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How to Grow Your Own Development Associate

The talent market is fierce right now. Searches are taking longer as qualified candidates are snatched up. What if a few phrases on your job description are keeping some of the best prospects away?

Not a week goes by when I don’t receive an email about a development associate job opening with the subject line “Do you know any good candidates?”

The attached job description often includes a lengthy list of qualifications for this junior role, including specifics like managing a database and doing events. Small to mid-sized nonprofits all compete with one another to find and attract someone who can check all these boxes.

It’s not easy.

Of all the things on their wish list, though, the one I most question is the required years of fundraising experience. My advice? Change it to none.

That’s right: I believe that some of the best development associates have not two, not one, but zero years of development experience.

Why? Because over my 25 years in this work, I have come to realize that the best development associates have been homegrown. They can be new to the discipline, and learn on the job within your organization.

It’s not the fundraising background per se that matters. It’s the mindset, the skill set, and the readiness to learn. These raw materials, combined with an organization’s commitment to their growth, can make a novice blossom into a high performer — even a future VP of development.

Where do you find them? It could be a cold hire just out of school. You can also try an internal hire — someone switching to fundraising from programs or human resources. I think paid internship programs for college students within your organization or others are a great way to build a pipeline. Wherever they come from, the point is not to screen out people just because they haven’t churned out two years of annual appeals.

Identifying which ones have what it takes is the first step. Getting the right person on board starts with the job description. Change the emphasis from the technical components and experience on the job to the values, personality, and talents that can truly make a development career take off.

Develop your job description by prioritizing. Here are some to get you started:

  • Relationship-oriented — The fundamental unit of fundraising is the relationship. Candidates who have prioritized people in their lives, and sustained connections with them might be destined for development careers. They have an intuitive sense of people-connecting.

  • Detail-focused — Do they see the typos in restaurant menus before they sit down? They’ll do great proofreading a proposal, correcting the one wrong letter in that name tag, or entering information precisely into a database.

  • A multi-tasker — People who seem to take on more than humanly possible, either at work or in their personal lives—and get it all done anyway—will find fundraising familiar… and thrive at it.

  • A self-starter — When they see something, they do something. They initiate projects, address problems before they grow serious, and point out timelines that might be off.

  • A relentless finisher — Whatever their previous job or studies, their hard work ethic has driven them to learn the job and not give up until they mastered it. They’re not intimidated by an occasional late night if something has to get done.

  • A synchronized swimmer — Development is a team sport, so people who have worked in extremely close partnerships with the people around them, almost reading their minds to anticipate their needs, are going to be great development associates.

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately these qualities don’t necessarily show up in a cover letter and resume. If a candidate hasn’t specifically worked in this field, their interview answers might seem far afield.

So the next step is to build a skills assessment into the interview process.

Too many people skip this step because they have chemistry with an applicant, or they’re dazzled by the prestige of their college. But tasks or simulations are a much better gauge of their abilities than the other components of the process, because they show you if they can actually succeed at the job.

Give candidates a structured set of exercises done under timed circumstances and evaluate how they approach them. Have them sketch out a plan to mount a house party with a board member, from setting a goal to following up. Give them a spreadsheet of donors and ask them for some insights. Ask them to write a letter to a donor who gave an unexpected large gift.

Remember to anonymize each candidate’s answers and circulate the group of responses among colleagues. Have them review and rank the candidates before zeroing in on your final candidates and interviews. Once you have completed the hiring process, don’t make the learning curve steeper than necessary.

Step three: carefully plan their onboarding and training.

Resist the temptation to dump that backlog of to-dos on this person when they walk in! Expecting a newcomer to sink or swim will probably lead to drowning. So be ready to start training them to succeed on day one. Wrap the whole organization around them in their first 30 days, exposing them to all the departments and programs that bring the mission alive.

Provide an intensive level of support with their first assignments, checking in daily to uncover things that your new employee needs to learn. Remember: some of the best learning happens through failure. When the new person makes mistakes, clean up the mess together and focus on the knowledge gained.

If you are thinking, wow, this seems like a big investment for a new hire, you’re right. That’s because a good development associate is worth it. Not only because they play such an instrumental role in an organization’s success, but also because they are well positioned to rise into leadership roles.

If you think it’s hard for non-profits to find promising talent now, the competition is only getting more intense. The field of fundraising is growing more than three times faster than the average occupation in the U.S., according to the this article citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 14,400 new fundraising manager jobs are expected over the next six years. Bringing in a great associate now and keeping them means you won’t have to go to the open market — you can promote from within.

But you shouldn’t even need these statistics to know that retention of high-performing staff is a smart investment. When an employee quits, you lose their historical knowledge of the organization and your donors. If you think keeping your development team happy and thriving is expensive, try restarting this whole process from the beginning.

When your development associate is coming into their own, taking on more responsibilities and becoming more and more indispensable, you will look back at how it all started: with that one line in the job description.

In no time at all, that “zero” will have turned into one year, two years, and an amazing development career. And all that experience will be homegrown.


Not My First Rotary

My daughter ran off the soccer field, triumphant after a come-from-behind victory. She played great, but we both agreed the goalie was the MVP.

“She made some unbelievable saves!” she said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “She really turned the needle!”

You can think of development associates as the MVP of a fundraising team. Just like goalies, development associates can be game-changers — moving the needle and turning the tide for an organization’s bottom line. When it’s time to bring one in, don’t narrow your search based on experience alone. Not when there are so many talented prospects who haven’t yet

been on the field!


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