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).

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: