“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s the question every child is asked at some point by teachers, family members, and even strangers. Those of us in development likely never considered answering this question with our current job titles. However, today we find ourselves achieving careers that serve our communities and make the world better than it was yesterday.
As the profession continues to grow and more people consider careers in development, we asked several seasoned development officers to share their reflections on the profession and tips for newcomers to the field.
What would have liked to know before going into a career in development?
Experts in the field wish someone early on had told them that satisfying work in the nonprofit sector depends on passion and relationships. The hours can be long because the mission often does not know the bounds of a 9-5 schedule, nor do donors only support your mission during typical work hours. Your passion for the mission of your organization, combined with the relationships you develop with people who make a big difference not only in your life but also in the lives of those your organization serves, will be what makes your career so rewarding.
Several development officers also wish they had been more aware from the start of the vast network of the professional fundraising and nonprofit organizations with which they could engage. Most cited connections they made and advice they received through their local chapters of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and continuing education opportunities (such as those offered at Rice University’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy) as providing good tools for professionals at all stages of their careers. For less formal sharing of best practices, newcomers can also subscribe to newsletters of nonprofits with missions similar to theirs or who are known to do a good job at communicating with their constituents. In short, peers can be incredibly inspiring!
What tips for success would you give new fundraisers?
Similarly, we asked development officers what advice they would offer to new fundraisers. Resoundingly, the themes of persistence and communication prevailed. Good fundraisers share their organization’s vision and needs to the point of feeling like they are over-communicating. Building solid relationships takes a lot of follow up that often begins as a one-sided effort. Even stewardship requires persistence. To this end, a successful development officer must be someone who cares for the people partnering with their organization. He or she has to find the balance between being mission-driven and valuing the people who share in that mission as volunteers and donors.
Finally, seasoned development professionals encourage newcomers and peers alike to remain curious and creative. As spokespersons for a nonprofit, it can be intimidating to feel like we must have all the answers all the time or must do things the way they have always been done. Take time to find out the answers to questions asked of you—and to ask your own questions. The deeper you know your organization’s ins and outs, the better you can represent it. Think creatively of new ways to reach donors and constituents through special events, marketing, and communication vehicles.
Several experts mentioned that it is essential, especially in the first few months as a development officer or at a new organization, to spend a lot of time listening to fellow staff members, to board members, to volunteers, to donors, and to those served by your organization. Doing so will better equip you to learn the stories and unique features of your organization so that it will come to life for your donors.
Katie Carpenter, an Associate at Bacon Lee, reports that development experts say passion and relationship skills are needed for success in the field.