In April, we introduced “The Leadership Conversations,” a series exploring topics and issues critical to the health of nonprofits with some of our nation’s top nonprofit leaders. This second installment is a conversation with Courtney Surls, vice president for development and alumni relations at American University, about recruiting top-tier individuals in order to “get the right people on the bus.”

Previously, Courtney served as senior vice president for development at the Newseum and as vice president for development at the University of Southern California. She has served as vice president at American University since 2015.

Here, in a simple Q&A format, is what we learned.


Q. Cathy Card Sterling (CCS): Half of all senior fundraising professionals report they expect to leave their jobs within two years, and half of all VPs of development report that they have a very difficult time finding qualified people. Is there something amiss in the development model (a model that has existed for some time) that makes it particularly difficult to recruit great individuals?

A. Courtney Surls (CS): First, let me say, I believe that development works. If you follow development science mixed with the art of the individual, it works. It works whether you are a powerhouse or a brand-new start-up. The problem is that these principles, in order to succeed, require that the entire organization understands and agrees with those best practices. Whether or not this culture exists strongly impacts the experience, talent level and performance of the people you hire. The general principles of development are focused on the idea that the function of the advancement team is to facilitate the activities used to attract philanthropic dollars (meetings, communications, events, travel, point of interest articles) in partnership with the individual leaders within the organization who are overseeing the content and mission. If roles are not clearly understood within the organization at all levels, development teams will have a very difficult time.

The other piece is that I don’t believe that the development process is transactional. Even when you’re talking about direct response and annual giving, strategy and messaging, when combined with the use of data, produce good development decisions. Strategy is so important, the use of data is so important, and understanding that everyone has a role in connecting donors to the mission is vital. No major gift solicitation should happen until you are sure that you have the right project, the right gift range and the right person sitting down to talk with the prospect. Great development people spend their time validating what starts as a hypothesis about what a stakeholder is interested in, what the level of that interest is, and who within the institution can amplify that interest. This is a disciplined undertaking.

Q. CCS: We live in a highly transactional culture, whereas best practice development work is a long-term proposition. How, then, do you define the disconnects in development work and address them?

A. CS: One of the disconnects comes if the president, director or Board members believe that development is transactional rather than focusing on the discipline of development. Leaders who are responsible for delivering on the mission and its programs must understand that development is not transactional, that their role in this effort is significant, and that they must be a pivotal part of philanthropy in advancing and validating donors’ commitments to the program. If the head of the organization does not understand this and doesn’t telegraph this to the entire institution, there is a disconnect with the development team in terms of what their roles and responsibilities are.

It is fascinating to me how people view development. A CEO would never question the CFO. The rules are set, yet they don’t provide the same level of trust and belief for their development leadership. CEOs often don’t know how to measure competence, and we need to help them with that.

Q. CCS: What has been a gamechanger for you at American University?

A. CS: We’re committed to educating everyone in the organization about development, and we’ve conducted multiple retreats for nondevelopment people to explain the fundamentals of our work. With our advancement team, we kicked off our latest meeting with a podcast on what it means to be a data-driven organization. People walked away from the retreat understanding how development relies on many factors for success—strategy, data, relationships, looking at the situation and defining what the near- and long-term implications are of our work.

Q. CCS: If you were looking for mid-career, major gifts superstars, what qualities would you look for?

A. CS: It is very important for the hiring manager to understand what is needed in the current environment and to have an understanding of where development is within the organization. There are times when development people need to be an integral part of building the culture of philanthropy from within. Some development people come in and expect significant groundwork and support (research, proposal preparation, well versed faculty) to be in place, and are not prepared to create new relationships and start from square one. Development professionals need to relate well to senior-level program leaders and must understand where a program fits into the overall strategy and mission. We must hire the skill set that is needed within the given environment and context.

Q. CCS: Do you think that the development team is pivotal in the creation of new programmatic initiatives?

A. CS: Yes, this goes back to the whole issue of facilitating the philanthropic effort. If you know you have a donor who is interested in a particular project, you have to convince the program person to work with you on evolving the project and answering the big question: what is the problem you are trying to solve? Then saying, thank you for this content, now we’ll need to translate this for the donor. This is a delicate dance that takes special skills to execute. This ability to knit the organization together is enormously hard to find. You’re not going to find a person like that for every position. It’s important to understand which position needs this skill. Also, development team members need to understand that part of their job is knowing what levers to pull in order to get the right outcome. Development is not sales. The real issue is to understand with whom a prospect needs to interrelate. Does this person need to be part of the trustees’ circle, engaged with other peers interested in the organization or something else—that needs to be the discussion.

Q. CCS: So what is it you are looking for in a candidate and what questions do you ask?

A. CS: I always ask, “How do you use data to make decisions?” The person who can think strategically is very valuable. Asking them why they do something is important. Finding someone who can develop an idea and execute it is incredibly valuable. This requires an understanding of what the barriers are. We need problem-solvers who can figure out how to overcome obstacles. Also, development does not work when the team has a view of itself as a group of independent salespeople. We must recruit people who understand collaboration and partnership. The opposite does not work; this is not sales.

Q. CCS: What is the ideal development framework? What are we missing? Are there shifts that should be made to the development division?

A. CS: There are two areas where we need to assert ourselves. First, we need to make clear that development must be part of the conversation around the economics of the institution. Development leaders need to have a keen understanding of the role philanthropy plays in the financial structure of the organization. Secondly, it is imperative that development play a central role in strategic planning. We need our Board members and CEOs to understand why the development voice is critical to strategic and economic decisions; we need to advocate for this. We cannot build a culture of philanthropy without a seat at the table.

End Note

Over the past two years, focusing on the best practice development principles discussed above, American University has realized a new level of principal gifts, including two significant gifts they will be announcing this fall. Building on this success, the university is in the quiet phase of a new campaign, its largest comprehensive campaign in history. A new science building has just begun construction and the university is establishing a new institute to launch publicly this fall. Finally, the university is putting the finishing touches on its new strategic plan in tandem with the early stages of its historic campaign.