An advancement VP at a college asked an interesting question: “Why are nonprofits reluctant to hire experienced development officers from higher education for mid-level, senior, and executive positions?”
I don’t think he was fishing for help with a job search! I had a ‘Johnny-Depp-as-Willy-Wonka’ flashback to the time when I was leaving university fundraising and was dealing with this question up close. I asked some friends and clients about their answer to the question and got these replies (with a qualification that the candidate described has worked only in higher education fundraising):
1. The candidate is too skill- or task-specialized and doesn’t have experience with the wider range of responsibilities that he would need in a smaller npo or an npo with a different structure. OR, the candidate does not have a realistic understanding about the amount of time or resources needed to complete tasks because there were support staff and units in place to complete project components at the university. For example, there may have been another office that created publications or processed gifts or managed all the data, or completed some other critical task, and the candidate has not actually had to understand those processes. So, in a smaller organization, or one run in a more vertical non-hierarchical style, these understandings are more important.
2. The candidate will need more support to develop prospect and donor constituencies that are not automatically generated, unlike alumni or parents. Or, the candidate will need more time and training to develop case-making statements and content promotion that aren’t education-specific.
I can see the truth and error in both of these rationales. It all comes down to individual competencies and fit. I’d hate to think a good higher ed fundraiser wasn’t considered based on these assumptions. I can attest that a competent someone who loves to raise money, instead of running program, and understands the role of fundraising within the mission is a valuable person and can be taught technical steps. But I think higher education fundraisers who consider working outside the university should be mindful to understand the breadth of their experience with attention to the context outside of the university — it wouldn’t hurt anyone to develop professional curiosity about the functions and administration of other advancement departments and units.
Buried in the VP’s question was a funny subcontext — is money a factor for the smaller organization, or is agism? No one I spoke to even mentioned the possible income drop and related retention fear. No one flinched at hiring an older staffer either.