Does your seat on the bus require you to spend more time coaching and developing your team? Or to spend more time working your own portfolio of potential donors? Or both?

Organizational leaders frequently engage in conversations about the challenges they face. In development, a common way to describe this is to talk about whether we have “the right people in the right seats on the bus.” Sometimes a basic discussion of that question begins with, “I’m not even sure I have the right people on the bus, much less worrying about which seats they’re in.”

While some development managers are able to secure contributions successfully from the donors in their own portfolios, for many, the challenge is spending enough time to get a new hire off to a great start—or working with a high-potential direct report who could perform well with just a bit of individualized attention.

Given the stress of getting all this done, is it time to re-think the traditional structure of development management?

How often do we move top fundraisers into management seats on the bus when they, and our organizations, would be best served by simply moving their seats toward the front of the bus?

In one of my previous lives, I worked for a construction products company that served an international market. For five consecutive years, a sales representative from a city in the Midwest always ranked in the top three for total sales. This sales rep (we’ll call him Rick) was great with his customers. He was innovative and responsive. It was easy to see how he was so successful.

So, when Rick’s manager was promoted, it was natural that Rick was considered to replace him. At first, Rick was unsure about moving into management, but everybody told him that he would be great, and that he could help other sales reps in his district become more successful, because he could teach them the things he did to become a top sales performer. So company leadership moved him into a management seat on the bus.

Rick’s tenure as a sales manager lasted only two and a half years, during which time the district’s sales plummeted because Rick was busy doing all of the administrative tasks that come with being the manager instead of selling. Although he tried to help the sales reps in his district learn to sell the way he sold, they were different kinds of people with very different territories. The tactics that often worked for Rick didn’t seem natural or comfortable for them or their customers.

Rick was miserable. He missed working closely with his customers. He missed the satisfaction that came from seeing a project through from start to finish. He understood that he didn’t have a natural ability to manage others they way they needed to be managed, so he asked for his old job back. Although it took some time, he eventually returned to the seat on the bus where he had thrived in the first place.

If you see yourself in this blog, you may be thinking that you were happier and more productive when you were in a frontline fundraising bus seat, where you had that rewarding feeling that comes with closing transformational contributions on a regular basis. The problem is, once you moved into “management,” any change to a non-supervisory role can feel like a demotion, even though it may be the smartest and most financially savvy move for both you and your organization.

In most organizations, the only way to earn a larger salary is to move into management. As a result, we end up splitting the attention of our top performers between working a portfolio and leading, managing, and supervising a team of frontline fundraisers. Given that there is a huge shortage of competent development professionals, would organizations do better to invest more in outstanding frontline fundraisers so that they would be rewarded for staying in their jobs?

In Rick’s case, we learned that the talents that made him a “star” in a frontline position didn’t automatically translate to boosting the success of his team. When he was considered for a management role, the skills and abilities that should have been given more careful consideration in the process were overshadowed by metrics on the sales reports.

What Qualifies a Manager?

Can our organizations really afford to take the best of our frontline fundraisers and direct their attention to anything other than raising money? Can we continue to support salary structures that lead some top-performing fundraisers away from the bus seats that suit them best?

What if we reassess which characteristics merit more value when we think of talent to lead development teams?

Primary Qualifiers

    • Strong organizational competencies, including multitasking
    • Coaching, mentoring, and teaching skills that address individual learning styles and needs
    • A collaborative style that enables collegial conversations, even under challenging circumstances
    • An ability to identify and address barriers to success
    • Comprehensive knowledge of organizational effectiveness that translates into practice

Secondary Qualifiers

    • Number of contributions closed
    • Amount of dollars raised

Organizations may be able to achieve greater success by initiating in-depth conversations about recognizing and valuing primary qualifying skills to appoint more effective and successful managers. Aligning salary structures to retain the best performers in the most appropriate roles is an important element, as well. Having the right people in the right seats on the bus has to begin with designing the seats to best enable organizational success.

While many organizations don’t have a nimble ability to adjust positions and salaries for maximum effectiveness, they can begin to work toward redesign. In the meantime, for development managers who are pulled between working their own portfolios and addressing the needs of their teams, one approach is to engage in professional development experiences that can strengthen these skills.

How could changing the way your organization views development manager qualifications make a big difference in your success as a manager, leader, and fundraiser? Would you and your team be happier and more productive if the bus seats were redesigned? The result could be a positive impact on the lives of the donors you engage and the people whom your organization helps.


To practice skills and techniques that can help improve your performance as a manager, attend Elevate! Coaching Essentials for Managers.

Elevate! Coaching Essentials for Managers