The Executive Director and Development Director Relationship

This article is for development directors (DD) and the executive directors (ED) who supervise them. The executive director can be a development director’s greatest ally or biggest challenge, but rarely anything in between. The ideal working relationship between ED and DD looks like this:

At the beginning of the year, the ED and the DD create a fundraising plan. The ED is very familiar with it and believes it is the appropriate plan for the year. They then go over the plan in great detail with the fundraising committee of the board or with board leadership. They present the plan to the full board and receive enthusiastic buy-in. The DD feels supported by the ED in all her efforts to work with the board and with the ED. The ED sees the DD as a partner in the financial future of the organization – a junior partner to be sure, but still someone she turns to for advice and whose counsel and instincts she trusts. The DD, in turn, sees the ED as someone she learns a lot from and likes and respects a great deal. If not friends, at least these two see themselves as strong colleagues, interested in each other’s opinions on a wide variety of topics related to running the organization.

Some coworkers develop this relationship naturally. Others have to work at it a bit. Unfortunately, there are far too many situations in which the relationship does not work at all. Although some of these may be primarily the fault of the DD, the majority have their roots in the work style of the ED. Here are the most common reasons a relationship between ED and DD fails:

  • The executive director is very good at her job but the organization grows past her ability to run it. Rather than admit this, she becomes more and more controlling and may actually shrink the organization back to a size she can manage.
  • The executive director has been at the organization too long. She feels tired and has lost enthusiasm for the work, but stays in the job because she can’t imagine what to do next. Mediocrity becomes the standard of work.
  • The executive director is sensitive to criticism, even defensive. She creates a work environment in which only total loyalty to her is acceptable and any questioning of her decisions or directions is perceived as insubordination. Creativity is squelched.
  • The executive director is afraid to ask for money and will not help with fundraising from individual donors. Often this fear is disguised as “I can’t deal with a bunch of little gifts. Let’s just get a foundation grant.”
  • The executive director doesn’t trust the board members or want them to have any power, so does not share decision making with them. Few boards (none I’ve met) will actively engage in fundraising if they are not involved in policy making and other board activities, so the board is of no use in fundraising.
  • The executive director is threatened by the development director’s knowledge of fundraising. She constantly belittles the development director’s ideas or ignores them altogether.
  • The executive director works 60 to 70 hours every week, is often at the office on weekends, rarely takes a vacation and expects the same effort from the other employees. She doesn’t realize that she is simply disguising the cost of doing business and wonders why she has high employee turnover.
  • The executive director believes that the development director’s job is to get the money. She wants the DD to bring in the cash, no questions asked. She is slightly embarrassed that the organization needs money at all.

To avoid these dynamics and their many variations, it helps to know what a DD has a right to expect from an ED and vice versa.

The DD’s job is to coordinate the fundraising function of the organization, get as many people involved in fundraising as possible, and make sure all fundraising tasks are completed. This is an odd job since the DD reports to and is accountable to the ED, yet the job includes organizing the executive director’s fundraising time efficiently – i.e. telling her boss what to do. For a DD to work effectively with an ED requires discussing early-on how the ED wants fundraising tasks presented, and how she intends to be accountable to that work.

Given that these are your responsibilities, the ED should expect to work closely with the DD to create her fundraising task list, and to give the DD the authority to make sure she moves through her tasks. The ED, in turn, would expect the DD to provide any support she needed, such as materials, thank-you notes, reports and so on. The DD’s job also includes coordinating the fundraising efforts of the board of directors. She should have access to all board members and be actively supported by the ED in her efforts with the board.

Sometimes the executive director will know a lot more about fundraising than the development director. In that case, the ED should mentor the development director. More traditionally, the development director knows more about fundraising than the ED. The ED should welcome this, recognizing that an organization hires staff not only because the ED doesn’t have time to do the whole job, but also because she doesn’t have every skill. The DD for her part has to appreciate that the executive director balances many tasks, of which fundraising is only one – even if it is very important.

This article is adapted from the new revised 4th edition of Fundraising for Social Change.

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