Development Committee Makeover

Development Committee Makeover

I had a great time in Pennsylvania last weekend presenting at the Pennsylvania Land Conservation Conference. One of the sessions I presented was called Secrets of High-Functioning Development Committees.

I had originally envisioned this as a Rally session featuring a cast of actors who would play the parts of the Development Committee members interacting with each other and with development staff in a meeting. The main idea was that we would roleplay the committee meeting, playing it as straight as possible so that it would be essentially familiar to most people. A PowerPoint running in the background would flash back and forth between the agenda and the notes being kept.

Then we would talk about it, introducing several key concepts that are probably missing from most people’s experience. And then, using the same essential agenda, we would roleplay a second committee meeting, putting the basic concepts into play. In the future, I want to call this Development Committee Makeover instead.

When I first proposed it as a Rally presentation several years ago, it was not accepted, and it wasn’t until last month that I really used the material at all. Instead of using actors, I introduced photos of a cast on the PowerPoint and narrated the proceedings instead. It was great fun and seemed to be well-received. In any case, here are the five essential lessons the Development Committee Makeover was intended to portray:

  1. Development Committee CONTENT should be about donors, not activities.
    What does that mean? It means that 90% of fundraising is about building relationships with donors. If you’re not talking about donors, you’re not doing your job.

    • How can we get to meet him/her?
    • Who will make the phone call to get us started?
    • How do we learn what’s most important to him/her?
    • What’s the next step?
    • What’s the next step?
    • What’s the next step?
  2. Development Committee PROCESS should be about BOARD-DONOR interactions, not staff reporting.
    Development Committee meetings should not revolve around what the staff has done. To put it bluntly, development staff are already accountable to their Executive Director; this is not the time or the place to have their work second-guessed. Instead, the meetings should focus on what the board members have done and what they are doing now. They should revolve around sequencing (figuring out what to do first and beginning to put the next few steps together), troubleshooting (helping each other when things don’t go as planned), and accountability (did you do what you said you would?). Staff reports can and should be written and minimized. If you don’t have staff, the principles still hold. Membership renewals, event plans and reports, grant requests out – all these items can be captured in a written report. Unless there are specific decisions to be made, discussion about them can be minimized. When decisions need to be made, make them quickly and move on.
  3. Leave each meeting having listed the tasks each committee member agreed to do.
    The list of “somethings” is all the minutes you will need. This list becomes the agenda for the next meeting.
  4. Staff members should not be put in positions where they are complimenting the work of board members.
    It’s like needing to compliment your boss. Board members should compliment board members (and should compliment staff as well). This is a subtle shift, but one that will have profound implications for board member productivity.
  5. Pair up for accountability.
    Each person on the board should be answerable to a specific member of the development committee, even other development committee members. When we are each responsible to a specific person for reporting on our developing relationships with donors, we are more likely to maintain the momentum of cultivation. Pairing up is especially important for new board members.

For most organizations these practices will be paradigm shifts. Be patient with each other. You’ll need to have someone – a board champion – to help the group stay on course, but the change itself may not be quickly won.

Share your stories here, or send them to me at I look forward to hearing of your success.


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  • David Allen
    Posted at 14:57h, 07 May

    George, you got it! Keep in mind that the systems in place were designed (or at least evolved) to support the status quo. To change the status quo, you’ll have to change some of the systems as well. Look at the systems you have that support committee discussions about activities instead of donors, and staff work instead of board work. For example, who sends out the agendas? Who takes minutes, and what gets recorded?

    Thanks for writing!


  • George Asimos
    Posted at 10:26h, 07 May

    David, the role playing was a great tool. It illustrated, painfully I might add, the real problem in board/staff management as regards development. Board avoids what it does not enjoy (asking for money), staff steps in to fill the void of leadership, staff cannot hold the board accountable and does not have the benefit of the board’s relationships, development fails to achieve. So the key is, make it enjoyable (board builds relationships but does not “ask”), board holds itself accountable, staff provides support and “asks”, plan succeeds. See, I was listening!

  • Jennifer Shuey
    Posted at 07:49h, 06 May

    This workshop was exceptional. Thanks for all of the great advice, David, and for sharing the message in such a compelling way.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 08:50h, 06 May

      Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. I hope it was valuable, and I’m looking forward to hearing stories of your success in the future. Please do stay in touch. Cheers, -da