Development is a long-term approach to sustainable revenues brought about by the effective engagement of individuals in the mission of your organization and its vision.

That’s not a book definition, but everyone involved in development has their own definition of what it is.  I like this definition because it touches on three important aspects – vision, engagement, and revenues. If one of those three are missing, it’s not development.

The vision comes first, followed by engagement of individuals, followed by revenues.

If revenues come first, you’ve reverted back to fundraising.

And if you don’t have a compelling vision for your organization, you’re not going to engage anyone in its mission.  As Scripture tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).  Since vision is the last word, it also recalls the words from Stephen Covey’s Habit #2 from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” “Begin With the End in Mind.”

That said, how do know when your efforts are actually starting to bear some fruit?

With the approach of Spring, we can see the amount of daylight increasing, the trees beginning to bud, and birds returning to the area with their singing in the morning. Similarly, there are signs you can watch for which demonstrate your development efforts are starting to have an effect.

About 15 years ago, I saw these signs emerging in an organization that I started to move toward development a couple of years before that. At that time, the organization had $10,000 in their checking account, which was not enough to provide effective cash flow, and certainly not enough to take the students involved in the program on a planned trip to Orlando, Florida the following year – something the group did every three years.  The amount in that checking account should have been about $90,000 to make that happen.  Unfortunately, the Great Recession of 2008, along with changes in board members, changes in directors, escalating program costs and a declining membership led to some intense meetings and difficult decisions to move the program forward with a development approach rather than increasing the amount of “already too many” fundraisers.

When I left the organization 12 years ago (three years later), the monthly financial report at the organization’s board meetings reported a monthly account balance of somewhere around $85,000 – even during the difficult economic times experienced at that time. That’s a nice turnaround!

Unfortunately, many of those constructs deteriorated as new leadership was elected, engagement waned, and development efforts reverted back to fundraising.

About 6 years ago, I attended one of the meetings, and the heard the financial report.  The balance in the checking account stunned me.  It was around $20,000.  Those hearing the report reacted with nodding heads.  Why?  Because that number sounds great to people not used to working with the funds necessary to run an organization effectively.  Wouldn’t every household like to have $20,000 in their checking account?  Sure!  But when the organization needs about $50,000 to handle bills that come due at a time of the year when there is no regular revenue (perhaps just like your school during the summer months), then that’s a problem.  Unfortunately, there was no report that provided details for an “on budget” performance metric.  Only totals were given to the membership, and the only ones who see the figures and the causes behind them are the board members.  Membership usually only sees a fraction of the whole picture, yet experiences the effects.

In 2009, my wife and I started a fund to help students in our local public high school band and orchestra program who want to take private music lessons, but have financial need. Once we left the program mentioned above, we turned the fund into a fully-fledged non-profit organization with an all-volunteer membership.   A few years after that, an alumnus from the organization made a gift of $1,000 due to the successes the program has had, and hopes his gift will help to foster the continued successes of the organization. Nine years ago, a foundation made its first gift of $5,000 to the program, and has renewed their support every year since!  Last year, another foundation contributed an additional $5,000 grant to the organization.

THAT’s engagement!

When I first wrote this article, I had discovered the 3 M’s of Development – Mentality, Mechanics, and Meshing.  Giving further validity to my “3 leads to 4 leads to 5” theory of systems thinking, there are indeed 2 more M’s – Metrics and Manifestation – which complete the system.

Mentality – What if an organization would like to purchase a couple of items that cost several thousand dollars each? The usual response is, “What kind of fundraiser we can do to raise funds for this?” You’ll know that the “mentality” is starting to change if someone asks, “Could we get a couple of bids so that we can have a definite cost? We might be able to approach an organization, foundation or individual to make a major gift to cover it.” Further, when someone in the group says this rather than it coming from the board leadership, that’s a good sign that the mentality of development is starting to become “sticky” within the organization’s membership, and not just resonate with its leadership.

Mechanics – When acknowledgement letters are prepared to send to donors to the Annual Alumni Appeal, and someone from the group asks why the #10 envelopes were handwritten rather than being “official-looking” with the organization’s logo on the envelope, the members of the group are getting the message. Sure, you can write a thank you note, but a thank you note doesn’t go in a #10 envelope. Those are official mailings, and need to have the organization’s logo and printed address labels. This is why development needs an expense line in addition to an income line on the school’s budget. As in all things, you have to spend money to make money. In business, you have to give value before people or businesses will value you, your company or your services enough to buy them and generate revenue.

Fundraisers don’t do that – they’re expected to bring in enough money to cover the expenses, and then the net overage is entered into the fundraising income line. The problem with that kind of thinking is there is no record within a budget to see how much an event costs in terms of money and expense, and many times, the demographics of those participating in a fundraiser are not kept to make next year’s fundraiser easier, and many folks simply reinvent the wheel every year. If your school has a fundraising dinner, a car raffle and a golf outing (since folks need to register for those) but no annual appeal, grantwriting, major gift solicitation or planned giving happening (where you can contact those people who participated in the fundraising dinner, car raffle and golf outing), you’re still fundraising.

