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And the Band Played On: What to do when you lose a Development Director

thIt may (or may not) surprise you to know that I’m in a rock and roll band. We’re called The Deciders and I play keys and violin and I sing a little, too. We’re a big band – seven of us – which is really too big for an amateur rock band. It’s hard to keep us all moving in the same direction.

Despite what our guitar players think, the drummer is really the leader of our band.

Without our drummer’s steady, reliable beat, along with a few fancy fills thrown in for good measure, we’re not much to listen to.

I know this to be true because on Memorial Day, just before we were about to start playing for the annual Bolder Boulder race, our dear drummer fell and broke her ankle. She was rushed to the hospital and sent immediately into surgery to repair three broken bones.

So there we were, with an audience of 50,000 rapidly moving runners headed our way — and no drummer.

We quickly co-opted one of our teenaged sons to fill in for her and somehow managed to play. Honestly, we sounded terrible, but at least we performed. The show must go on, as they say.

Losing our drummer so unexpectedly got me to thinking about all the times I’ve seen nonprofits lose their fundraising leadership. It can make the development team feel pretty much the same way I felt on Monday – a little traumatized, overwhelmed and not exactly sure what to do.

Here are few suggestions from the school of hard knocks for how to handle the loss of your fundraising leadership.

Regroup. One of the best things you can do in these situations is hold a development staff retreat. I know, it sounds crazy that in the middle of crisis, you’re going to leave the office for a whole day? Honestly, you can’t afford not to do this. Bond, collect yourselves, and make a plan.

Keep operating as a band. We’ve seen fundraising programs operate for a year or more without a development director. Kudos to the staff who pull it off. But the outcome we almost always see is a group of people working diligently in their own areas of work, but not working in a coordinated manner. If there’s one thing a fundraising program needs to be, it’s integrated. Keep up your weekly meetings, communicate regularly about how each of your activities supports the other.

Appoint a temporary band leader. You really do need to appoint an interim director. Sometimes organizations avoid this to avoid potential internal conflict or because there’s no obvious person to fill the role. This isn’t fair to the fundraising team and it most certainly isn’t fair to everyone else. Someone needs to be the “go to” person for executive staff, staff from other departments, board members and, most importantly, donors.

Sing the main melody. One of the most important roles that a Development Director plays is to protect their team from the myriad requests and demands that pour in from other departments, volunteers and board members. Without that central discipline, a development team can quickly become entirely reactionary, spending their days fulfilling other people’s needs. An interim director can help everyone stay on track, but in the absence of that, the Executive Director must do whatever it takes defend the development team’s plan and give them the space to implement it.

Stay tuned in. Another critical role of a Development Director is to be “tuned in” to what’s happening at the organization. Because they are typically on the executive staff, they have access to privileged information that can have a dramatic impact on fundraising strategy. Make sure that an interim director sits at that table, or find some other way for the development team to be apprised of essential organizational happenings.

Don’t give up on improvisation. The tendency when you’re between leaders is to keep doing things as they’ve always been done. Here’s the thing. Turnover in development directors is rampant. Even if you hire a new director in short order, you may find yourself without one in even shorter order. Go ahead and try new things, create a long-term plan, be visionary. Your organization deserves it. And so do you.

Be a part of the auditions. We always encourage organizations to allow their development staffs to be involved in the hiring process for a new director. Of course it’s not appropriate for the development team to interview candidates, but they can absolutely provide input on the job description or participate in a meet and greet with the final candidate(s).

Losing a Development Director is a growth opportunity for each and every member of the fundraising team. Pick up your instruments, collect yourselves and move on in unison. You’ll be a better professional because of it and your organization will be stronger, too.

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