Director of Development
How To Become a Director of Development
Maribeth Stahl is the Senior Director of Development with the Nashville Symphony. She says, “To begin, in case you’re reading this and have no idea what ‘development’ means in this sense, we are the fundraisers for the organization. Overall, our team oversees philanthropic and marketing support received from individuals, corporations, foundations and government agencies.
For me, no two days are the same! I’ve been with the Nashville Symphony for eight years (and was with another symphony for six years before), and so with that history comes a variety of duties that I’ve inherited over time. Formally, my role is to oversee our individual major gift program (annual gifts of $5k+), work with our fundraising events, and provide guidance for our grants and foundation work. But I’ve covered most other roles during my time here so I try to keep an eye out for the full department. Informally, I’m the team cheerleader…the strategist…the big picture gal.
Everything I do revolves around building relationships with supporters and bringing them closer to the symphony, whether that means starting out by attending their first concert, or giving a major gift because they deeply believe in our mission. A typical day starts early for me (mainly because I have two babies). I usually check reports and customer service issues via email, sometimes responding to easy requests before heading into the office. I handle a personal portfolio of about eighty donors and also take care of their ticketing needs (we’re big on being a one-stop-VIP-shop for our donors), so typically I have a few inquiries each morning to take care of. It’s always fun to help patrons solve their ticketing issues, or take their event RSVPs, and keep them happy. Almost every day includes some version of a team meeting or time with colleagues in another department. We have a large staff of seventy at the symphony, and communication is key to move along big projects, so we tend to meet frequently. Each day also typically includes at least one patron meeting for coffee [or] lunch to discuss their involvement.
My role as strategist means that I’m usually drafting a budget plan, forecast, timeline, new copy for an event invitation or brochure, writing a letter seeking a gift, etc. so there’s a fair amount of advance planning that happens each day. I’m currently working to launch a few small fundraising events in June, a house party in March, a cocktail reception in late April, drafting letters, setting up meetings for our board chair to meet with prospective donors, and wrapping up a half dozen gifts by next week.
And yes, cross-department collaboration is key. I would say that my work involves every single department at some point or another. We work with artistic and orchestra management on interfacing with our awesome musicians (many of whom are involved with patron-facing events) and guest artists (meet-and-greets, lunches, etc.). We partner with Education to try and find support for their programs. We work with Finance to establish good working processes and reporting. The team that runs our beautiful concert hall facility is very helpful in making all of our events go smoothly (including a donor lounge that we have open on at least ninety concert nights each year!)”
“Usually, an organization would like to see you put in some time as a gift officer, event planner, stewardship officer, Annual Fund Manager, or grant writer before moving into an advisory role,” Stahl says. “I’ve literally done every job in our department over the past fourteen years in the industry and it helps me to be both a better fundraiser and a more empathetic and effective manager to be able to understand the challenges and opportunities of each position.” In addition to the roles Stahl describes, many development departments include a Development Assistant, whose career trajectory may find him or her working towards a Senior Director of Development and eventually a Vice President of Development position.
Education & Training
Directors of Development are highly educated individuals. Stahl says, “Members of our team have a wide variety of backgrounds: Marketing, Communications, Arts Management, Music Business. But almost all of them are, or were, a musician or performer of some kind. I find that this is a key component to retaining a good team member — perhaps this goes back to the idea of being passionate about what you’re raising money for.”
Experience & Skills
As has been mentioned, a Director of Development needs to have several years of experience with an orchestra, both in the development department and in other departments. This will help the development professional to gain an understanding of how the orchestra works, as well as learn certain skills. Stahl says, “Important skills include an attention to detail, the ability to write and present yourself well in person, really strong listening (and responding) skills, the ability to juggle many projects all at once. Oh! And the magic key [is] the ability to delegate to your team members.”
“It certainly helps if you’re a people person since the relationship-building aspect is so essential to fundraising!” Stahl says. “But that does not necessarily mean that you need to be ebullient or a true extrovert. I’ve known many development professionals who have a quiet communication style and that can be incredibly effective, too. One needs to be a good listener, and to retain information…and to genuinely want to hear what a patron or a fellow team member has to say.
I think you need to have a deep passion for the cause for which you’re raising money. Clearly, if you’re reading this it’s because you’re trying to find out more about careers in music and the arts, but for some, it’s a passion for finding a cure for cancer or creating access to programs for the homeless. Whatever your passion is, that can be channeled to keep you motivated during the daily grind. For me, it’s always been about the music and the musicians onstage. If it weren’t for my deep respect for the work that they do, I’m not sure that I could uphold the fast pace and many evening and weekend hours required for this job.”
