A recent study found that 51% of fundraisers plan to leave their jobs by 2021 and almost a third of fundraisers say they recently left or plan to leave the development field altogether in the next two years. That should concern all of us who care about making change in the world. As fundraisers, we know that qualified staff seeking and facilitating philanthropic investment is imperative to all missions and causes. This study builds upon, and in no way shows progress from, a 2013 survey that found half of top development officers were considering leaving their jobs.
These numbers are startling, though a little less so when taken with context. Gallup reported in its “State of the American Workplace Report” that 51% of all American workers are actively looking for a different job. So I guess fundraisers aren’t any less inspired than other American workers? However, fundraising is most effective for an organization when their fundraisers hold their positions for a long time. Successful fundraising is dependent on deep and enduring relationships, and the nonprofit sector is one that arguably has less resources to invest in costly turnover, staff development and onboarding. As a field, we have a more acute challenge than our for-profit peers — one we should address more urgently.
My experience working with and leading fundraising teams across the country is that organizations can retain fundraising staff by inspiring and trusting them, setting realistic but aggressive goals, and providing, accepting and managing to feedback.
Inspire Your Development Staff
People don’t get into fundraising because they like asking people for money, even if a lot of us ultimately figure out we do. I became a fundraiser because I wanted to change the world, and my earlier jobs in nonprofit helped me realize money was the lever I could most effectively pull on to facilitate change.
The recent study found 93% of staff members described being driven by mission. Most fundraisers I know are repurposed program staff members. We reward their commitment to growing impact by doing the hard work of attracting funds by walling them off from the beneficiaries and recipients of philanthropy.
At most hospitals, real estate costs force the fundraising team into buildings far from patients. I once worked in an office where there was a physical door between the development and program teams. Fundraisers always complain about being too far removed from “the work” and, ironically, program staff complain that the development staff doesn’t understand what the organization does. So how to do inspire your development staff?
- Break down these silos. Forge collaborative workspaces (in my example above I removed the door my first day as chief development officer with no explanation or apology).
- Facilitate social interactions across functional departments. Purposefully incorporate “mission” moments into development staff meetings, just as many organizations do for board meetings.
- Schedule and be disciplined about bringing your fundraisers into contact with your program at least quarterly. These efforts will manifest in better retention of a more inspired staff, but it will also create a more cohesive and better workplace and result in more effective fundraisers with better stories to tell your donors.
Trust Your Staff
Unless you’ve hired the wrong staff and recruited the wrong board, the board doesn’t know more about fundraising than your development staff. Hire the right people, and trust they know what they are talking about. Too many boards don’t trust that their fundraising staff know what they are doing. Yes, there are some similarities between sales, where many effective board members have vast experience, and fundraising. But they are very different undertakings.
Salespeople are most often selling a product the buyer needs or that will provide a benefit or entertainment back to that buyer. Philanthropists, outside of those administering foundations required to give away a percentage each year, don’t have to buy. They aren’t going to “buy” your charity or another. They can choose to keep the money and put it to work in any number of other ways.
Fundraisers are selling nothing more than a sense of feeling good about helping the world. If a fundraiser has chosen to take on that exceptionally hard task for you, have the decency to trust and not micromanage. Listen to, and where applicable, follow their lead and counsel. Nothing is more soul crushing and inspires job hunting more quickly than a board or executive director insisting that they know more about fundraising or could do the job better. So, how do you build this trust?
- Your chief development officer should be a peer to their colleagues leading other functions and treated as such in all decisions.
- Position your staff with the board as capable professionals designed to guide, partner in and drive fundraising for the organization. Board members have a key role to play, but the chief development officer is the quarterback, and board on-boarding and training should position the role as such.
Set Realistic But Aggressive Goals
In a recent conversation with a fundraiser, I asked about their goals and how they were held accountable to them. I was told they had a financial goal, which was their only goal, that was set arbitrarily with no input and that in multiple years in their role, they were unaware of anyone meeting their goal or being held accountable to it. The organization where she works is suffering from continual turnover; this goal-setting and management process is a key reason why. Unrealistic goals create apathy.
Too often, fundraising goals are designed last in a budgeting process. Fiscal and executive management seems to believe in “zero-based budgeting” for everything but fundraising. Either an arbitrary increase is levied onto fundraising campaigns, like a tax, or the other revenue numbers are subtracted from the projected expenses and like magic, we now have a fundraising goal.
Fundraising results are notoriously hard to project, but thoughtful exploration of past performance and specific prospects can, and must, inform realistic fundraising objectives. I encourage CEOs and chief finance officers to push for aggressive growth, but to also account for realistic feedback and trend lines. Allow the fundraising team significant input in creating their own goals justified by projected pipelines for major gifts and trends for event and direct response giving targets. Once you set a realistic goal you can, and must, hold staff accountable. There need to be financial and other rewards for exceeding targets and consequences for underperformance, as well as a structured system of review and feedback (see below).
Provide, Accept and Manage to Feedback
Feedback is a gift. Create mechanisms to actively provide candid feedback to staff. But how do you do this?
- One on one, or real time coaching, structured quarterly and/or annually to specifically give feedback have proven to be hallmarks of successful teams. It isn’t enough to just say you have a culture of feedback or to have a feedback process no one really values or takes seriously. Feedback must be deliberate and by necessity, time consuming to be effective. Staff leaders must invest the time particularly with fundraising teams, which often toil in the shadows and deal with frequent rejection.
- 360-degree feedback mechanisms, which are those that allow feedback up and across lines of accountability, are the hallmarks of highly performing teams. Workers expectations have changed, and they want to be heard as well as listen. Even better, what they have to say will improve your organization. I’ve utilized informal 360-degree review process modeled on Gallup’s "12: The Elements of Great Managing” throughout my career. Many great tools exist and, when coupled with regular staff meetings and retreats where open dialogue and feedback are encouraged, you can unlock a spirit of collaboration that retains staff and drives higher performance (which incidentally then does even more to retain staff).
While providing these one on one and 360-degree mechanisms, all parties must value and manage to the feedback. In one-on-one reviews, track the feedback and discuss how behavior and performance have evolved because of it. For leaders receiving 360-degree feedback, likewise, you must actively react to the feedback. I used to share my 360-degree results with my teams, discuss exactly what the feedback meant to me (yes, there is feedback that is OK to ignore, and I would take the time to explain why I was going to ignore some aspects when required) and ask to be held accountable to commitments to change.
When using Gallup’s we elements referenced above, I published the numeric scores I received and tracked results over time (I would conduct the process twice per year), so we could see how I did, or didn’t, change my leadership style.
Be a Better Leader, and You’ll Keep a Better Staff
If you inspire, trust and lead your staff well, you can and will retain fundraising staff. Nothing described above is difficult, but taken together, it requires constant attention and prioritization to effectively lead staff to ensure success. If our missions deserve increased philanthropy, the teams we’re asking to attract that philanthropy deserve attentive and effective leadership.
Craig Shelley (@craigshelley) is a managing director at Orr Group, which provides nonprofits with strategy, fundraising, leadership and management solutions and has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Craig brings an entrepreneurial approach to fundraising, nonprofit management and strategy. Prior to joining Orr Group, Craig served in a variety of positions with the Boy Scouts of America, most recently as the national director of development and corporate alliances. He serves on the executive committee of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ New York City Chapter and the editorial advisory board for Nonprofit PRO, and is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE).