The Five Dangers of Being a Development Director

One of my personal beliefs is that we must expand our minds to be able to hold more than three ideas at the same time. Even Steve Jobs prepared his stellar and celebrated presentations with only three points. Sometimes, some individuals can hold four points in mind, but when the fifth is introduced, it seems that one or more of the points can be forgotten.

When you look at the tetrahedron, there are only three visible sides. The fourth side is the base, which is not seen, but at least you know the base is there. The fifth side is the inside. It’s hidden.  Again, you know it’s there, but many times, it’s just simply forgotten about. Finding the fifth side completes the system, and makes it work properly. If it’s a living system, where each of the elements interact with one another, finding the fifth element means that one of the other elements must go “out of sight,” but then can come back to the forefront, which causes another element of the system to move into hiding.  Since most people can only hold three ideas in short-term memory simultaneously, and fewer can hold four, it’s easy to see that one of the five elements of the system is many times not recognized, and when it is, another of the elements receives little, if any, attention.

Think of it as juggling. Folks who can juggle do it easily with three balls. Some can introduce a fourth. A talented few can handle five. Try it yourself if you can juggle, or find a friend that can juggle and see if they can keep five balls in the air for an extended period of time.  Our minds need to be challenged so we can get to the point where we CAN mentally juggle five balls at once. What makes this incredibly difficult is not only juggling them for an extended period of time, but sometimes, we have to look really hard to find balls four and five…while juggling the first three.

With that in mind, here are 5 dangers Development or Advancement Directors in schools today must be aware of.

1) The average life expectancy of a Development Director for an institution is 18 months. Five reasons come to mind why this is so: 1) Unrealistic expectations; 2) Ill-preparedness; 3) Personality conflicts; 4) Leadership change; and 5) Subsidiarity.

By the way, note how this demonstrates there is a system within a system. That’s key to developing solutions to today’s problems, concerns and difficulties.  Before moving on, let’s take a closer look at those reasons before focusing on the life expectancy issue.

1) Unrealistic expectations. An organization may have raised $40,000 in a particular year without a Development Director. And now, since a Development Director has been hired, the administration expects that the Development Director will raise not only that amount, but their salary and benefits as well as a substantial amount of additional funds. $40,000 plus an additional $20,000 in funds raised as well as $80,000 in salary and benefits means the expectation is that $140,000 will be raised in that first year with the new Development Director. Signficant stress will be put on that person, especially if there is no dramatic increase in the pool of potential contributors. And sometimes, additional clerical support isn’t figured into the mix either.

2) Ill-preparedness. The job of Development Director might be given to a former secretary or administrative assistant. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this practice, especially since these individuals can be great at relationship building, they may not be familiar with the mechanics of Development (what constitutes a major gift, what steps are necessary when writing a grant, the need to wealth screen prospects, etc.). If they’re under pressure to perform and don’t have the necessary knowledge, they need to receive training, and not simply learn from mistakes.  Training takes time, and many see that as time which could be spent seeking funds.

3) Personality Conflicts. Everyone puts their best foot forward in the interview process, but it’s only after an individual has been in their position for a period of time that their performance can be truly assessed. If the supervisor is a micromanager, or expects the Development Director to stick to a routine schedule, and the Development Director believes that they should be out of the office as much as possible to make connections and develop relationships, there will be problems.

4) Leadership Change. This could lead to the events described in item #3 above.

5) Subsidiarity. In a school where there is a Principal, the chief advancement officer of the school is the Development Director. It’s necessary because there are so many administrative tasks that the Principal needs to attend to allowing Development to fall to an appropriate individual. However, if there is “no money” for a Development or Advancement Director, the school has two choices: 1) Increase the budget to hire someone, or 2) Appoint the Principal as the chief advancement officer, and assigning the day-to-day academic oversight to a lead teacher. In the President/Principal model, the President is the chief advancement officer. The Development Director (or Advancement Director) is the person behind the President, just as the Principal handles the day-to-day administrative aspects of educational program of the school. Think of it as a volleyball game. The Development Director feeds the ball to the President at the net so the President can go in for and receive the recognition for the spike. The President becomes synonymous with the identity of the school, just as the President of our nation becomes synonymous with the current “brand” of the United States of America on the global stage.

Burnout happens after 18 months because the long-term nature of Development has not been recognized or acknowledged. Development (like Enrollment) will start to see results in 3 to 5 years if Marketing starts to see traction in 2 to 4 years. Asset Management and Retention will have traction in 1 to 3 years, but all five elements must be simultaneous. Advancement is not linear – it is systemic. If you start Asset Management and Retention strategies, and wait until they take hold to just begin addressing Development and Enrollment issues, the timeline for success will be that much further delayed…if your school is fortunate enough to endure that long.

2) If the Development Director leaves, the results can be even more disastrous. The main job of a Development Director is to grow relationships. Raising money is a result of cultivated relationships with individuals engaged in the mission of the school.  When the Development Director leaves, the relationships made could go along, causing revenues to slide further.  Therefore, it’s important that the relationship be between the individual donor and the institution, rather than because of the relationship between the individuals.

3) The Development Director runs the risk of becoming the “catch-all” person, primarily because development can be  a foreign concept to teachers and administrators. Therefore, anything administration, staff and teachers have may difficulty defining could end up on the Development Director’s desk. Even though the Development Director needs to be an indefatigable cheerleader, development doesn’t deal with grading scales, assessment, classroom management, learning styles and IEPs. Because they don’t, the Development Director may find that the teachers they interface with speak a completely different language. Teachers won’t understand the Development Director at times either, especially when they use acronyms like LYBNT and SYBNT in ordinary conversation.

4) A Development Director is a part of the school’s administrative team. Consequently, their salary should be set up as an administrative salary.  Some school administrators that expect Development Directors to raise their own salary and benefits, or worse, fund their department, are just setting themselves up for failure. When that happens, the argument can be made that because the amount of funding coming in does not exceed the expenses of development office, the school can save money if they eliminate the advancement/development office.  While that’s indeed true from a mathematical standpoint, take note of the language. Development departments don’t “save” money, because you have to spend money to make money. The key is to find equilibrium.

5) Potential conflicts with the school’s parent association may take its toll on the Development Director. The role of the Development Director is relationship building, and to “Seek Outside Sources for Funds.” Some Parent-Teacher Organizations may see their annual fundraising dinner threatened by the Development Director’s need to oversee actions that involve individuals who are not ordinarily affiliated with the school. For example, a cookie dough and pizza sale is a fundraising activity that may be conducted by the PTA because families spearhead the project, asking their neighbors, friends, relatives and co-workers to buy a couple of boxes of chocolate chip cookie dough and some pepperoni pizzas.  But if parents get together with their friends and they come to a $30 per person dinner where they also spend money on silent auctions and raffles that offer significant prizes, that goes beyond scope of the PTA’s fundraising efforts. The Development Director needs to be involved in cultivating those relationships for the good of the school. A friend of a parent that attends such a dinner today might make a major gift to the school 10 years down the road, but that will only happen if the relationship between the friend and the school is shepherded by the Development Director.  Unfortunately, some of the parents who bring their friends to the event might not want their friends to be solicited.  Also unfortunately, that’s not the decision of the parents.  That’s a decision that the friends need to make as potential donors to the organization.

How can a Development Director avoid these dangers?  Keep in mind that Development takes the long-term view; fundraising takes the short-term view.  While Development Directors are fund raisers, they’re not fundraisers.  What a difference a space makes.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2016