Development professionals hold regular office hours, but they’re often out engaging with their donor base at events, too. Stahl explains, “Unique to performing arts is that you have built-in opportunities to engage with your patrons…that is, when they attend concerts! (In speaking with my non-arts colleagues, we really have an edge here. Sometimes in social services, the only opportunity they have to build relationships with supporters is the one-off coffee or lunch meetings that they are able to schedule.) So yes, evenings and weekends are critical to our process. I’d estimate that I participate in one to two evening events each week, whether that’s a concert, a committee planning meeting, or a special donor engagement event. (We do a lot in this arena).
The daily lifestyle is pretty flexible in our office. We each manage our own calendar and pace, and as long as we’re hitting deadlines and fundraising targets it continues this way. We all come and go as we need to — typically 9-5ish.”
There are many routes to a position as Director of Development. Stahl says, “One might enter the team as a Stewardship Coordinator (stewardship, in this instance, means all of the things that we do to say thank you and recognize our donors for their support and involvement), a department assistant, a gift officer. If you’re a strong writer, you might consider learning more about being a grant writer.
I personally entered my first job with a symphony as a Customer Service Specialist in the box office! It makes sense now that I think about it — gave me the chance to talk to so many patrons on the front line. I moved my way into communications and then into corporate fundraising throughout those first six years. When I moved to Nashville, my first position here was Sponsorship Coordinator (corporate support), then Manager of Sponsorships and Grants, then Director of Sponsorships and Grants, then Sr. Director of Development in 2012 when my now-boss took a leap of faith on me and asked if I would want to take over the individual donor campaign. This all happened because I was present. All. The. Time. Need someone to work an artist meet-and-greet? Count me in. Need someone to be at the office early to brew coffee for a meeting? I’m your gal. Need a presentation or spreadsheet polished by tomorrow morning? I’ll work on that tonight for you and have it to you in the morning.”
“This is a salaried role given the nature of the flexible schedule,” Stahl explains. She adds, “Sometimes I’ve seen entry-level positions be hourly, but not beyond that.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
Stahl recommends two organizations for aspiring orchestra development professionals. The “League of American Orchestras has some great resources on their website and they also have an ‘Essentials of Orchestra Management’ bootcamp that I’ve heard is fantastic.”
She also recommends the “Association for Fundraising Professionals. There’s probably a local chapter in your city. You can often attend monthly lunches as a student for free or minimal expense, or be sponsored. Great way to network.”
Stahl says, “Here’s a tip: I know that anyone in my shoes would be absolutely honored and flattered to receive a phone call from a young person who wanted to catch coffee or lunch and find out more. Call your local symphony, ballet, [or] opera development person and ask for some time. You could also volunteer or intern for a department, in many cases, to get your feet wet. Are you in Nashville? Give me a shout!
- Still in school or fresh out with some time on your hands? Volunteer or intern now for your local theater company, college band or music department, theater facility, etc. to gain some experience and put some relevant action on your resume.
- Be sure to include your musical talents in your resume somehow. That’s always really important to me when recruiting new team members. In my experience, if a team member is a musician they tend to have a passion for the art.
- Check out your local Center for Non-profit Management or Association for Fundraising Professionals group and begin networking. To break into the fold, sometimes it’s about the connections.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“My biggest career advice is to be THAT person. Be dependable. Volunteer. Step forward. Don’t expect more pay to take on yet another project. Just do it and do it well. Show up early and stay late. Do it because it needs to be done and because you’re passionate about the music, and because, well, it’s pretty cool to run a meet-and-greet with legends like Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman or the Temptations or Kenny Rogers. (I cooked breakfast for Kenny Rogers’ Road Crew once because no one else could be there. Eggs and bacon on a double-skillet. Yep.)
And you should find yourself being rewarded for a job well done. If you aren’t, then talk to your mentor, boss, department lead, and find out what you could be doing better.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Expecting to be rewarded without putting in the time and effort.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What brings you the most joy about being a fundraiser? The answer is: that magical moment when you’re able to match up a donor’s philanthropic priorities/what’s important to them perfectly with your organization’s mission. To find that you’ve done a good job listening to a donor to find out the details, and then to come back to them with a proposal or an idea that is spot-on….It’s a golden moment!”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“How do you balance work and life? My personal scenario is that I put in a lot of extra effort during the first decade of my career to establish myself, before starting a family. So I would say that for the first ten years of my professional life, the scales definitely tipped more toward work than life. Now that I have a small family (two boys under three years old) I have forced myself to dial back a bit and make sure that family is the top priority. I still work one to two evenings per week, but I make sure to take a bigger picture look at the month as a whole to be sure the flow evens out over time.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
- 1Multiple. "Director of Development Salaries in United States". Glassdoor. published: Dec 16, 2019. retrieved on: Dec 17, 2019
Maribeth Stahl is the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s Senior Director of Development. A graduate of Ohio Northern University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music Theater, she launched her orchestral career with the Toledo Symphony before joining the NSO in 2009. She welcomes readers interested in learning more about a career in development to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.