4 Critical Elements of Managing Development Officers

There are many factors in fundraising, from early engagement to a donor’s ultimate or legacy gift. Some of these factors are environmental and out of your control: the economy, politics, changes in leadership, and pandemics. One critical component is entirely within your control: how you manage your teams and set them up for success.

The human talent component of fundraising is vital to a successful development office. Professional development officers are relationship builders. They spend time cultivating and engaging donors. Blackbaud’s research, however, shows the average time from the first solicitation to a donor’s first gift is four years, yet the average development officer’s term is only 18–24 months. This means that a donor may have two or even three different people from the same organization soliciting them before they finally make a gift. That’s why retaining top officers is so important. Retention saves money by reducing recruiting and training costs and increases income by eliminating relationship disruptions, thus shortening the time between first solicitation and first gift.

In a recent Blackbaud webinar, we discussed four critical elements of managing and retaining development officers: consistency, clarity, accountability, and solidarity.

1. Foster trust through consistency.

Erratic management behavior alienates officers and staff. They are looking for a trustworthy, reliable, and attentive leader. To build that trust, develop a strategic plan and share it regularly with your team. Involve them in the process and create that shared vision together. Spend time with your officers. Become their trusted resource, coach, and advocate. Get back to the human element of what the team does.

Another way to establish consistency is to standardize processes and policies regardless of the team manager. All officers should have similar experiences across the organization and be aligned on how the work gets done. Set portfolio size and distribution standards to level the playing field across teams. If one team has a portfolio of 25 and another has a portfolio of 250, that will erode trust and create confusion. Set criteria for contacts, proposals, planning, and forecasting. Involve your managers in these decisions and get their endorsement so they advocate for these standards within their teams.

2. Clarify roles and responsibilities.

A fundraiser’s job is to raise money for the organization. Development officers should be very clear and unapologetic about that role, especially when establishing relationships with donors. On the first visit, the donor should understand that the meeting is for fundraising purposes. Development officers should use every interaction to meaningfully engage every donor in a movement towards their next gift. It’s the manager’s role to free those officers from other tasks, so they spend time working on their portfolios and raising money rather than writing newsletters, planning events, or visiting donors just to catch up. The most successful organizations are laser-focused on the bottom line.

When hiring fundraisers, look for people who are confident and excited about raising money and who understand the position. Hiring based on experience does not always equate to talent. Be mindful of job hoppers. Research shows that 50% of development officers currently working aren’t meeting goals and expectations and are raising less than $500,000 annually. In some cases, they are not raising enough to pay their salary.

Be clear in how you measure job performance so everyone on your team understands their duties and the expectations around their role. Tailor goals and expectations based on each officer’s role, tenure, experience, and portfolio. A brand-new associate might need to focus more on first-time visits, while a more tenured officer with a more mature portfolio should concentrate on solicitations delivered.

Measure the most important goals that lead to results. Successful organizations create a quantifiable performance evaluation using fundraising software to identify the top 3–4 metrics. For example, you may want to measure total visits, the number of proposals submitted, the dollars raised, and first-time or qualification visits. Clarify how you expect your officers to spend their time and ensure that reporting is up to date and easily accessible for officers and managers to review at any time.

3. Schedule accountability meetings.

How do you ensure that goals have weight and meaning? Schedule regular meetings to review data points with your officers to build accountability. Ensure they understand it’s not about micromanaging or a lack of trust. Accountability meetings keep a pulse on things and maintain open communication. Here is one recommended cadence:

Four Critical Elements of Managing Development Officers

Do not wait for the end of a campaign or fiscal year to have these conversations. Regular reviews ensure your officers are entering their data appropriately and will empower them with the tools and feedback they need to hit their goals. Sharing peer trends and results quarterly with the whole team can also drive performance throughout the year.

While bi-weekly, monthly, and quarterly meetings may focus on goal progress, year-end discussions should focus on each officer’s growth. How can you continue to coach and develop their skills? What are the next steps in their journey? Study after study tells us that the primary reason development officers leave for other organizations is in search of more responsibility and higher salaries. Create opportunities for growth outside management to retain superstar fundraisers while allowing them to do what they love.

4. Establish solidarity within your team.

While mission solidarity is essential, so is curating connections between team members. Remember: a new team is formed every time an officer leaves or a new officer is hired. Be sure to provide opportunities for interaction between leadership, senior officers, and newer talent. Senior officers can help mentor new staff. Encourage collaboration by allowing for joint credit for solicitations and visits. This can create a stronger team and help reduce turnover.

When discussing performance, use goals and progress as an opportunity to coach, not punish. Help create solidarity in your team with agreed-upon metrics. Blackbaud Fundraiser Performance ManagementTM is an analytics tool used in conjunction with your fundraising database. It can help you manage your gift officers and guide you to the data they need to work more efficiently. Fundraiser Performance Management includes predictive models, peer benchmarks, and year-round consulting to improve fundraising results.

Officer Training and Retention Lead to Big Results

Training and retaining top officers are crucial to successful fundraising. According to Blackbaud’s 2021 Higher Education Community Report, departing officers brought in nearly 2.5 times more dollars than first-year officers collected. The longer gift officers stay with your organization—mastering the systems, practices, and relationships associated with the job—the more productive they tend to become.

The most effective development teams have consistency, clarity, accountability, and solidarity within their organizations. Establishing all four takes time and requires attention throughout the year. That hard work pays off when donors recognize the stability and dedication of your team and make more frequent or more significant gifts. To sustain your organization’s mission, it’s imperative to develop human talent and curate a culture of excellence.

Watch Blackbaud’s free webinar, Curating a Culture of Excellence in Development, for more tips on managing a development office.