What’s on your list for 2020 improvements to your fundraising program? More gifts officers, better mail testing, more investments in digital?

One thing I can bet is not on the menu is an overhaul of your development team’s job titles. But it turns out that it might actually be worth taking a look—and not just because it doesn’t cost you a dime in new expenses.

I’ve often heard that nonprofit leaders decide to avoid common fundraising titles like “major gifts officer” because they fear that it would scare off donors. Who would want to meet with a major gifts officer, they think, when the job title practically screams that you are about to ask them to empty their wallets?

In search of empirical guidance on this question I recently ran across a fascinating study by Russell James, the Texas Tech professor and all around planned giving guru. The full study, “Testing the Effectiveness of Fundraiser Job Titles in Charitable Bequest and Complex Gift Planning,” is of course a delightful choice of reading for your holiday break, but it is paywalled unless you have a subscription to Nonprofit Management & Leadership.

The 2016 study asked thousands of people to rate who they would reach out to at a nonprofit if they wanted to make a complex gift (scenarios included a stock gift, an estate gift, and a gift of real estate gift) among over 60 different possible job titles.

The worst performers, it turns out, are the job titles we see most often: ones containing the words “Development” or “Advancement.” “Philanthropy”, “Stewardship”, and “External Relations” titles also stink.

The best performers, it turns out—the people donors are most likely to actively reach out to—are the ones that focus on the donor and what that person can do for the donor, such as “Director of Donor Advising” or “Chief Donor Officer”.

Titles that focus on the gift itself—like “Chief Individual Giving Officer” or the often-maligned “Director of Major Gifts” are at least admirably middle of the pack. 


There are major caveats with this work, of course.  A minor issue is that ordinary cash gifts were not one of the options probed. Many of the highest performing titles in the study, therefore, contained words specific to planned giving.

More important, however, is that the study asked people who they would reach out to, so there is possible self-perception bias. Who the respondents say they would reach out to may not in fact align with who they would actually reach out to.

This is a classic problem in research in the fundraising sphere: while no donors will tell you that a mailing effects their contributions, still so many donors (for some mysterious reason!) always give in the week following the receipt of a solicitation. No donors will tell you that they want to receive special recognition or benefits, yet when you offer them recognition and benefits repeatedly and consistently (even if they turn them down!), you will certainly raise more money from those donors over time.

For some types of information, this difference between stated preferences and real behavior is easier to overcome in the design of a test or experiment, while for others—like the effectiveness of different job titles—it is nearly impossible. Russell James’ study gives us some of the best information we are likely to get on the question.


Why might it be that “development” and “advancement” are such ineffective terms in titles, when nearly all organizations are using them?

One part of the equation seems to be that they are very vague to those outside of the fundraising profession. They are euphemisms for fundraising, and they are used very differently in different industries. Go search LinkedIn for “Director of Development” and many of the results you’ll find are sales positions (“Business Development”) or tech related, where the word “development” refers to software development.

Another problem with the language of “development” and “advancement” is that these terms are about the organization. As James points out in the study, they put the emphasis on what the employee does for the nonprofit, rather than what the employee does for the donor.

We know that being donor-centric leads to more success in fundraising in every other facet of our jobs—so why would our titles be any different?

If fundraising is about building a bridge between the donor’s vision of a better world and the way the mission of a nonprofit brings that better world about, perhaps we should look for job titles that convey some sense of that connection rather than focusing solely on the organizational end.

More simply, it’s just a good practice to avoid jargon that obfuscates what is really going on. We’re not “development professionals”. We’re fundraisers. Your contributors are donors, not “sustaining sponsors” or “friends.”

When you live amidst the jargon on a daily basis, it’s hard to forget what is jargon and what is plain to the layman (in fact, that’s the point of jargon—to hide clear meanings from the uninitiated).


There is no more clear demonstration of that point to me than the term “planned giving,” which is very much an inside-baseball term for fundraisers and estate attorneys. Even many people who intend to make what we would consider a planned gift to a nonprofit are not sure exactly what that means—remember, many planned giving donors are not major donors with teams of sophisticated advisors.

I can hear an ordinary annual fund donor in my head saying, “Planned giving? What do you mean? I plan all of my gifts in advance!” That’s why I’ve always advised my clients to use “will and estate plans” or similar language instead of “planned giving” when marketing planned giving vehicles.

And sure enough, Russell James’ study bears this out. While the job title of “Director of Planned Giving” scored fairly high as someone to contact when confronted with a planned giving scenario, it was outperformed by the longer yet clearer titles of ““Director of Trusts, Estates, and Gift Planning” and “Director of Estate Gift Planning”.

Clear titles and clear language, I’d hypothesize, will lead to clearer fundraising results. Think about your team’s titles in 2020, and whether there might be a better way.