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Development Director Burnout

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

*Phone rings*

"This is Dana."

"Hi, Dana. It's X. We have a new development director. Again."

Over my 30 year career, I have received this phone call more times than I can count. And we all know why. The passion that nonprofit workers feel for their work is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, that passion helps them keep going in the face of difficult challenges, especially in the early stages of their careers. On the other hand, they can be so driven they don’t stop to refuel or even notice they are experiencing symptoms of burnout.

A nonprofits’s work is mission-based, but its people are mission critical.

Unfortunately, self care is not the priority for nonprofits who have hundreds/thousands/tens of thousands of people who are in desperate need of help. But the consequences of that are astronomical - panic attacks, heart attacks, strokes and even deaths have been caused from nonprofit burnout.

And for development directors, it's more severe. A key part of fundraising is stewarding relationships with donors and funders. Oftentimes that entails dinners, cocktail hours, events, fundraisers, conferences and much more - and oftentimes those obligations fall outside of the 9-5 work day - for many, totaling in the 80 hour per week range. So more often than not, a development director is attending these vital events and being expected to attend the 9am leadership meeting the next day. Adding to that 12+ hour schedule is the intense pressure to meet aggressive fundraising goals, so that the organization can continue to save the world.

It's a lot.

A development director lasts 18 months before they change organizations or leave the nonprofit sector.

If you search any job site, you will find a plethora of posting for development directors. There are many reasons as to why. Here's a few:

  • They aren't being paid enough. In addition to having a Master's degree and XX years of experience, they are expected to manage a $4 million capital campaign, reach annual giving goals, attend necessary events and conferences, participate in the leadership meetings, lead board committees, manage their development team, write grants (or if they're lucky enough to have a full staff or have hired a grant writer, review grants), and the list goes on and on. The salary? $40,000. To break it down, for many that means they're making $9.62 an hour with an average 80 hour work week. I can think of plenty of jobs that pay more than that with significantly less time and stress. That is a significant reason why the moment many development directors see another opening that pays them closer to what they're worth, they jump ship.

  • They're given unrealistic goals and expectations. On top of the ~80 hour work schedule, many development directors are being given unfeasible goals. It takes a full year (and sometimes more) to see results from a development director. Due to the high turnover, oftentimes an organization will get a new development director in, and they "raise $1 million in 6 months". That sounds like a dream, right? Well, no. Cultivating relationships takes time to see the pay off. Foundations take time to award grants. Creating and implementing annual giving strategies takes time. When there is so much turnover, a new person can easily enter an organization at the right time when everything their predecessor put into place is finally coming to fruition. Then what happens is that nonprofit leadership expects that their new development director will continue to raise $1 million EVERY 6 months. I'm not suggesting that there isn't at least one person in the entire world who can do that, but what I am saying is the odds that your development director is that one person is slim to none. That intense pressure adds up, and before you know it, you're putting out another ad.

  • Burnout. The sheer amount of expectation. Consistent 80 hour work weeks. The pressure to meet goals for the livelihood of not just the organization, but also the staff and the people you serve. I'm feeling my heart rate increase just writing this.

Development directors are not fundraising robots, but living, breathing people (with families who would love to see them) that need time to recover. There are some very simple ways to take care of your development director:

  • Make flexible working hours the normal. When they are attending late night events, maybe schedule the finance committee meeting at 2pm, and expect to see your development director in the office around noon. When they work over the weekend, don't expect to see them until Tuesday (or Wednesday). Also know that that flexible working hours doesn't mean that they're using all their PTO. It's their normal working schedule.

  • Pay them enough. We have heard so often how hard it is to pay your staff more money when foundations don't want to fund salaries, and there are more and more babies who need to be fed. But babies cannot be fed if you can't meet your fundraising goals because you have a new development director every other year. Prioritizing the people who make the work happen has an exponentially positive affect on your staff's outputs. For your development director, you need to pay them for their expertise, dedication and time if you want them to stay. And you need them to stay to meet your goals to feed those hungry babies.

  • Give them support. I've heard more times than I can count after a successful fundraising year, goals are increased, but the development director isn't given more support. They aren't given another staff member, more prospects or more board support to do it. Managing expectations and giving as many resources to your development director to succeed as you can really makes all the difference.

There are many more ways an organization can support their development director. These are just a few ideas to consider. When in doubt, having an honest conversation about the needs of your development director will tell you what to do. Nonprofits make the world a better place, and the people who show up to work every day are the reason why they can. Let's start taking care of our staff as much as we take care of our clients.


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