Meshing – A more visual word for “engagement” of individuals. Several years ago, one of the founding members of the organization I described that went from $10,000 to $85,000 in the bank passed away, and her family requested that donations be made to the organization. The membership received the news with sadness, and sent condolences, but also decided to use those contributions toward a purchase that the organization was considering to memorialize her influence on the organization.

Metrics – Tracking and measurement are important.  No, let me restate that…incredibly important!  I recently spoke with a Development Director at a school who is spending a ton of time setting up their database, and felt a little guilty about not being able to spend more time meeting with people and sharing the successes of the organization.  And that’s great!  There’s always a ton of front-end set up time involved in any major project, and it’s only when things are well in place that the machinery can be tweaked and oiled to make it run great.  Otherwise, there will be lots of stops and starts along the way.  As one company put it, with the capability’s of today’s technology, success is the equivalent of counting cards and not simply gambling.  Notice, however, that tracking is not enough.  As described above, results must be compared to a benchmark, a goal, a budget milestone or a previous year’s results, as well as metrics from 3 and 5 years ago.  Then, and only then, is there meaning within the metrics.

But even though metrics are incredibly important, the real importance is what is done with them.  If they’re just used to report data to the board, that’s simply analysis.  The analysis MUST provide the rationale for action.  For instance, if you’re tracking yearly contributions, and discover that fewer and fewer people are giving more and more money, that’s great from a revenue standpoint, but not from an engagement standpoint, since bad things will happen if those people stop giving money.  If more and more people are giving fewer and fewer dollars, there’s a chance that revenue totals total might remain static.  And just like a school that is excited that their enrollment has stabilized, that’s not the end of the rainbow -it’s just the start.  It does the organization no good at all simply to meticulously track metrics and then do nothing to create a plan to act on them.

Manifestation – Okay, it would have been very easy to say that “Money” is the 5th M.  But meaningful and deepening engagement of individuals in your school’s mission must lead somewhere.  Note that you can have the right mentality, a handle on the mechanics, the meshing of all the elements and the tools to measure the meticulous analysis of each donor, campaign and appeal, but if there is not an increase in time/talent/treasure support as well as in the number of involved individuals, then that’s not development…that’s shrink.  The whole process is called advancement…not regression.

One more thing to mention about development – the work really doesn’t “get easier” as you move forward. Sure, mechanisms are put into place, and the once something happens (such as a special event), then the “template” can been created. However, the mailing list expands; business that contribute have contacts that change; venues must be sought out because last year’s was just too small and people had to be turned away. While these are great signposts that the organization is shifting from fundraising toward development, there’s always more development work to be done when the organization experiences growth.  If you’re a parent, then you’re familiar with the phrase, “Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.”  The same holds true for your school…even though you may think that your little school has big problems.

Then, there are projects which other members of the organization will try to say fall within the purview of development – just because it involves writing a thank you note, because it’s reaching out into the community, or because nobody else wants to do it! The Development Director needs to be aware of those things, since doing all the work that really isn’t development will cause burnout in a very short period of time. That’s where the role of development is put to the test, and where a Development Director needs to know what his or her job is all about. Box Tops for Education? Nope. That’s Fundraising. Why? A parent has to buy a box of cereal first. Visiting with an alum who drove past the school and would like to make a major gift to provide a facelift for the area surrounding the entrance? Yes – THAT is Development.

Want another delineation? If if happens inside the school, it’s usually fundraising. The spaghetti dinner in the cafeteria, the spare change collection from the students that pits classroom against classroom, or the candy sale requiring the coordination of candy pick up since it’s delivered to the school and parents need to pick it up and turn the money in. That’s fundraising. Development work happens outside the school – meeting with donors for coffee, networking with community organizations, and negotiating contracts for a concert at a local theatrical venue. If you’re a Development Director, and you’re spending more than 50% of the week inside the school, you’re probably working on fundraising, and not necessarily real and meaningful development.  Moreover, if you’re a school administrator, and you require your Development Director to “punch in and out” every day, and have them working on “other duties as assigned” which require him or her to be in the school for more than 50% of the week, that person is going to burn out – and FAST!

Keep this in mind – the average length of time for “burnout” of a Development Director to occur is 18 months, precisely because he or she becomes the “catch-all” for activities that can’t be otherwise categorized. That’s unfortunate, because a development mentality will see fiscal results 3 to 5 years down the road. If a Development Director leaves an organization, and doesn’t have the opportunity to “handoff” the relationships developed to the person coming in, then the relationships have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Educational leaders need to realize that changing a Development Director before they’ve had time to develop relationships doesn’t mean income will increase…in fact, it may decrease until the relationships are built up again.

Even Scripture recognizes that development requires at least three or more years to bear fruit.  Your assignment: read the parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2023