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Advancing Your Career in Fundraising and Development

Development professionals looking to move to the next level in their careers need the right mix of experience and education.  As discussed in a Chronicle of Philanthropy Special Report, executive recruiters and nonprofit employers are quick to say that they value experience over education when hiring for senior development roles.  However, more and more job advertisements stipulate that an advanced degree is required or preferred.

This article explores the qualifications and experience needed to get ahead in the field of development.

Getting the Right (and Enough) Experience

In general, making the move from a mid to a senior-level development position requires a combination of broad experience, passion, and agility.  Senior roles require fluency in the major aspects of development – event planning, fundraising, individual gifts, working with a board of directors, etc.  In addition to these hard skills, a demonstrated passion for the nonprofit’s mission and the ability to work across departmental lines can be just as important.

To start, having the right amount of relevant work experience is a baseline requirement in order to be considered for senior development roles.  Jennifer Mamlet, Senior Vice President of Development at The Ad Council, notes, “Senior job listings in fundraising typically include an explicit requirement for years of work experience.  This is a field where experience really matters.”  To highlight years of work experience in an application, one suggestion is to cite the exact number prominently in your cover letter. Use a numeral (as opposed to writing out the number) to catch the hiring manager’s eye.

Secondly, development professionals must be able to demonstrate their competency across a variety of development functions. For example, Matthew Stone, Massachusetts State Manager at Youth Villages, recently hired a senior development professional because, “[She] learned the three development domains – working with foundations, working with individuals, and event planning – in previous positions.”

In addition to possessing competence in across a variety development functions, the strongest candidates are also adept at building skills and relationships across departments. Jennifer Mamlet suggested, “It helps to get as involved in other areas of the organization.  This not only helps to make you a more effective fundraiser, but as you look to advance your career internally, it helps to have other senior members of the organization be witness to your value and expertise.”

Continuing Your Education

Jennifer Mamlet observed that master’s degree and certificate programs are becoming more and more desirable as a requirement for senior development roles.  “[These programs] allow development professionals to demonstrate their commitment and desire to learn to prospective employers.  Even if someone is currently employed, in order to prepare for a more senior position, it is helpful to take coursework from time-to-time, such as writing courses, non-profit management, budgeting courses, etc. - to gain a deeper understanding of nonprofit management.” 

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy Special Report cited above, there are approximately 250 colleges and universities that offer programs in fundraising and non-profit management.  In fact, the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council members have noted recent spikes in applications. As noted by Julia Love, Director of Philanthropy for The Resource Foundation, “Continuing education is essential.  You really have to have a master’s to have a senior level position in the field.” 

Academia is not the only source of continuing education.  Julia also shared that, “It’s important to be up to date on current trends and issues in one’s field.  I try to attend as many events and workshops as possible on social media, online fundraising, corporate social responsibility, and anything else related to my field.”

In addition to formal educational opportunities, leveraging professional organizations and networking is also crucial for any development professional looking to advance his or her career.  As Matt Stone indicated, building successful relationships is a key skill needed to succeed in development.  Professional organizations give the opportunity to hone your interpersonal skills, expand your network, identify candidates for open positions in your organization, and even open doors to the next stage in your development careers.  The Association of Fundraising Professionals and Women in Development (WID) are two popular organizations that effectively blend networking with career development.  Jennifer Mamlet mentioned that, for instance, “WID has luncheons every month with great speakers, and plenty of opportunities to network and get to know other professionals in the field.”

Job Outlook

Despite a general downturn in some areas of nonprofit hiring, development is an area that continues to grow.  Commongood Careers is currently recruiting for a range of mid-to-senior level development positions across the U.S. including:

A Checklist for Success

Advancing your career in development takes experience, education, passion and skill.  By using the following checklist, you will be poised to transition to a senior-level development position:

  • Gain comprehensive experience in all elients of development (e.g. grant writing, fundraising, special events, board of director’s management, etc.)
  • Earn an advanced academic degree (check out the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Continuing-Education Guide)
  • Polish your existing skills (e.g. writing courses, budgeting for non-accountants, etc.)
  • Get involved in professional and industry associations
  • Bring your passion and dedication to your organization