Finding Joy as a Recovering Development Director

Kids find joy everywhere–like in puddles. The adult would probably say, “Eeks! Gad! Get out of the puddle next to the monkey cages! You’ll get a diseeeeaaase!” Adults sometimes have to study joy, chart a course of action and commit. Every. Damn. Day.

A few months ago my husband and I had three weeks to get our house ready to sell. Prepping a home for buyers in my hood means creating an aggressively perfect environment that is usually created by 50 of Martha Stewart’s best production and design associates. I was out of my league and did what most obsessive, ill-equipped but over-resourced NY-Metro area suburban moms would do: I studied the solution and became maniacal. I read Marie Kondō’s, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” and claimed her mantra: ‘Throw away anything that doesn’t give you joy.’ One filled dumpster and 30 bags of donated stuff later (and, OK, a storage facility), I came close to the bliss that Marie promises. Hell, I may even be skinnier and smarter and my skin more radiant. I rose to the insanity of the house-selling market, but, more, I learned how to let go. As a recovering development director, I can take Kondō one step further: I can thank all my years as a burdened Development Director, having to own and sweat through every element and nuance of a fundraising program. I can honor the past, thank it for what I’ve learned, and then toss it in the dumpster next to my broken NordicTrack.

I have one main goal in my current position as a fundraiser: launch and develop a new foundation to support its parent nonprofit. It’s exciting, and the possibilities for creating a long-term source of support for this particular institution is huge. I love this job, but I get in my own way. It’s like having a conversation with my writing buddy, Jon. We start in one direction, and 4 minutes later our squirrel brain kicks in and the conversation turns from developing a nascent donor base to Jason Mamoa redeeming my lifelong love of Aquaman. At work, I may start the day researching individuals and setting up the next round of meetings, and then all of a sudden I’m volunteering to write content for the new website because I’m convinced I’m the only one who should handle this burden.

One of our new board members jokes that she’s a recovering lawyer, so I’ve now adopted her brisk bio as a recovering Development Director, because I get it. I’ve been a DD for small organizations several times over, which means I’ve been forced to adopt a variety of roles that no single working professional should own—grantwriter, major gifts officer, party planner, all-round writer of just about every publication, HR negotiator, board liaison, program creator…and that’s just the beginning. To be clear, most Development Directors can’t choose what they own – it’s a forced contract with the position. I read many blogs from nonprofit consultants hell-bent on creating their authoritative identity based on voluminous outpourings of thinly conceived advice columns on exactly this topic: focusing one’s fundraising efforts solely on activities that generate revenue. This advice is correct, but focus takes more than a laundry list of “good” and “bad” activities. It takes a mind shift, a mantra and an ability to secure success based on an understanding of priority and outcome.

There’s plenty of necessary fundraising work that doesn’t bring me joy, but I know it’s essential, like organizing a meeting and making sure the food doesn’t suck. Good food makes people happy, and I want people to be happy at my gatherings. If they leave happy, if they are treated well, they will want to help my organization. Bringing joy means bringing revenue. Does writing content on a new website bring me joy; am I the only one with the golden words to inspire a new gift? Quite simply, no–endless communications writing is a barrier between time spent in direct communication with donors versus time spent writing, editing, rewriting (doesn’t every fundraising office receive at least 15 rounds of edits on any and all external communication?), and sweating out the loss of many weeks when I wasn’t pursuing donors. I am constantly fighting with my squirrel brain that jumps on any activity that appears to solve an immediate challenge to my department.

To be fair, my charge is more than just developing one board. It encompasses all of the individuals and partnerships that will secure revenue and resources for my organization, but my charge is not anything external to this main goal. It’s a struggle to recover. In the midst of my house purging I thought I threw out the one thing I realized I truly loved—a green faux leather jacket. For 3 days, I damned Kondō and her fools gold of relief from my life’s clutter. I considered that I may love a jacket more than my family. Eventually the jacket was found by the plucky daughter of a dear friend, and I returned to the purge.

This week I finally heard from a program officer of a major foundation that we’ve been courting for capital support. Despite my many attempts to get in touch with her since March, it was our July newsletter that caught her attention and she responded. For this particular round, I had to write and publish the newsletter because of a recent departure of our social media manager. I received the program officer’s note, considered what she said triggered the response, and for several seconds I mused, “Maybe I should be writing the newsletter.” In less than a minute, I pushed back the insanity and responded to her message, and I didn’t have to write another newsletter for her to schedule that meeting.

– Sarah

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