January 29, 2009

Finding a fund-raising job in a region racked by recession

Q. I've got 24 years' experience in corporate giving, in fund raising, and as a loaned ambassador for my local United Way. I belong to the Association of Fundraising Professionals and actively build my personal network. I volunteer. In other words, I should have no problem finding a midlevel fund-raising job, right? But here in Michigan, I'm finding little opportunity. Those jobs that are open require major-gifts experience, which I lack. I can't relocate. What's the forecast for the jobs I seek in my area?

A. Times are hard — harder perhaps in Michigan than in some other parts of the country — but Michigan fund raisers caution you not to assume a bad economy equals little opportunity. For the very reason that charities' budgets are squeezed, experienced, successful fund raisers are in high demand, they say.

"It's a much better time than people think because these organizations need good people," says Peter Remington, a fund-raising consultant in Detroit.

Still, Richard Martin, vice president for advancement at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, in Detroit, concedes your point about the types of positions that are open.

Because of the difficulties the auto industry is having and the cutbacks in charitable giving that many companies are making, he says, few charities are looking specifically for people like you with expertise in soliciting gifts from corporations.

On the other hand, says Mr. Martin, who just stepped down as president of the local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, "there's so much demand for major-gift officers, we don't have enough people in the pipeline to fill the need."

But even with the supply of candidates lagging behind the demand, you may find yourself being passed over for major-gifts jobs because employers are sizing up candidates very carefully, Mr. Martin says: "Nonprofits need assurance that the person that they hire will be able to deliver on their fund-raising goals."

In addition, says Erik Snoek, vice president for advancement at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, in Michigan, your inability to move may be a handicap if you are competing with career switchers or laid-off workers willing to move anywhere to land a job.

Mr. Snoek suggests you revise your résumé to better highlight your ability to do a good job soliciting big donations.

Examples of "transferable" skills, he says, include asking for gifts face to face, discovering how donors' interests mesh with an institution's needs, building consensus, and working independently. If you live in a small town or rural area, he says, you can also emphasize your personal network.

And if you don't think you have the skills to specialize in raising big gifts, Mr. Snoek says, consider finding a volunteer position that would allow you to acquire them.

Mr. Martin says you might want to look at jobs seeking annual gifts. While this career track may pay less than comparable positions securing corporate grants, it requires similar skills, such as researching and identifying a large number of potential donors.

In addition to being open to a pay cut, you might also need to be willing to take on a long commute, Mr. Remington says, if you live in an area with few job opportunities.

Our experts also recommend networking and setting up information interviews, both on which are always good ideas for job seekers.

Q. I work for a residential treatment and rehabilitation facility for people with mental illness. Can you point me to any foundations that support charities like ours?

A. Thousands of charities apply for grants at the top foundations says Carla Lavender, director of development at the Devereux Georgia Treatment Network, a mental-health treatment center for teenagers in Kennesaw, Ga. "There's a lot of competition," she says.

In fact, much of foundation giving is provincial in nature.

"Unless we're talking about something with nationwide impact, your best bet is to look for local funders," says Dennis Hills-Cooper, director of development at Thresholds, a mental-health charity in Chicago. Most of his organization's foundation support comes from local sources, he says.

To start your search, go to the library, says Ms. Lavender. The Foundation Center, in New York, operates libraries in five cities and cooperates with public libraries across the country.

At these locations, you can gain free access to the center's electronic database of foundations as well as print directories of grant makers. The center's Web site also contains plenty of information on individual grant makers.

Mr. Hills-Cooper also suggest you contact other mental-health charities in your area and request their annual reports, which generally list donors.

In addition to The Chronicle's own Guide to Grants, some Web sites that catalog grant makers and announcements of available grants include those of the Foundation Center's Philanthropy News Digest and the Grantsmanship Center. The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers Web site includes a directory of associations that represent grant makers in each state.

As you're conducting your research, think about the services your charity provides and the people it reaches, our observers say. Doing so will allow you to broaden your search beyond mental-health grant makers.

For instance, Mr. Hills-Cooper says, Thresholds has received dollars from grant makers that want to help former inmates, young people, and the homeless, as well as foundations that fight poverty and support the arts.

Ms. Lavender and Mr. Hills-Cooper recommend making a particular effort to identify nearby family foundations.

"I think they're overlooked compared to community foundations or large local foundations," Mr. Hills-Cooper says. Some family foundations don't accept proposals, and others have strict criteria for their giving, he says, and therefore they tend to get fewer requests for money than larger grant makers do.

Q. How do I set up an employment contract for an executive director? What sorts of things should be covered in such an agreement?

A. Doug Herbert, an employment lawyer in Washington who works with nonprofit clients, suggests that you talk to a lawyer — or several.

"This is an area where it would be a real mistake to do this without an attorney unless you just can't afford one," he says.

An employment lawyer will help you navigate such issues as bonuses, leave, sabbaticals, insurance, perks (such as housing or parking), relocation costs, causes for dismissal, and severance, Mr. Herbert says.

A tax lawyer will help you ensure that the compensation you offer, including perks and deferred compensation, such as pension, is not more than the law allows for nonprofit executives, says Diara Holmes, a Washington tax lawyer who works with charities.

"The key is to see that the organization is paying no more than fair market value," she says. To do that, you'll have to "benchmark" what organizations of similar size, budget, and mission to yours pay their chief executives.

You can look for chief executives' compensation in the informational tax returns that nonprofit organizations file with the Internal Revenue Service, which are available publicly, or you can hire a compensation consultant to do the research and analysis for you, Ms. Holmes says.

Your tax lawyer will make sure you collect and analyze the information correctly and that you properly document your justification for the compensation you offer.

Mr. Herbert recommends that the president of your charity's board, rather than a lawyer, negotiate directly with the candidate, concluding the negotiations by writing a brief "term sheet" that lays out the terms that have been agreed to. Then the employment lawyer should prepare a detailed written agreement, if you request one.

Although drawing up a contract is common, "it's probably in the organization's interest not to have a written agreement at all," Mr. Herbert says. "If it turns out the executive was not a good fit, you can get rid of them for free," rather than having to pay out a severance that would likely be included in an employment contract.

Possibly for that reason, most new executives will ask for a contract, Mr. Herbert says. The higher the compensation, the more likely a nonprofit executive is to have a written agreement: Those who make $75,000 or less are unlikely to have a contract, and those who make $200,000 or more usually do, he says.