5 Contingency Plans for When Hiring a New Fundraiser Has Stalled

It’s a recurring problem for many development shops – you have an open senior fundraising position, either newly vacated or newly created, and, after publically posting the position, you have little to no response and/or the group of applicants is not what you wanted. Your hiring process has stalled. More often than not this happens most acutely when your office is in desperate need of filling the position and there is an urgency to find the right person. Now you are stuck putting off other important work so that you can find the right person for this job, delaying work timelines, lowering your fundraising results, and adding more stress to your already heavy load.

stressed guy

This guy is thinking about reviewing the third round of applicants.

So – what do you do next? Here are 5 contingency plans to consider.

Plan BRevising the Job Description and Re-posting

We’ve already touched on the importance of an institution appealing to top performers rather than relying on a high quality applicant pool. A good first step is to review the what and where of your first job posting.  Is it a copy-paste from your institution’s template or does it emphasize the appeal of working in your office? Does it only list responsibilities and task work or is there language on the importance of the position and growth opportunities? If you read the job post as a 3rd party would it appeal to you? Few development shops can simply rely on their institution’s reputation to attract talent; a strong job post accounts for that and uses clear objectives, goals, and benefits to help close the gap.

Additionally, over the past several years the fundraising sector has seen large title inflation. Someone with 5-10 years of frontline fundraising experience could be labeled as anything from a Development Officer to a Major Gift Officer to a Director of Development to a Sr Development Associate to a Sr Capital Projects Manager, etc. (the list goes on and on and on). Do you have the right title for the level of fundraiser you are trying to attract? If you cannot change the title of the open position then it is imperative to have a very clear outline of its seniority  at the beginning of your post. Job posts are easily overlooked if potential applicants do not understand whether or not their background is applicable to the position.

One final component of Plan B is to make sure that you have posted the position in the right locations. The idea is to get as many potential candidates to see the post as possible. Go beyond the careers section of your webpage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pay to post on the big sites (Careers.com, Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed, etc.), but you can focus on national sites for non-profit/development (devex, idealist, etc.) or philanthropy-oriented association or publication job boards (AFP, Chronicle of Philanthropy, non-profit times, AHP, etc.). If you have local universities or colleges with strong career services you can also access their alumni through their job boards.

Plan C: Using Your Office’s Network

We’ve talked about how employee referrals make the strongest new hires. Have you kept in contact with your network in the development field? If you have staff members who would be peers to the open position, then chances are they know other similarly experienced individuals who might be a good fit (if your team does not want to refer anyone then there are likely to be larger problems at hand). Do you work with an external consultant? Many have extensive networks and can at least steer you towards strong individuals who are looking for a change.  If a formal job post is not attracting the candidates you want, try to identify a group of people directly or indirectly connected to your office whose interest you might pique and reach out to them.

Plan D: Contract a Talent Search Firm

With the level of competition for talent in development, especially with regards to senior positions, sometimes the easiest option is to bring on an external firm to manage the recruitment and screening of candidates. While the expense for this plan can be great, bringing on a search firm brings three benefits to the process: it reduces the amount of staff and managerial time devoted to the candidate search, it accesses a pool of candidates that the firm has already screened and knows to be searching for new positions, and it can significantly reduce the length of the position’s vacancy and bring someone on board sooner. There are several companies that focus specifically on fundraising and development and have decades of contacts to reach out to, an advantage you might not otherwise have.

Plan E: Re-evaluate Your Expectations

Sometimes we simply has unrealistic expectations for the positions we have put together.  Perhaps the position really covers too many areas for any one person or the position’s seniority doesn’t match the experience expectations or the offered salary just isn’t competitive. For examply, you need a campaign manager and only want candidates who have at least 10+ years of frontline experience in your field, can boast of experience with major capital campaigns, have managed a senior team in prior positions, and are comfortable in front of boards. Chances are individuals with that level of experience will be looking for a position more senior than “campaign manager.”  You might want a planned giving director with a law degree and 5-10 years of experience, but can only offer a salary of $75k in San Francisco.  That’s going to be hard to compete with the salaries offered by other institutions and law firms.

If your hiring efforts have consistently had low results then it may be time to re-evaluate your expectations for the position. Ask yourself these questions: What experience is absolutely necessary for this new hire to be successful? Am I offering enough compensation, seniority, benefits, etc. to appeal to the caliber of candidate that I am demanding? Sometimes this can be as simple as boosting the offered salary by $10-20k; other times it can be as complicated as revisiting the responsibilities and creating a new level of leadership that better  reflects a vertical move (rather than simply lateral) for the type of applicant you seek.

Plan F: Re-imagine the Position and Staff Organization

Sometimes, despite your best efforts and outreach, you simply cannot find the right person for the job you created. Maybe your organization is in a small town in Arkansas and you couldn’t entice any candidates with the right experience from the big city. Maybe your institution is still fighting a stint of bad publicity or controversy. Regardless, sometimes the best thing to do is to adapt in the face of the hiring gap. Assume the position can’t be filled by an external candidate. Who internally could step up? If you have a team member with great potential but limited experience look into personal coaching and professional development options to build their capacity and skill sets and increasing support staffing for a new work load.  If your open position required both leadership gift fundraising and program management consider splitting those duties to better match the talent that you do have (it’s extremely hard to find strong fundraisers who can also effectively manage and lead a program).

