Influencing Upward: Skills for the Development Director


The relationship that you, as the Development/Advancement Director, have with your School Head can be a complicated and confusing one. There are five major reasons for this.

  1. Few Heads have any background in development. They tend to reach their position because of their academic background, not development experience.
  2. Few development people, on the other hand, have much background in education. They typically come from the nonprofit sector, or they start as parent volunteers and graduate to become staffers, with little formal training in the nuances of fund raising at private-independent schools.
  • School Heads often have a narrow view of the development process and their role in it; they tend to interpret development as little more than solicitation.
  • Where the case for support is weak (e.g., “the annual fund is for filling budget gaps”), the Head may have little motivation to participate in sustained development activities.
  • The organizational status of development operations may be unclear or inappropriate. For example, development personnel are sometimes not acknowledged as members of the senior staff, and their advice and involvement may not be sought where it is most effective.
  • Due to these common problems, the School Head and the Development Director can have limited understanding of each other’s priorities and processes, and their organizational relationship may be ineffective. Considering human differences in personality, temperament, and emotional intelligence, it is clear why the relationship between these two positions is complex.

    To clarify and improve your relationship with your School Head, there are three essential first steps.

    1. Support the Head’s objectives. This is your first responsibility as a direct report. The attitude of servant leadership that you bring, in which the Head’s strategic objectives are at the forefront, will be a powerful influence on and incentive for the Head in your relations.
      • Ask the Head what his/her objectives are and how you can support them. Coordinate those objectives with the school’s strategic plan and your development plan.
      • Schedule weekly meetings to keep the Head informed about development operations and to keep development aligned with school operations and objectives.
      • Provide the Head with regular reports on progress toward meeting development goals, and any other information suitable for a report to the Board.
      • Deliver on the promises you make.
    2. Educate your Head about the fundamentals of effective development. Most essentially, the School Head needs to appreciate that successful, productive development operations require consistent donor cultivation and effective Development Office management—the two ISM Stability Markers™ that focus on development.
      • Consistent donor cultivation refers to identifying, cultivating, soliciting, recognizing, and stewarding donors and prospects, particularly (potential or actual) lead donors. The amount and kind of attention paid to these individuals, families, and organizations when not soliciting them can make enormous differences in any school’s “soft-income” success, both short- and long-term, and for annual, capital, and major donor efforts.
      • Effective Development Office management refers to the capacity to collect and organize financial and other data, to participate meaningfully in the school’s internal and external marketing program, and to provide direct and/or logistical support for consistent donor cultivation. Funds raised are an outcome of the excellence with which these kinds of management activities are undertaken and executed.
    3. Demonstrate your effectiveness and accountability as the Development Director. To build a dynamic partnership with the Head, establish the lens by which the Head will view you. Boldly embrace your desire to be accountable.
      • Define your objectives for the year; provide the Head with a document that clearly and concisely outlines these annual objectives (no more than four to six points; a lot of detail is not necessary).
      • Detail a time line for each objective that includes touch points with your Head to assess progress.
      • Think through and write metrics to define and measure success.
      • Create agendas with accompanying materials for your weekly meeting with your Head. Record mutually determined action steps, and provide the Head with minutes of your meetings (including next action steps) within 24 hours.
      • Provide the resources for your volunteers and staff to ensure their success.

    Influencing upward is not easy. Support the School Head’s objectives, establish the lens through which the Head will view you, and discuss the development process and the ISM Stability Markers with the Head.

    Carrying out these three steps allows your Head to have meaningful conversations with you, engenders trust because there is specificity in areas where the Head is probably not strong, and enables you to demonstrate competence in a way that is clear and accountable. On this basis, your Head can effectively supervise you, as well as provide you with the resources you need to continue to succeed.

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