Careers in Development – How to Pick Your Path

Young colleagues sometimes tell me that the career path for development professionals is one dimensional. You begin your career in an assistant or coordinator role, then advance to manager of a specific area (annual fund, grants, database) and eventually make it to Development Director.

My response to this single path? No way. There’s much more!

To keep it simple, let’s start with 3 types of development roles that you will find – in combination or alone – in many nonprofits.

1.  Individual Contributors – These folks are tasked with developing expertise in a specific area. They have goals related to that area. They may be part of a larger team, but they don’t manage other people. Examples: Administrative Assistant, Database Coordinator, Grant Writer, Major Gift Officer.

2.  Managers – A good manager promotes clarity and stability, and brings order to complex situations. Managers spend a lot of time problem solving and they often oversee other people. Managers often focus on one area. Examples: Corporate Relations Manager, Annual Fund Manager, Communications Manager.

3.  Leaders – Most Development Directors combine leadership and managerial qualities. They oversee other people and are responsible for setting vision and strategy for the development team. Good leaders inspire. They also have a strong ability to influence others.  

The good news is that you can pursue any of these roles, regardless of your experience level or career path to date. Not everyone needs to run the show! Experienced individual contributors can find success as high-level major gift or planned giving officers. Mid-career managers make good liaisons between development and other departments in your organization (such as Finance, for example).

Want to boost your own leadership qualifications?

Seize everyday opportunities to lead from where you are. Here are 3 simple steps to get you started:

  1. Think about what you like to do. Do you like having narrow, but deep expertise in a certain area? Are you a problem solver? Do you see yourself as a change agent with a strong ability to influence others?
  2. Keep a list over 3 days of the tasks you did at work. At the end of each day, go back and put a star next to the activities where you felt the most energy and inspiration. Examine your stars – do any themes jump out?
  3. Seize close-to-home opportunities to try out different roles. Volunteer to organize and lead a meeting. Research solutions to a current team challenge and present your findings at your next staff meeting. Raise your hand to manage the production process for your next annual fund brochure.

What other role in development have you always wanted to try? What’s holding you back?

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