I Don’t Get No Respect. Development Staff Are the Rodney Dangerfields of the Nonprofit World

June 2, 2010

Is it true what “they” say?  That nonprofit program people and development professionals just can’t get along?

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a foundation site visit on behalf of a client.  I had written a grant proposal and, as a result, two trustees from the foundation had scheduled a meeting to tour the facilities.  The executive director and the assistant executive director led the tour while the two trustees, sisters, posed numerous questions.

During introductions, though, one of the trustees remarked, in a joking manner, that “we hate development people.  We like to talk to the program people to learn what’s really going on.”

Not at all offended, I responded “so do I.  That’s how I learn how to write about the agency.”

Her remark, though, led me recall an earlier phone conversation with my Twitter friend, Heidi Massey.  Heidi had made mention of “the great divide” and we rather skimmed the surface because, I confess, in my own 13 years in nonprofit work I hadn’t personally experienced  that divide amongst program staff and development staff.  So I invited Heidi to explore the topic in a guest blog posting.

Heidi’s resulting article, Fundraisers and Program Professionals: Can’t Everyone Just Get Along? struck a real nerve.  Apparently there is indeed a divide between program staff and fundraisers.

So, how can fundraisers and program staff get along?

One commenter wrote “Could it be that those who are successful fundraisers possess different personal characteristics than those who are successful program directors/coordinators?” which brought to mind an old LinkedIn discussion about why people got involved in nonprofit work.  I was amazed at the diversity in backgrounds of the respondents – and yet there was one strong commonality.

We all want to make a difference.

The social worker in the trenches is striving to make a difference just as the development director is.

Yes, development staff are, the “sales-force” of a nonprofit organization.  And isn’t sales one of the most misunderstood and maligned professions, with salespeople often viewed as charmers devoid of any real depth?

It serves us well to recognize that we’re all here to effect positive change.


Several comments made note that this great divide does not usually occur in smaller organizations.  Having spent the majority of my time in the smaller, community agency, I concur.

My first position in nonprofit development was as a 15 hour a week development director for a community ambulance agency.  And one of the first things I did to acquaint myself with their work was to schedule several hours to run with the EMT’s and paramedics on their rounds.  Eventually I learned CPR and observed some of the training classes.  I was working there when 9/11 occurred and many of our emergency rescue workers made the trek into NYC to assist.

I developed a profound respect and deeper knowledge of exactly what these amazing, and oftentimes little appreciated, men and women do on a daily basis.

And no, it’s not the job of the development staffer to convince program staff of the importance of  fund-raising.  It is our job to appreciate the work of program staff, communicate regularly with them, observe them “in the trenches,” and share that knowledge with funders.  By sharing drafts of development writing with program staff and soliciting their feedback, I’ve gained valuable insights – and opened their eyes to the work of a fundraiser.

Respect isn’t a given.  It’s earned – and it begins by showing it to others.

Recently I attended a branding workshop where I met a young woman working in policy for a local organization serving women and children.  She couldn’t wait to get back to her offices and share what she’d learned with their development department!

So, we can piss and moan about the lack of respect allotted fundraisers.  Or we can do something positive to change it.

We’re all in this kind of work to make a real difference and it might clarify matters to recall the old automobile analogy:

  • Is it the engine since it makes the car go?
  • Or the steering wheel so you can avoid the tree and go the direction you want?
  • Or perhaps the gasoline since nothing works without it?
  • Or the tires since that is where the rubber meets the road?
  • Brakes?

They’re all important, as is every member of a team – everyone represents the mission.

After over 13 years working in the nonprofit development arena, I’ve learned that to be genuinely effective – to truly make a difference – organizations need to be just as committed to funding their missions as they are to their mission.

After all, the cars aren’t built without any funding.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Lucy June 3, 2010 at 5:45 am

I have followed the blog postings and comments related to this with interest. I am quite struck that the trustee told you that she hates working with development people. Congratulations on handling her comment gracefully and not being offended. But I have to say I think the trustee’s comment was pretty darn rude, and had I been in your shoes I would have been annoyed. In my ten years as a development staffer focused on foundations, I’ve encountered this kind of frank dismissal of my role just a handful of times. But it is corrosive to morale. The comment, coming from a foundation trustee, strikes me as ironic. It is the foundation community that bears responsibility for “development people’s” very existence. Surely, if foundation folks don’t like the wily ways of development people, why don’t they radically simplify their grantmaking systems/approach so development people are not necessary?

Mazarine June 3, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Dear Pamela,

Thanks for continuing to write about this issue. I like your writing style, and I appreciate so much that you’re bringing this tension to the fore.

We all need to agree that our roles are individually important. We need to “learn CPR” as you did, AND we need to help staff see that to create more money for the org, to build capacity, there are small fundraising tasks they could help with, everything from stuffing envelopes to just ushering at events.

What do you think?



Pamela Grow June 3, 2010 at 6:02 pm

I wholeheartedly agree Mazarine. In all honesty, though, I haven’t had any issues with program (or any staff for that matter) pitching in and helping in tasks such as envelop stuffing, schmoozing at events or even presenting at local community meetings (such as Rotary).

Pamela Grow June 4, 2010 at 6:09 pm

An excellent point Lucy. One thing that I have done in the past several years is to shift my focus to crafting the best case statement possible and seeking general operating support – rather than programmatic. Unrestricted grant funding can be applied where needed, reporting is much easier and it leads to more stability overall.

Claire Wagner June 9, 2011 at 10:15 am

Pamela, thanks for such a thoughtful and well-written post. I came to nonprofits from the corporate world. I took a job as the Communications Director for a large nonprofit but reported to the Director Development, so I was in the fundraising department. I initially faced a bad attitude from program staff, especially at the highest levels. I realized early on that there was an attitude of scarcity in that place and theirs contempt was rooted in competition for funding between “administrative” functions like mine and programs. I did my best to educate them about my responsibility to spread the good news about their work in order to keep the money coming in. But the best tactic was to spend as much time as possible out in the field with the line staff, observing, photographing, interviewing, and PRAISING. They began to get used to me and started to look forward to participating in the newsletter, the press, the website, or ads. That relationship-building effort gave me access to the stories I needed to be successful in my job.

Rick J. Blount January 28, 2012 at 7:22 am


So true — not just of fundraisers, but often for many staff who make up the dreaded “administrative expenses” of non-profits. Having been in different NP roles, I do think it’s a greater issue for fundraisers. Has anyone seriously engaged our non-development colleagues to understand why this is? Could be enlightening — in both directions.

Thanks for, as so often, presenting “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

Pamela Grow January 28, 2012 at 7:41 am

Thanks so much for your comments, Rick.

Oftentimes I find that an organization simply hasn’t developed a “culture of philanthropy” – jargon speaking for getting everyone on the same page. In my book, Simple Development Systems, I’ve shared a number of ways that executive directors and development directors can educate program and administrative staff to the joys of fundraising.

Just a few:

At every staff and board meeting share your latest “story,” whether it’s about one of your agency’s clients or about a donor or even about a recent visitor to your organization. Encourage staff members to share their stories.
Shadow a member of your program staff for several hours or even a day.
Share your latest appeal letter with one of your program staffers for their feedback. It shows them the importance of story-telling and opens them up to sharing more of their own stories with you.
Think outside of the proverbial box. Recently I attended a United Way branding workshop on behalf of a client. Among the participants, I was delighted to see that one savvy organization had sent program staff in lieu of marketing or development staff. I spent some time chatting with them and it was clearly an eye-opening experience for them in terms of how they could better share their own work with their development department.

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