Filling your Fundraising Leadership Roles

This is the second in a series of articles Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt is publishing in response to questions we’re getting from our clients and other nonprofits in our community. This week, we’ll be answering the question:

“We have an open fundraising leadership role, but don’t know whether we should fill it during the current crisis. Should we wait until things calm down?”

The short answer: don’t wait.

Nonprofits need leaders.

Nonprofit organizations (and for-profits too) need strong, experienced leaders to guide them through the uncharted waters in which we’re currently sailing. Here are some key reasons why:

Your organization needs to make important tactical decisions right now.

Maybe you had a great fundraising plan in place for this year based on your organizational goals and prior years’ performance…but then COVID-19 happened, and everything changed. You need someone to take the lead in figuring out how to pivot and adjust your short-term course in the moment. The need is especially urgent for some nonprofits facing unanticipated and significant lost revenues such as performing arts organizations. Waiting until the situation has stabilized will simply be too late.

Compelling and effective communications with your donors and volunteer leadership must be an immediate priority – but that’s hard to do without a story to tell.

An experienced leader will “write” that story by setting clear priorities, guiding your organization’s response to the crisis, and demonstrating the continued relevance of your case for support. This will help you drive clear and consistent messaging that keeps your key stakeholders engaged and facilitates impactful donor cultivation and stewardship.

You need vision and strategy to prepare your organization to come out on the other side of the crisis.

We may feel overwhelmed or untethered thinking about how to handle the challenges of the current week, or the current month… but just as we do every year, we need to plan ahead as best we can. That’s daunting, because none of us knows if, or when, life will return to “normal,” or what the “new normal” will be. An experienced fundraising leader can look at your organization through a wide-angle lens to identify strategic opportunities and watch out for potential threats.

Making the hire.

So now that you’ve decided to go ahead and fill that open fundraising leadership role, how do you make a hire in the current environment? It’s true that hiring is difficult right now – but it’s not impossible. Here are a few recommendations:

Be prepared to work harder to find qualified candidates and motivate them to apply.

Many experienced development professionals are being conservative and staying put in their current jobs in this uncertain environment. Use your professional networks and personal connections to find and share the opportunity with potentially strong candidates – and to put in a positive word about your organization so they are encouraged to apply.

Be thoughtful about adapting the interview process to a virtual format. 

In-person interviews are ideal, but as we all have learned by necessity, complex and sensitive conversations are possible via Zoom and other similar meeting platforms. Make an extra effort to create a format and ask questions that lend themselves to the virtual medium, and keep the meeting size small to minimize issues of sound quality and people talking over one another.

Be flexible -- and find candidates who are, too. 

Now is the time to hire someone whose experience will allow them to hit the ground running in the face of uncertainty, but who is flexible and nimble enough to think of creative strategies to lead your organization through the short term crisis and beyond. Don’t settle – you want a skilled leader who will embrace your organization’s mission and values and effectively engage your board, staff, donors, and volunteers.

Before you write that job description, take a step back and think about why you have a vacancy in your fundraising leadership.

It might be due in part to challenges within your organization that you can address. Consider engaging a consultant to provide transition counsel: an internal assessment to optimize your development program, to include crafting a job description for your prospective fundraising leader that is clear and sets them up for success. Your consultant can use their networks to identify qualified candidates and help with the hiring process so you can make a hire that lasts. For high-functioning development programs, transition counsel can also include interim staffing to provide needed day-to-day leadership before the position is filled.


Are you interested in transition counsel or help with executive recruitment? Drop us a line here and we'll connect you with one of our senior-level fundraising consultants.