Hiring Development Staff vs. Hiring a Consultant

Dear Kim:

How do you know when you should hire a Development Director and when you can get by with a proposal writer who works project-by-project? If we decide to hire a proposal writer instead, could you give me some idea of how someone who doesn’t know much about fundraising should evaluate candidates?

~Project-by-project-by project…

Dear Project:

Your question is a common one and does not lend itself to an easy answer. First of all, your fundraising should not be entirely based on writing proposals. You need to diversify your funding sources and to remember that over 80% of all money given to nonprofits from the private (non-government) sector comes from individuals, and only 12% comes from foundations. Also, a development director and a proposal writer will serve your organization in very different ways. A development director is responsible for carrying out a fundraising plan. This can include overseeing and coordinating a broad range of fundraising activities, including building an individual donor base, assisting board members in their fundraising role, and proposal-writing. A proposal writer is more focused on seeking and securing funding from foundation sources exclusively.

You will need to hire a development director when you are no longer able to raise the money you need using outsourcing. You may say that you can’t afford a full-time person, which is why you have had this project-by-project person in the first place. I have sympathy with that chicken-and-egg dilemma, but perhaps you can approach one of your long time funders for a capacity building grant that would allow you to both hire a development director and build a fundraising program that is more than grant driven.

Finding someone is tricky, and you may want to seek help in doing this. Be sure to ask for the names of the last three places someone has worked in addition to their references. Get someone who works in human resources to help you design questions that will help you surface the strengths and weaknesses of this person. Be clear on what you want. For example, if several people in your organization are good writers, then hiring a good writer over someone who is more of a people person would be a mistake. If you have some wonderful administrative people who are attentive to detail and are good at systems, then hire a big-picture type of person. Above all, hire someone who is in complete agreement and understanding of the mission of your organization. I have sometimes hired enthusiastic self-starters with little experience who were passionate about the cause, and then paid a consultant to help them in their steep learning curve. This has always worked better than hiring a highly skilled and experienced person who was lukewarm about the mission.

Finally, build in a probationary period and clear evaluation mechanisms and hope for the best!