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Staffing your development department: your organization is not a university

September 3, 2013
by Terry Axelrod
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I had lunch with three of my favorite executive directors of behavioral health organizations last week. Aside from being struck by how smart they all are and how much they are juggling in the face of the Affordable Care Act, electronic record conversions, mergers and acquisitions, I was quite inspired that they had taken time to join me to talk about what keeps every ED up at night—sustainable funding.

Their rapid-fire questions about how to hire, compensate, and fire development directors, were telling. How long should it take a major gifts officer to get up to speed and earn their keep? How best to structure a development department for an organization that had never had one? Why not hire the best major gifts person at the nearby university and expect them to produce millions in a year or two? What to do with the golf tournament, the gala, the grant writing, that all-too-familiar fundraising treadmill?

Ultimately we got to the primary issue that I think trips up EDs and CEOs. In their haste to scale up a development program, they look outside the organization for an expert in the thing they feel least qualified to do—fundraising. Better, they presume, to abdicate to the proven expert than to learn a few of the basics themselves and—yes—look for an internal candidate.

I told them what I tell most groups we work with: "Your organization is not a university. You do not have a ready-made pipeline of loyal alumni. You are a mental health organization. Your work is confidential. Even if your clients wanted to tell their stories to the world, it is highly unlikely that your clients will ever provide you with a steady stream of major donors."

Development officers at universities are hired to work with a certain pre-existing portfolio of donors, for example donors who give between $1,000 and $5,000 a year. Their job is to cultivate these donors with the goal of having a certain percentage of them increase their giving, producing a collective dollar increase in giving by that pool of donors each year.

That is major gifts fundraising, not building and filling a pipeline. When your organization has at least 100 major donors—defined as giving $1,000 a year and pledging to do so for the next five years or longer—you are ready to hire that major gifts person. Until then, what you need is someone a bit scrappy, more of a generalist, someone who, above all, LOVES your mission, understands the culture of your organization like the back of their hand, and can barely stop talking about your work in the community. This person should be outgoing, well-organized bordering on obsessively detail oriented, enjoy talking on the phone, and someone that people look forward to talking to.

That’s the person to start with, not the fancy major gifts person.


Terry Axelrod

CEO, Benevon

Terry Axelrod


Terry Axelrod is founder and CEO of Benevon. She has more than thirty years of experience in the...

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