Nonprofit Hiring: Engaging (and Keeping) the Right People


Timothy Higdon is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philanthropy at NYU George F. Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. He has successfully built development teams at many national and international nonprofits as an interim or permanent director including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, The Nation, Episcopal Relief and Development, Amnesty International USA and Girl Scouts of the USA. Currently, he is a principal at WorkLab Consulting LLC. His practice focuses on interim leadership (executive and development), campaigns and projects, coaching and training, and development search. 


Considerable time is spent thinking about development officer hiring and retention. Organizations hope that they hired the right person and that they will stay. In today’s market, development staffers are in high demand and move easily.   According to consultant Linda Welter, the average tenure of development officers is about 2.5 years. Bradford Smith, author of Topgrading (How To Hire, Coach and Keep A Players), states that the cost of a “miss-hire” to an organization is twenty-four times the individual’s base compensation. This includes compensation, hiring costs, severance, costs associated with re-hiring and the costs of missed opportunities. If base compensation is $114,000, the cost to the organization could be $2.7 million dollars. Yet nonprofit leadership pays little attention to hiring and to effective retention. There is an adage that people come to an organization for the mission and that they leave because of the people, particularly organizational leadership.  Simply, you cannot effectively engage and sustain donors without the development staff to support the efforts. 


Higdon’s 7 Rules of Effective Hiring:

  1. Make the job description accurately reflect organizational needs. There are two types of development professionals—builders and maintainers. Both have key roles in the market and never confuse one for the other. 

  2. Price the compensation package at the market—you can only effectively move the compensation about +/- 5% after the process begins.

  3. Work networks rigorously to get a top slate of candidates.

  4. Ask tough questions during the interview process – and demand the same from the candidate. 

  5. Three elements determine if one is a fit for a position. According to author William Swan, CAN the candidate do the job, WILL the candidate do the job, and how will they FIT into the organization. Both the candidate and the hiring manager must address and answer these questions to insure a fit. 

  6. Make sure that a number of people interview the candidate – not just the hiring manager. Always include a meal interview with the candidate. This is an opportunity to see the candidate in action and how they would be with potential donors in a social setting. 

  7. When you find the right candidate, move intently to get the deal closed. 

Higdon’s 7 Rules of Effective Retention:

  1. The Golden Rule: S/he that raises the gold rules. Treat front line fundraisers very well and like you would want to be treated.

  2. Acknowledge development officer’s successes. 

  3. One size doesn’t fit all. Jack Welsh of GE talks about the three levels of effective staff: Top 20%, Next 70% and Bottom 10%. Your time and attention should focus on the top 20% who are the greatest assets to your organization. 

  4. Put professional development plans in place. Open your networks and encourage your top performers to meet your external colleagues and connections. 

  5. Break bread together.  Make a plan for a meal or cocktails individually with your star performers. 

  6. If you made a hiring mistake, quickly fix it. Bad news doesn’t get better with age. 

  7. Say thank you for great work. Don’t be gratuitous, but genuine in your praise.


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