May 17, 2017

Development Dilemma: Hiring First Fundraising Staff

In our new weekly column, consultants with decades of nonprofit experience answer your questions about fundraising, boards, strategy and more. To ask a question and be featured (anonymously!) in the column, email your questions to

This week's question will be answered by Heidi Waltner-Pepper.

The Dilemma

We’re a small nonprofit. And when I say small, I mean I’m the only full-time staff. I’m very excited to finally be bringing on a Development Director to join me, and I have my board helping me with the process.

What kinds of things should I be looking for in a Development Director at an organization like mine? What are some common red flags we should watch out for?  Do you have any advice for questions I should (or shouldn’t!) ask?

Heidi's Response

That IS exciting! You must be doing something right if you can finally take this next step to grow your organization. Great things must be on the horizon.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, as a staff of one, one of the biggest challenges about working in a small organization is using your time effectively. You’re looking for a fundraiser who is able to identify and prioritize the most important fundraising tasks that will yield the best results.

Along with this is the skill of being able to multi-task and possess strong organizational skills. The person should be dynamic, self-motivated, and able to work with many types of people.  He or she should be a fearless fundraiser with excellent written and oral communications skills.  Most of all, a good candidate should be comfortable in a smaller shop where he or she will need to basically do everything and support the ED and the Board.

At a small institution, your best candidates will have a well-rounded fundraising skill set, with experience in managing annual funds, major and planned gift solicitation, data management, and events.  Strong candidates will have data to support their experiences. It is critical for candidates to demonstrate in their resumes and articulate in their interviews a proven track record in fundraising.

Common red flags in a resume to me are a lot of jumping around from position to position.  I like looking for longevity in work experience - at least 3-4 years.  Longevity is essential for building relationships with donors; if candidates switch jobs every two years or less, they haven’t had the chance to develop these. This is especially important at a small institution where any amount of turnover can be detrimental to your work. Another red flag is skipping the thank you note, especially since thanking donors is an essential piece of donor retention.

In the interviews, ask them to elaborate on any standout achievements they present in their resumes. If the candidate increased the annual fund by a significant percentage, ask what steps were taken to achieve this. If the candidate successfully solicited million dollar gifts, ask for the story behind it.

Good questions include:

  • Can you give me an example of how you cultivated a new relationship with a donor and eventually were able to secure a gift?
  • Can you share with me a time when you were faced with a work crisis and describe how you handled it?
  • Do you have an example of how you used data to make strategy decisions?
  • Can you tell me about a new process or initiative you started and how it helped the institution?
  • Describe an achievement you made that required learning something new.

I think it’s always better to ask more open-ended questions. The only questions you should specifically avoid for legal reasons are personal questions about age, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.  These types of questions could be perceived as discriminatory, regardless of your intention.

Some regions are now passing laws that prohibit questions about salary history. Be aware of how legislation is progressing in your area, and as a general rule of thumb, focus on salary targets in your conversations with candidates rather than salary history.

Best of luck to you and your organization as you take this next big step!

Written by

Heidi Waltner-Pepper

Heidi is Senior Vice President at TWB Fundraising.


Questions or comments? Join the conversation!

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