We all know the organizations intent upon hiring a ‘unicorn’—the mythical nonprofit employee or executive who is often expected to magically do everything. The key feature of unicorns is that they don’t exist. No one can do everything; there are no magic bullets in human form.

The position of Development Director (or its equivalent) is almost certainly chief among unicorns. I interact with nonprofit organizations and their leaders every day and one of the most erroneous notions I frequently encounter is the idea that bringing in the right Development Director (read: unicorn) will solve all of the organization’s problems.

When someone is hired for the position, so many unrealistic expectations have already been set for the person, that he or she is almost certainly doomed to failure from the start. This in part explains the high rate of development staff turnover that we’re all familiar with in the industry. And that high turnover, in turn, is incredibly detrimental to effective development programs which must be founded on consistency and excellence in execution over time.

There is no shortage of development job seekers. There is a shortage of quality talent in development. Successful and high-performing development executives and major gift officers already have jobs. And they very often have jobs at organizations that have put in place a system and culture that allows and empowers these professionals to be successful. The keys, then, to avoid the development-director-as-magic-bullet pitfall are threefold:


If your organization is hiring in development, particularly for a Development Director, resist the temptation to look for a unicorn. Rather, set realistic expectations about what a reasonable candidate could accomplish. Be honest about structural problems in the organization (like weak leadership, a problematic board, program deficiencies, a weak brand, poor communications strategy, etc.) that won’t be solved by a Development Director or may even hinder his or her success. Seek input on the candidate profile from staff, board members, and industry peers. Be upfront in job descriptions and in interviews about what is expected and utilize feedback effectively to re-tool the position if needed. Once a hire is made, set and agree upon a 12-month plan of activities, goals, and outcomes to clearly structure the person’s path to success.


Your development program must be bigger than any one person, even if it’s a one-person shop. Build a functioning development system that a new hire can plug into and within which he or she can be successful. This may entail putting a strategic development plan in place to comprehensively outline development activities and goals. It may entail freeing up part of your budget to make investments in personnel, technology, travel, and consulting to support a new Development Director. A successful development system goes beyond physical resources, however. An organization’s leadership must inculcate a development-centric culture that empowers a Development Director to succeed.


Good development directors already have jobs and they are already well-compensated. If you are hiring for a development director on a budget, consider looking to your program or communications staff. They already know your organization and its work intimately and can speak to your mission and efficacy. Look for energetic and sharp people as opposed to development veterans. Development skills can be learned easily if a person has the right outgoing disposition, is organized, and has a strong work ethic. Consider hiring and training a young professional with 1-5 years of experience and superb interpersonal and written communication skills. As one such young fundraiser recently told me, “It’s not hard. You have to meet with people and ask them for money.” This individual has done just that and has increased his organization’s revenue by over 50% in under a year.

Finally, in transition periods between development directors it is critical to avoid bringing all fundraising operations to a halt. Consider hiring a third party consultancy that can keep the wheels turning and work with your organization for a period of time to manage development personnel and—importantly—execute on development activities, while providing strategic guidance and counsel.


American Philanthropic provides strategic consulting and fundraising services for nonprofits, including executive personnel searches and other management and fundraising services that are as varied and as complex as the needs of its nonprofit clients. Learn more at AmericanPhilanthropic.com.