The Hiring Conundrum: Experience Vs. Relationships

Should you hire someone who has a strong background in development or someone who already has relationships in the community? This is a question we hear often from nonprofit leadership. The answer is simple. I believe a proven history of successful fundraising trumps existing relationships 100% of the time, and here are four reasons why:

1. Their relationships aren’t with your nonprofit.

If a development officer’s relationship with people is based on their role as a development officer at another organization, there is a good chance those relationships will not follow them to their new role. Those relationships are based on their role at another organization, not at yours. Not to mention, there is the possibility that the development officer leaving that organization for another could actually damage donor relationships in the process.

2. Donor interest doesn’t transfer based on relationships.

The personal relationships development officers have with donors is not why those donors are giving. Donors give significant gifts to causes they believe in and organizations they trust, not because they like the development officer who is soliciting them. If the donor does not believe in the organization or the cause, the relationship they may have with a staff member is not going to move them to a major gift.

Donor interest is not transferable just because of a personal relationship. Consider this study on donor motivations — influence from others is at the bottom of the list of how donors choose a cause or organization to support. If you are a private school and hire a development officer who was previously president of the Junior League and “knows everyone in town” (or my least favorite, has a great contact list), do you really think those relationships will translate into contributions to the school? Probably not.

3. Lack of experience equals … lack of experience.

When push comes to shove, people who talk up their relationships in order to get a development position are sometimes hesitant to actually leverage those relationships in soliciting gifts. If that is the case, you now have someone who does not know the ins and out of professional development work and is also not willing to use the strength you hired them for.

I have seen this happen time and time again in the hiring of a child of a prominent donor or family, only to find out the person is uncomfortable or unwilling to use their personal/family relationships to raise funds for the organization. In other cases, I found that people with relationships who lack experience are effective in getting token gifts, but not meaningful gifts, and they don’t know enough about development work to be effective in developing and executing different strategies. Not only do you now have a staff person who isn’t as effective but also who you’re likely hesitant to fire because of their relationships.

4. Magical unicorns fly away.

Finding that one unicorn of a development officer who is willing and able to use their personal relationships to leverage gifts for your organization sounds great, but it could potentially do more harm than good. What happens when that person leaves and all those donors walk out the door with them? Given that the average tenure for development staff is around 16 months, you want someone who can build a program that can last well beyond their tenure — not relationships that walk out the door with them.

You may also find yourself in a really bad position if your tried-and-true, committed donors have been neglected while your development officer spent their time working their preferred relationships. In the end, you may lose the old and the new donors.

Contrast this with hiring a person with strong development experience and a track record of success who understands how to create and execute a development plan, structure a development office, knows how to build strong relationships between donors and the organization and has experience leveraging the peer relationships (peer being the critical word here) of donors and board members to secure funds for the organization. That is a person who can move your organization to new levels and make sure the organization forms relationships that will last even after they leave. That is why I believe experience trumps relationships every time.

To successfully hire for experience, here are three tips for evaluating your next development hire:

1. Look at their work history for frequent changes.

Someone who changes jobs every couple of years — and those changes don’t appear to be career advancing or great opportunities — could be someone who leaves just before getting fired. Look for people who stay in a role long enough to prove their skills and advance professionally.

2. Make sure their background and skill set match your needs.

Someone with a strong track record in annual fund and direct mail, however successful they are, may have no experience in direct, personal solicitation of donors, which is critical if you are hiring someone to raise major gifts.

3. Perform thorough reference checks.

If you are going to check references, then put on your CSI hat and do some real checking. Don’t rely solely on the references that candidates provide. Those references have already been vetted and coached by the candidate.

Instead, use your own network (perhaps even your LinkedIn network) to identify someone who worked with the candidate or a board member or volunteer at their previous organization who can give you an honest assessment of their performance outside of the restrictions you’ll find if you contact their last boss or the HR department.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.