At almost every meeting of higher education development managers, the group “groan” is about the shortage of competent frontline fundraisers. In many organizations, open positions abound. In others, development managers acknowledge that they have underperformers among their staffs, but they have chosen to leave them in place because they aren’t confident that they can find replacements in the current highly competitive market.

The result is millions of donor dollars that aren’t fulfilling their potential. Research tells us that there is more money available for philanthropy than ever before in history. Yet many organizations are unequipped to fully engage donors and inspire their philanthropic support simply because they are not staffed sufficiently.

For some institutions, one way to address this is to “grow your own” development talent. Here are five steps to consider:

  1. Look around and see who on campus might be capable of developing their skills and abilities in ways that could make them great development professionals.
      • People who work in alumni relations usually already know something about the fundraising profession, but many think they couldn’t ask someone for money. In fact, they already understand the value of engagement. When these people are introduced to the concept of deepened engagement that results in philanthropic investment, they can see that there are significant similarities in the work.
      • Admissions professionals are generally already enthusiastic about the institution and engaging prospective students and their parents. Admissions people often know little or nothing about philanthropy work, but once introduced to another way to connect people with your institution, they can become excellent development professionals.
      • Career Services professionals, in most cases, understand the value proposition—the idea that someone engages with the university because there is something in it for them (a great employee). Applying this value proposition to inspiring philanthropy can frequently be an easy transition for them.
  1. Take your potential recruits on a campus tour from a development perspective. Point out evidence of philanthropy, as you would do with a potential donor. Many university employees already have a view of campus from the student or staff perspective, but putting a more holistic view on it helps inspire and reinforce the important role of philanthropy in making more experiences available to faculty, staff, and students.
  2. Ask your development “stars” to take prospective fundraisers on donor visits. Let your best fundraisers explain the importance of intellectual curiosity and how to ask high-value questions. Be sure they emphasize that successful development professionals build relationships between the donor and the institution and serve as the bridge that shapes engagement resulting in philanthropic investment.
  3. Acquaint your potential recruits with the structure of philanthropy at your university. Do you have a separate Foundation? How is it governed? What is an endowment and how does it work to provide support to faculty, staff, and students? What are the different roles within the philanthropy arm(s) of your institution? Conversations about these topics can and should lead to broader discussions of the philanthropy landscape in general, in addition to contemporary issues in higher education such as student debt and the rising cost of tuition.
  4. Carefully select professional development experiences for them that can affirm the concept of professionalism and reliably build new skills. These talent development programs can be identified through the curriculum-driven approach based on development of required competencies. Choosing experiences that focus on developing skills and abilities that engage donors in meaningful giving will heighten the potential fundraisers’ enthusiasm for pursuing an incredibly rewarding career in philanthropy.

While each of these steps requires a different amount of time and money, they are all well worth the investment considering the tremendous value of an engaged, enthusiastic, high-potential development professional. With the right support, including mentoring and coaching, these home-grown recruits can become top performers on your team.


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