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Leadership Matters

November 12, 2015

A Change in Fundraising Leadership: How to Prepare for the Inevitable

By Leyna Bernstein

While it is not difficult to find articles and entire books written about executive director succession and transition planning, most organizations will more frequently face a change in top fundraising leadership than in the CEO slot. We all know the gruesome facts: the average turnover rate for fundraising staff is 16 months according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The average direct and indirect cost of finding a replacement is $127,650.* The question is not IF your Director of Development will leave, but HOW you can be prepared for this inevitable transition.
Here are some practical steps you can take now to lessen the impact on your organization from a change in fundraising leadership.

1.Have a plan: You should have a written, multi-year development plan tied to your strategic plan or long-term goals. The plan should include strategies for each area of fundraising (annual fund, events, major gifts, institutional, corporate) with calendars, tactics, and clear accountabilities. Your senior management team, board members and all members of your fund development team should be familiar with the plan and know what role they play in its execution. Your development reports should be specifically tied to this plan.

2.Use your systems: Having a database doesn’t ensure institutional memory.  Robert Weiner, fundraising technology consultant, often encounters problems in the transition between Chief Development Officers. “I encounter problems when the prior CDO has had a custom system built, or really didn’t use or care about the database.  I also see lots of organizations that have a donor database, but where the CDO does all her tracking in Excel.” Ensure that your database is being used systematically and consistently to track all activities related to donors, funders and events.

3.Share the Love: Chief Development Officers often develop in depth understanding of their major donors and the nuances of how to keep each donor engaged and inspired.  All too often, this knowledge – which can’t typically be summarized in database fields – is not shared with other staff and volunteers on a regular basis.”  Ensure that your significant donors have relationships with more than one member of your board and staff. Don’t let your CDO leave holding all the relationship cards.

4.Build Bench Strength: Your annual fund development budget should include a line for professional development, and not just for your Development Director. The best development leaders continually groom staff for more responsibility and provide skill development opportunities. Hold your chief development officer accountable for developing the skills and talents of her staff.

5.In Case of Emergency: Prepare an emergency succession plan. There is no better way to identify your vulnerabilities than to develop a plan for dealing with the unexpected departure or absence of your Development Director. Theresa Nelson, an experienced interim Development Director, suggests creating a transition binder containing all the key information that your Director of Development would want were she new on the job, and updating it annually.

*Stephen K. Orr, Inside Philanthropy

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