Recruiting and Retaining the Best and Brightest
For the past 27 years, I’ve been recruiting senior-level development professionals and training younger, aspiring individuals to be fundraising consultants and executive recruiters in the nonprofit world.
In all my years of consulting with nonprofit leaders and their boards, I’ve learned that finding and holding on to great talent is no easy feat, yet it’s one of the most pivotal factors contributing to an organization’s success in fundraising.
Today’s job market is tough for nonprofits looking for talented professionals. With 190,484 new tax-exempt charities created since 1999, according to the Internal Revenue Service, newer organizations are looking to hire their first fundraising-staff members while older nonprofits are increasing staff size — branching out beyond direct mail and special events into individual major gifts and planned giving.
It’s truly a seller’s market with more jobs than qualified people to take them, more capital campaigns than campaign directors. The career listings and Web postings are filled with endless opportunities at every skill level, for every possible type of charitable mission.
It’s a great time to be an employee in the nonprofit world, no doubt about it.But, in spite of the abundant opportunity for fundraisers, turnover in our field remains high and still stands as the greatest threat to building a strong development program.
Why is there so much turnover? When the wrong hire was made in the first place, the answer is simple: bad fit, unmatched skill set and unclear communication of expectations.
When a new hire fails to pan out, it can take an organization up to two years to realize that it’s made a mistake before convening a new search. Turnover always will be a factor in small development departments that are unable to provide a career ladder and adequate compensation packages. Development officers are forced to move out in order to move up.
Even the largest, most progressive and successful development offices in the country find their staff members being aggressively hunted by the ever-multiplying cadre of niche recruiters. Just ask any one of the highest-performing fundraisers in your region how many recruiting calls they receive each month. (We’re usually successful in getting their interest when we learn they’re looking into other opportunities, simply because their CEO or board just doesn’t “get it.”)
The timeline for finding a replacement can take anywhere from six to 12 months, or more, and cost the organization roughly a year’s salary to rehire and recoup from precious donor relationships lost.
Lead, and they will follow
The best and brightest fundraising professionals are attracted to high-profile positions with the most successful nonprofits — those organizations admired for their mission delivery, fundraising success and executive and board leadership. Important gauges for attracting great candidates include a strong philanthropic culture, ambitious goals and records of achievement, quality professionals on the management team, and great collegiality among co-workers in the development office.
However, the leadership dynamics displayed by the organization’s CEO and board carry more weight than all other factors combined.
The old saying “it’s tough to soar like an eagle when you’re flying with turkeys” certainly applies here. When you don’t have the right leadership in place, nothing else works right. Successful development professionals expect to work for great leaders.
“The Credibility Factor: What Followers Expect from Leaders,” by James Louzes and Barry Posner, cites four qualities all good leaders possess:
- Honesty: truthful, ethical, know their own values, stand up for beliefs;
- Competence: capable, effective, have a proven track record, lead by example;
- Inspiring: enthusiastic, communicate dreams in ways that inspire, communicate shared values; and
- Forward Looking: see big picture and can point to each employee’s spot in it, identify constituents’ wants and needs, and can build consensus.
‘Engage’ your employees
When my firm takes on a search for a nonprofit looking to increase its fundraising performance, the first order of business is to clarify the expectations of the CEO and the board. We force them to consider “the terms of engagement” and define what they want and need.
When the terms of engagement are made clear by both the employer and employee, chances are the organization will have a highly motivated and “engaged” fundraising professional. Engaged employees feel incredible passion for their work, provide higher levels of service, and are creative, innovative and productive.
Engaged employees also tend to stay with the organization longer and hardly ever miss work. They take responsibility for managing their own careers and possess the will and means to do the job effectively. They are focused and energized.
Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But guess what? You can’t go shopping for engaged employees. You, as the leader of your organization, must create them.
Remember, even your best employees — after being successfully trained and mentored — always will have the freedom to roam and, in this abundant nonprofit marketplace, can’t help but be tempted. And while not every employee resignation translates into lost donors, staff turnover presents huge challenges to leadership credibility and donor loyalty, especially when it comes to major-gifts officer positions.
Word of mouth in our small community of development professionals will forever haunt the fundraising leader who isn’t effective as a manager of great talent. Recruitment efforts will become more difficult, and turnover will continue.
What’s in it for me?
Today’s Generation Xers value flexibility in the workplace over most other factors when considering new positions. Quality-of-life issues — location, community life, a flexible work schedule and a manageable commute — drive their choices and limit your capacity to recruit many “up and comers.” These aspiring fundraising executives want flexibility in their benefits packages, perhaps because they watched their over-achieving parents work tirelessly 24/7.
“Finding and Keeping the Best People,” published in 2001 by Harvard Business Review, includes a collection of cutting-edge articles to help organizations understand how to keep top employees in today’s fiercely competitive job market.
Concepts such as “job sculpting” and “building a career-resilient workforce” show organizations how to empower employees and manage their careers, as well as provide unconditional support — whether or not a fundraising pro stays with the organization long term.
A career-resilient workforce, for example, is composed of employees who are dedicated to the idea of continuous learning; stand ready to reinvent themselves to keep pace with change; are comfortable switching back and forth from traditional roles on special projects; take responsibility for their own career management; and are committed to the organization’s success.
Convey commitment from the top
Recruiting and retaining the best and brightest employees requires commitment from the top — from the CEO as well as the board — and must be a strong institutional value. Keeping high-performing, satisfied and engaged employees also requires leaders who “get it,” who ensure frequent and effective communication, regularly give credit where it’s due, immediately fix problems and ensure complete resolution, make career growth a priority, and lastly, provide competitive wages and benefits.
And by the way, in case you forgot, remember that a leader leads — always.