The Development Director – A “Cursed” Position?

“You see, we have not been able to keep a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor for more than a year since I refused the post to Lord Voldemort.” —Albus Dumbledore

Have you ever wondered about that one position in your organization that seems to be a portal of sorts, depositing new faces into the office at a mildly alarming pace?  Hmm. Why doesn’t any one person seem to hold it for very long?  Why is that the only door in the office without a nameplate? What departmental antics could possible result in these once fresh-faced hires briskly stepping out the door one day never to return, nor be spoken of again?

In the Harry Potter series, a position at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is supposedly cursed by the evil wizard Lord Voldemort after he was passed over for the post. Those who hold it do so only briefly, all leaving (some more permanently than others) by the end of the term year.  In J.K. Rowling’s tale, that position is the Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA) professor.  In the nonprofit sector, it’s the development director.

Ok, the comparison may be a bit of a stretch, but surely I am not the first to see the connection?  Actually, considering the findings of a study (a joint venture between CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund) that pinpoints some disturbing trends in development comings and goings, there may be more similarities between the DD’s and the DADA’s  than not.  The report, UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, identifies 3 hefty issues around securing and retaining development professionals,

  • Turnover.  Sadly, a high turnover rate is the rule rather than the exception in development.  The average period of time a fundraiser holds a position is 16 months, not too much longer than the tenure of our fictitious DADA instructors.  Unlike the professors, however, fundraisers tend to leave for salary and promotion concerns rather than because they are a werewolf or have a cell awaiting them at Azkaban prison. Thank goodness for that.
  • Poor credentials or just a bad “fit”.   Finding qualified, experienced candidates is not an easy task. Professor Gilderoy Lockhart shamelessly padded his wizardry skills to get the DADA gig (he ended up irreparably wiping out his memory due his lack of expertise – imagine your insurance provider’s response to that claim).  A more likely scenario for a nonprofit –  your dream development director’s resume of degrees, skills and accomplishments does not translate into similar outcomes at your nonprofit.  Where was the disconnect?
  •  A lack of organization capacity and culture to achieve fundraising goals. The study found that 20% of nonprofits don’t even have a donor database. What? It’s 2013! Even the ill-fated professors had both cultural and systemic supports in place at Hogwarts. If nonprofit executives welcome their new development directors with a tour that ends with the equivalent of “Here is your office, we’ll be expecting  your  plan tomorrow and a full turnaround by next Tuesday,” well, is anyone surprised at the turnover rate?

Obviously the development director position isn’t really cursed, but it certainly has a set of challenges unique from others in nonprofit management.   It may even be the most difficult position for a nonprofit to successfully fill. Why is that and can that reality be changed?   

Women in Nonprofit Leadership Positions – Fewer Than We Think?

 The Women’s College of The University of Denver recently released preview data from the upcoming second edition of the study Benchmarking Women’s Leadership indicating little to no growth of women in senior leadership positions in the United States since the 2009 study.  Among sectors included in the release were the government/political arena and nonprofits, both areas which are considered more likely to have an equal gender split, if not  more women, in their workforce.

In the government sector, women make up over ¼ of executive leadership positions, while among nonprofits, they account for 21 percent in organizations with annual budgets of over $25 million. Social entrepreneurship appears to be a niche where women-led enterprises are thriving in significant numbers, although women lag behind their male counterparts in the entrepreneurship sector overall.  Despite evidence that many female entrepreneurs are excelling at startups, and that 20 percent of the top entrepreneurs of 2011 were women, they receive just 11 percent of available startup capital.

The complete results from the second edition of Benchmarking Women’s Leadership study will be released in spring of 2013.

The gender gap in advancement isn’t exactly news, but in the nonprofit sector, where the majority of the employees are women, why are so few reaching the top tier of management?

Implementing, Modeling and Managing a Measurement Culture

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, the nonprofit social services sector – from mental health clinics to food banks – will still be challenged to meet an increased need with fewer resources and limited funding.  Savvy nonprofits have already moved toward an evaluation culture, embracing logic models and short-and-long term impact data to illustrate why (and how) their programs work. Organizational innovation and unique program accomplishments are practically prerequisites for making a successful connection with alternate funding sources, including corporate partnerships, yet nonprofits are still struggling to identify and quantify their impact on clients, the community, and the overall condition they work to modify.  Performance measurement, logic model and outcomes are not new or faddish terms, so why the hesitation?