The longer a senior position is open (especially one critical to the agenda of your institution such as a campaign manager or leadership gifts officer), the more expensive it becomes to fill that position. Meanwhile your team can lose focus and divert time better spent on other activities as you go through yet another round of applications, interviews, and disappointments. It’s better to always have a contingency plan in place (or five).


Something Worth Reading: NonProfit Times “Employee Referrals Gets Jobs Filled, Challenges Keep Them Going”

Having a good work culture can mean the world of difference in so many different facets of a development office. Take, for example, this article (begin on p 4)  from the Nonprofit times. It basically discusses the high value of employee referrals for new hires through highlighting a few members from the NPT top non-profits to work for list for 2013. It should be no surprise that those organization with strong management and communications have higher satisfaction, which, in turn, leads to employee referrals, which, in turn, leads to better hires and a stronger team. It’s a cycle that reinforces itself.

In working with non-profit educational institutions and healthcare centers a type of question that is regularly asked of constituents and donors is “would you recommend this school to your friends?” or “would you refer an acquaintance to this hospital?”. A prospect or donor’s response to that one question will reveal the most about how favorably they view the nonprofit and how engaged they really are. So, why don’t we ask those questions of our staff and fundraisers?


One other area of interest in this recap of the best non-profits to work for is this tidbit:

Training and Development proved the weakest category, across the board, for nonprofits.

Between program management, actual fundraising, keeping a team fully staffed and budgeted, and working with leadership and boards, it is easy to let staff training and development slip as a priority. A strong development office, however, is one that grows, not necessarily in overall staff size, but in capacity, knowledge, expertise, and creativity. While some of that growth can be accomplished on an individual level, the strongest programs know that adequately training new staff and developing the skill sets of existing staff can greatly facilitate real growth and see positive outcomes, both in development office performance as well as job satisfaction.

Why finding a new Chief Development Officer/Vice President for Development is so challenging – in one graphic.

CDO hiring




So, when you do finally find someone to lead your fundraising efforts, it’s pretty much like this:

Four qualities of strong potential development officers

In a previous post we discussed how frequently fundraisers do not fall into an even bell curve. It’s very difficult to find and keep those frontline fundraisers who excel and consistently bring in big gifts. A good first step in the process is thinking critically about how to identify a potential star fundraiser in the first place.


There are four consistent, personality-based attributes that make individuals more successful fundraisers:

  • Strong communication skills: from picking up the phone to in person calls to drafting acknowledgement letters to preparing leadership for prospect meetings a fundraiser needs to excel at communication. Think about the sort of person who can talk about almost any topic – the individual who always finds something interesting to say. While communication skills can be taught and improved to a certain extent, those who have a natural inclination will always be a step ahead. Do not underestimate writing skills in this area as well. Written outreach and engagement with prospects will be included in almost any cultivation strategy and a poorly written or impersonal message can do more damage to a relationship and be harder to redress than a stutter in person.
  • Independence: We like to talk about fundraising teams a lot. And, while development operations/advancement service, support staff, and management do provide huge contributions to the fundraising process, much of frontline fundraising is one-on-one. A development officer is frequently the only person in the room with a prospect. Moreover, no matter how many KPIs (key performance indicators) or metrics that a manager might set ultimately it is the DO that controls the management of her fundraising portfolio as well as scheduling and outreach to prospects. Effective fundraisers thus tend to be fairly independent and self-motivated. They should be comfortable with and capable of making strategic decisions while working with prospects without second guessing themselves or choosing inaction. (We can talk later about the fine line between finding independent workers and having to deal with fundraisers who take it too far and “go rogue”).
  • Perceptiveness: The ability to read people and situations can never be underestimated. The entire discovery process is devoted to discovering information about/inclination of a prospect, and fundraisers can expect at least half of those details to come from non-verbal cues (indicators of wealth and interests from home/office decor, comfortable body language, excitement and allusions to interesting projects, etc.). Fundraisers then must be both strong talkers as well as engaged listeners and observers. They should be able to come out of a meeting able to not only recap the conversation that transpired but also estimate the prospect’s reactions to the meeting and have a sense of what would be the most effective next step.
  • Versatility: Meetings with prospects can happen anywhere; the ideal setting is one where the prospect is at ease. Fundraisers must therefore be able to blend in at everything from sports events to hunting lodges to black tie events. This does not just apply to wardrobe. An fundraiser’s ability to adapt to the conversation topics and situations at hand help to create a bond with a prospect as well as demonstrate the value that your organization places on donors’ time and interests. While some content can be taught (understanding high level finance for example is usually vital for principal donors) the best fundraisers are those that can translate such knowledge readily towards enriching interesting conversations and scenarios.

The truth of the matter, however, is that innate ability and personality only gets fundraisers so far. The attributes above must be matched with a certain set of behaviors and management structures in order to create a top performer.  There are many people with all four attributes who never progress beyond being mediocre development officers. In the next posts we will talk about the behavior that sets the best fundraisers apart as well as the structures that encourage accomplishment.



Want to learn more? Part II (Five behaviors of top fundraisers) and Part III(Six best practices top development shops offer to set fundraisers up for success)  are now up!