( and attend their meetings. Talking with other development directors, particularly those with more experience in the field, will help you figure out whether you can work effectively with your executive director. Finally, it is possible that your executive director does not know that much about working with a development director and would respond well to some coaching or consulting help.

Good luck!

-Kim Klein