The report, Tough Times, Creative Measures: What Will it Take to Help the Social Sector Embrace an Outcomes Culture? from the Urban Institute, came out of a Fall 2011 event that brought together leaders from the government, nonprofit, philanthropy, and business sectors to discuss the issue of data-driven management in social and human services and the challenges related to successfully utilizing a performance management system.  Some of the challenges identified:

The difficulty of turning away from the organization’s immediate needs to plan and implement a measurement system. No matter how small the agency, the demands on the executive director’s time and talent are immense. Writing up an organization-wide evaluation strategy and implementation plan, including models, indicators, instruments, and data collection plans is an enormous amount of work – and I haven’t mentioned the pilot testing, analysis and reporting aspects.  The role of director should be to communicate progress and needs with the board as they guide the agency through this kind of culture change, not create every step of the process.

The reality that  sometimes the best outcomes may not be rewarded.  Conspiracy theories and snarky excuses aside, well-crafted stories, high profile connections and nonprofits with missions or target audiences that are more interesting or appealing than your own may have an easier time selling their effectiveness. That said, incomplete or inaccurate information on program impact won’t help remedy the situation.

Some nonprofits may be waiting for the trends to flip and the tides to turn. Why move heaven and earth within your organization to embrace a culture that may seem like a phase (especially to long-time employees who have seen edicts from funders come and go).   Buy-in for outcomes tracking and reporting  may be based on acceptance of the  hoop-jumping norms, not the real value of performance measurement to the overall health of the organization.  It is time for boards and directors to be brave and commit to an organizational culture change – but be prepared to illustrate how it will be  beneficial for staff and (more importantly) clients.

In response to these and other impediments, I mean realities,  the symposium attendees identified strategic areas that would have the most impact in encouraging and implementing a data-centered culture: human and financial capital –  the tenacity and the tab, creative advocacy – sector giants to back this shift,  and ready-to-use systems and tools so directors don’t have to start from square one.  How can nonprofit leaders better model and manage  a measurement culture?   Why are some nonprofits hesitant to embrace this shift? 



Nonprofits and the Gig Economy

Since the economic downturn, much has been written about the demise of the “long-job” (like in the ancient days of the 1970’s when people worked at the same company for a couple of decades or more) and the rise of the gig economy; a freelance, free-floating maze of projects, social media promotion and leveraging almost everyone you ever met at a conference.

Possible factors for the increased popularity of the freelancing lifestyle (or a side hustle plus your day job)  are the recession and related layoffs or “re-organizations” and the ideals of Millennials, namely, purposefully employment with lots of freedom, a job far from cubicle walls and the end to the traditional workday.  They don’t plan to toil in abject misery for 40-plus years, and why should they? They are already reeling from the economy with nearly a quarter of them living with their parents while still believing in a brighter financial future.  Success for them will look much different than that of their Boomer parents, but their adaptability to a shrinking employment sector through near-constant skill acquisition and the ability to effortlessly slide into a spot on a new team around a new table will ensure that they do indeed experience success.

Nonprofit employment data from the 2010 Nonprofit Retention and Vacancy Report from Opportunity Knocks illustrate the serious  impact of the economy on the nonprofit workforce as layoff or termination from a nonprofit organization rose from 28% in 2008 to 36% in 2010.  Also in 2010, just under 20% of nonprofit employees reported leaving their jobs voluntarily after less than one year despite the bleak economic picture. The majority of those persons went to work at another nonprofit. According to the  2012 Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey from Nonprofit HR Solutions , 43% of participating nonprofits plan to hire in 2012 (up from 34 in 2010), but only 25% have a formal employee retention strategy.  Might such data indicate organizational gaps, not a general sector weakness in retention of a qualified workforce?  Is it also possible that this is somewhat related to the growing acceptance of the gig economy and the end of the myth about having “too many jobs on your resume?” While the lack of financial security, benefits and camaraderie – unless you are lucky enough to work with a collaborative with other freelancers – are serious drawbacks (trust me on this)  to the gig lifestyle, there is something to be said about finding or creating the right job for you rather than relying on someone else to do so.

I think that it’s too soon to determine if the gig economy was a response to an unprecedented economic decline or a major shift in the workforce status quo, or a little bit of both.  But is it really just a Millennial thing?  I know Boomers who reinvented themselves via the gig economy and a member of Generation X who is now the Executive Director of the organization she has been a part of for over 20 years  (although the plural of anecdote is not necessarily data).  With a still-volatile economic outlook, will the next decade see a strengthening of the trend away from a centralized employment structure and back to the mobile offices of the skilled, client-juggling freelancers?

Are you a current or former nonprofit professional now part of the gig-based economy?  Would you return to a nonprofit organization on a full-time basis and give up your gigs? Why/why not?