Elizabeth Chung
5 Key Skills of All-Star Development Professionals

6 Key Skills of All-Star Development Professionals

Development professionals are a central part of every nonprofit’s staff. They fuel the work your organization does and wield a skillset that’s invaluable to your mission.

While all development officers have their own approach, talented development professionals tend to share some key qualities and best practices. These commonalities kick their organization’s fundraising up a notch. To improve your fundraising craft, adopt and refine the following skills of great development officers.

1. Build Relationships Through Personalized Communication

Fundraising is all about building relationships. That’s why successful development professionals know how to make meaningful connections with donors. And, like any other relationship, they know that supporters are more likely to stay in the conversation when they are personally invested.

This is why development officers should track each donor’s history with the organization and their giving habits. You can then segment donors and build follow-up strategies tailored for each group. For instance, if you split your contacts by gift amount, you might craft a special thank-you strategy for large donors. Or, by segmenting donors by their gift frequency, you can create a special engagement plan for recurring donors. You could also identify any lapsed donors and send personalized messages to rekindle their interest.

By communicating in a way that’s relevant to each donor, development professionals can build the trust and rapport that encourage people to support your organization.

2. Surprise and Delight Donors

Smart fundraisers do more than just send off appeal after appeal. They know that the way to a donor’s heart is paved with surprise and delight. Rather than making each message a serious ask, they find playful ways to inspire donors and create positive emotional associations with your brand. Instilling a bit of fun into your communications strategy can go a long way in building donor loyalty.

Reach out to donors in unconventional manners that exceeds their expectations. Try implementing a lighthearted, creative email campaign, filming Vines to thank supporters, or simply calling up a donor on the phone. Think of it as sending your loved ones flowers “just because.” The element of surprise can strengthen your relationships tenfold.

3. Use Creativity to Power Through Campaigns

No matter how well you’ve planned ahead for a campaign, things don’t always go smoothly. Stellar development professionals keep this in mind, and they use their creativity to engage supporters and power through all stages of their fundraising campaigns.

The mid-campaign slump, for instance, is a common hurdle that fundraisers need to overcome. This is when activity in a campaign drops off halfway through the campaign. As excitement starts to wane, resilient development officers rely on their creative juices to kick things up a notch. They come up with engaging and interactive experiences or communications to keep people involved. They get strategic with how they ramp up energy, like announcing a donation matching period. In any case, they’re willing to take creative steps to inject excitement into their campaigns.

4. Persevere

When you’re a professional fundraiser, you hear the word “no” a lot. But great development staff members know how to bounce back every time. In fact, they also know that sometimes they can take a “no” and turn it into a “yes.”

When someone chooses not to donate, they are usually saying no because of a particular reason. Perhaps they’re not ready to give the amount you’re suggesting. Maybe they’re not interested in the program or project you’re asking them to support. Or maybe you’re not speaking to the decision-maker in the family or company. In each of these cases, adjusting your ask can potentially change the answer.

5. Learn and Adapt

Sometimes, though, things still don’t go according to plan. A donor might stick to their “no” even after your strategic questions and maneuvering. A new campaign idea might perform poorly. When things don’t go their way, development rockstars can adapt to the changes, learn from their experiences, and—most importantly—go back to the drawing board. They aren’t afraid to take what they’ve learned and keep innovating.

One way to keep learning is to test different campaign ideas. For every few solid, reliable campaigns you launch per year, try experimenting with one to see how you can be more engaging and successful. Try out different activities or themes, and watch how they attract certain audiences. Perhaps you’ll tap into new groups of potential donors. Even if the campaign looks like it flopped, identify what you can learn from this experiment and what to try next.

6. Stay on Top of Fundraising Trends

One of the most important things a development professional must do is keep a pulse on fundraising trends. The social sector is always changing, which means that donors’ preferences are constantly shifting. Effective development professionals identify what supporters want at a given time, and adapt to provide it. This requires fundraisers to remain open and craft new strategies to engage and reach more donors.

An important step is understanding the fundraising trends that are influencing different generations. Development staff should know how to engage new and young supporters, whether that’s through peer-to-peer fundraising or a beautiful, mobile-friendly website. At the same time, they should understand how trends like online fundraising trickle up to older generations that adopt new technologies quickly. The willingness to adapt to these trends connects organizations to donors of all ages and ensures ongoing fundraising success.

Skilled development professionals bring many talents to the table. Your fundraising know-how drives organizations’ missions. Skillsets like creativity, resilience, adaptability, and the power to create meaningful connections with donors are what truly distinguish effective fundraising professionals. Use these commonalities to great development officers to grow and strengthen your own fundraising expertise.

Win the Hearts and Minds of Donors


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