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  • Marty Zimmerman

Development Staff: An Endangered Species Pt. 1

The history of fundraising and development staffing


After 22 years of working in the nonprofit sector, I have seen my fair share of excellent mentors, leaders and development professionals. However, since 2008, the environment has significantly changed for development professionals. There are three positions that are getting harder and harder to find: excellent Development Directors, events people, and Grant Writers.

What do you do if you want to save the world? In the 1960's and 1970's in Colorado, the answer was to create a nonprofit. Colorado was lucky to have so many visionaries who believed in making a difference by helping the disadvantaged, promoting equity and fairness, and making a difference. These Baby Boomers started numerous organizations and had a profound impact on Colorado and even the nation. For example, the advocacy of local organizations in the disabilities world led to accessible public transportation across the country and to key components of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Following their lead, hundreds and then thousands of nonprofits were created in Colorado. As of today, there are over 30,000 nonprofits that are registered with the Colorado Secretary of State.

The nonprofit Baby Boomers worked very hard and used their relationships to successfully raise money and also extensively utilized volunteers to raise funds. By the 2000's, the winds of change began blowing. Gen X-ers came of age in the market, wanting to save the world but also desiring a work-life balance. This was virtually impossible for Development Directors, who were responsible for raising tremendous amounts of money. Maintaining a balance became even more difficult due to the advent of the cell phone—everyone became constantly on-call.

The nonprofit Baby Boomers’ retirement years began to loom, and they pushed to secure their legacies by fundraising as much as possible. Volunteer mindsets began to shift, as most volunteers hate the idea of asking for money. Executive Directors (EDs) and Boards of Directors pressured Development Directors to solicit more donors and do it more often. All of these pressures created unrealistic expectations, causing Gen X Development Directors to leave nonprofits for other opportunities.

The economic downturn in 2008 temporarily minimized the mobility trend, as nonprofits had lower rates of hiring. But as soon as the economy improved, hiring restarted and there was a mass exodus of qualified nonprofit staff leaving for jobs with more pay and better work-life balance. Meanwhile, the unrealistic expectations of Baby Boomer EDs and their Boards continue while many promising younger development staff continue to leave the nonprofit fundraising sector.

To blame nonprofit Baby Boomers for our current situation is neither fair nor accurate. Their fundraising expectations are only a piece of this larger staffing puzzle. The entire nonprofit sector has fallen victim to the basic economics of supply and demand.

This is the first post in a five-part blog series that explains the cracks in personnel systems of nonprofits and how to address the lack of qualified, long-term development staff.

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