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Development, Fundraising, and Marketing | What's the Difference?

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Amy Bergen

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If you’ve spent any length of time in the nonprofit world, you've almost certainly heard the terms “development,” “fundraising,” and “marketing.” You probably know each job has to do with raising money and awareness. But while some people use the terms interchangeably, these are three distinct specialties—each of which plays an essential role in organizational success.

Development | Building partnerships

Development supports the long-term financial health of an organization while upholding organizational culture. Nonprofit consultant and expert Kay Sprinkel Grace calls development "the process of uncovering shared values." By building positive relationships with donors who support the organization’s mission, development professionals cultivate long-lasting partnerships important to both giver and recipient.

Donors, both individual and institutional, give funds because the work of the organization is important to them. They want to know how the nonprofit will achieve its goals, and they’re excited about what the nonprofit will accomplish in the years to come.

Development professionals may be called upon to:

  • Articulate the mission and vision of the organization, both for the immediate future and for five, 10, and even 25 years down the road.
  • Correspond with donors to thank them for their gifts or update them on ongoing projects.
  • Explain to donors how their funds will be used and how the community will benefit.
  • Educate interested potential partners about the importance of the organization’s work.

Fundraising | Following the money

Fundraising work is more focused on raising money for concrete, short-term needs. While development professionals tend to operate on a longer timetable, often relying on the donor’s time frame, fundraising professionals look at what the organization requires.

Their goals are more transactional and tend to break down to "dollars and cents." But they share the development professional’s strong commitment to mission and impact. A fundraising professional might:

  • Help identify and prioritize areas of financial need.
  • Request contributions for a special one-time project or initiative.
  • Maintain a postal mail or email database of organizational supporters.
  • Solicit annual gifts, both from faithful donors and potential new donors.

Marketing | Getting the word out

Marketing professionals raise awareness about the organization in multiple ways. If your nonprofit is providing a service to your community or the broader social-impact field, then people need to know about it! Not only do marketing experts get the word out—they often handle the public image of the organization.

Some nonprofits refer to marketing as communications, external communications, or public relations. A marketing professional might:

  • Update the organization’s website with photos from ongoing work or ambitious new projects.
  • Supervise the social media presence of the nonprofit, including engaging with followers and answering questions.
  • Identify possible "friends" or "partners"—nearby groups that serve the same population the organization serves, for instance, or businesses interested in its mission—and decide how to work together.
  • Engage potential volunteers.

How do they intersect?

The tasks and expertise areas of development, fundraising, and marketing professionals frequently overlap. At smaller nonprofits one person might fill two or more roles at once. Development and fundraising departments may both contribute to the financial statistics in the organization’s annual report, for example. And marketing departments may work with fundraisers or developers to plan an event.

Each specialty relies on storytelling, audience engagement, and clarity about what the organization does and why it matters. Different groups keep the broader message consistent as they interact with slightly different audiences.

All of these roles contribute to the overall goals of financial sustainability and lasting community relationships. Marketing outreach gets the attention of a broad group of people. Once they’re interested, fundraising gives them an opportunity to join the nonprofit in its mission. And development ensures positive long-term partnerships rewarding to both parties. Each step is a critical one.

Fortunately for job seekers, the fields require many overlapping skills, including stellar written and oral communication, research chops, and the ability to learn content management systems. Job descriptions in each area may be fluid, since nonprofit professionals are often required to wear many hats. So don’t be surprised if you get some fundraising education in a marketing or development role and vice versa. If you find your talents are best suited to one specialty, you can set yourself up for a rewarding career. 

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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