Hiring a Fundraiser

Hiring a Fundraiser


23 February 2021


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I know several organizations looking to replace development staff who have moved on. Several others are considering hiring new development positions. And a couple are looking to hire their first fundraising staff. Seems like a good time to revisit some basic premises and assumptions about hiring fundraisers.

Let’s start with some survey facts from the Association of Fundraising Professionals:

  • The average tenure for a Development Officer at an organization is 18-20 months and has been for more than a decade.
  • The median salary for a Development Officer is $69K; $62K for environmental organizations


That’s a lot of money to risk for someone who might not last in the position very long. For non-profit organizations, there are two positions for which demand significantly exceeds supply, development and information tech. What this means is that young professionals in either of these fields can stay with an organization for years, receiving annual merit raises of 2-4 percent per year and doubling their initial salary, say, in 20-25 years, or they can job hop every 12-24 months and double their salary in 6-8 years.

If you think about this too long, it drives you crazy. It takes a full year for a new Development Director to really get a good feel for an organization, perhaps even longer for land trusts because of the internal complexity of the work. It may take as much as another year or two before a good DoD really starts hitting on all cylinders. After a three-year investment, the organization would certainly hope to get three-to five years of decent productivity out of the position. It doesn’t help if they leave after two years.


More bad news: Few tenured Development Directors would consider directing the fundraising for a land trust a stepping stone on their ideal career path. I have seen several organizations hire a seasoned development professional only to be jilted six months later when that person spied a more attractive job opening elsewhere.


So what do we do? Here are six general principles:


You may not need a Director. It sounds trivial to say, but you should avoid hiring a Director of Development or a Major Gifts Officer and then saddle them with managing the database and sending out renewal notices and appeal letters. Those activities are getting done now, presumably, and the assumption that a new staff person will relieve you from the burden is not realistic – First, because they won’t be doing what they signed on for, and second, because they won’t have an opportunity to add real value. Their salary will just be deducted from the money you were raising anyway. (See also Three Different Jobs for Development Staff.) If you need help now managing the database and sending out renewal notices and appeal letters, hire a Development Manager or Development Coordinator instead.

Take the time to be picky. Have a clear search image in mind before you start the hiring process, and understand up front that it may take months to find the right person. More importantly, be prepared to throw the whole lot out and start the search over if the right candidate isn’t there to begin with.

Prioritize commitment to mission. The most important driver of dedication and longevity in the position is a deeply rooted commitment to your mission. Hiring passion and training for skills is easier and more reliable than hiring skills and experience and expecting the candidate to fall in love with you. Look for demonstrable evidence. Ask questions that will reveal candidates’ values related to the work your organization does.

Look at who’s working for other organizations. Let’s face it – the job market for fundraisers is HOT. The best candidates for your job are probably already employed, and if a fundraiser is unemployed right now, there’s probably a reason. One of the best fundraisers I ever hired was a sales rep from a graphic design company we used. So look at who’s working for other organizations, and particularly those with similar missions. I’m not talking about just other fundraisers. Look at overqualified support positions and interns, too.

Hire talent over experience. Remember that much of the work of a good Development Director is behind the scenes; in the words of Kim Klein, to oversee fundraising, rather than to actually raise money. The successful candidate will be able to quickly gain the confidence of the Executive Director and the Board Directors and will be someone they will follow through the annual fundraising activities. In this sense, good people skills and listening skills, the ability to create and manage systems, and overall attention to detail are more important qualities than prior experience with fundraising work. According to Kim Klein, “any job requiring self-motivation, good organizational skills, and planning and working with diverse groups” will show skills related to fundraising.

Invest in training. Assuming you do end up hiring someone with little or no fundraising experience, make sure they get adequate training right away and throughout their first few years on the job. Rally is a good venue, as well as LTA’s more regional training conferences. Got some software that is unfamiliar at first? Pay for your new hire to travel to a different land trust using the same software program to shadow someone there. AFP also offers regional and national training sessions. If you have the right candidate, this expenditure will be well worth the investment.


Keep in mind that most organizations will raise more money if they recruit new donors and if they raise more money from the donors they have. These are two different positions – Marketing and donor development – and require two different sets of skills. Trying to hire one person to do both is begging for one of those jobs not getting done.

The position that will make the biggest difference for your bottom line is the donor development position – a Major Gift Officer engaged in major gift fundraising. How big? That depends on what they’re starting with and will vary widely organization to organization. But here’s how I answered the question recently for a former client:

My favorite formula is to set aside two years of funding for the position and trust that you won’t need that much. Have the new person start in late summer or early fall and have a portfolio ready for them of 300-400 prospects that they will qualify right away down to a more realistic 80-100. Fall giving provides a great opportunity for the new person to get to know their portfolio by saying Thank you right away. You would not have any revenue expectations that first year.

Based on their experience over the first six months, they would propose their own revenue goal for year 2, with management’s caveat that it should be at least as much as what these same donors gave in year one PLUS an amount equal to the cost of their staff position. By their fifth year, they should be raising 3-5 times that amount. Every fifth-year MGO should have annual revenue goals for each of the donors in their portfolio, a calendar of planned “moves” or cultivation/engagement “touches”, and a cash-flow projection for money raised each month. If that planning work does not project revenue at least in the $500,000/year range (for an experienced MGO), they probably have more work to do.



Got a good story (or horror story) about hiring? Advice? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Noel Bauza courtesy of Pixabay.



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  • David Lillard
    Posted at 12:27h, 23 February

    I cannot believe I got this information FREE! Thanks, as always…

  • Judy
    Posted at 10:30h, 23 February

    Totally agree. Free up the ED and some other staff who are good at listening and connecting around shared values and vision.

  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 08:53h, 23 February

    Interesting and timely. I was thinking DoD, now I’m not so sure that’s what I need. Thank you!