Regarding Development Directors

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 17:45

Anyone assuming the entrepreneurial leadership of a new venture de facto dons the sometimes weighty mantle of relentless positivism, no matter the circumstances, even when conditions feel strenuous or look bleak. Building financial and community support places the person who starts a project in the prime cheerleader role with never a gloomy public moment permitted. Sometimes project leaders want to transfer this awesome responsibility elsewhere, often onto a person named the “development director.”

If a project has the growth success to afford one, a development director can do many things well. Typically these duties include organizing an overall resource acquisition strategy, helping translate potential donor interest into gifts and volunteer service to the effort, and laying the groundwork – like setting up meetings – for the project’s principal cheerleader to rally and inspire others. Good development directors know how to recognize and capitalize on relationships project leaders develop and how to pull potential relationships closer into the project orbit. They might even convert those folks closest to the center of that orbit into advisors and the nucleus of a permanent board of directors.

"When we see these signs, we urge project leaders to take a breath, step back and look around at who they have brought to the team to help them."

— Paul Vandeventer, President & CEO, Community Partners

Most of the time, however, the project leader plays the development director role for a good long time. And even with a skilled development director on staff, the project leader must continue to use charm and persuasion to draw from others – to the benefit of the project and the people the project serves – the same passionate commitment that animated them to start the project in the first place. Our experience with project funders and supporters time and time again indicates they want a direct relationship with an inspired, energetic and capable leader, not a substitute.

A sign we’ve occasionally seen indicating potential project peril can arise when a long-time project leader begins expressing frustration at a dearth of donor interest and wants a development director to relieve them of the task. We grow concerned about the potential spill-over effects of that frustration on project staff, donors and friends. We’ve seen this sort of frustration cascade and precipitate an inadvertent blow-up that alienates important supporters.

When we see these signs, we urge project leaders to take a breath, step back and look around at who they have brought to the team to help them. Generally they’ve neglected to form and adequately nurture a strong and growing core of partner-advisors. We urge project leaders facing this dilemma to reclaim the project’s development strategy as their own and to re-double their efforts to build a voluntary base of people willing to steady them and flank their inevitable weaknesses. For some, this required relationship-building is second nature and our guidance comes as a welcome “aha!” To others, pulling the right people close with grace, lighting up their civic spirits and causing them to place their reach and prestige in service to the project may forever pose a challenge.