Why Good Nonprofit Fundraisers Are Hard to Keep: Part 1
If you’re a fundraiser, does this sound like you?
Show me my money!!!
According to 5 years of research by Penelope Burk (culminating in her book, “Donor-Centered Leadership”), as well as a much-talked-about study by CompassPoint and the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, half of chief development officers plan to leave their jobs in 2 years or less and 40 percent plan to leave fundraising entirely.
The No. 1 reason fundraisers give for leaving is to earn more money. What’s going on, and how can you fix it? Is it about money or something else?
Money Does Play a Role
According to Burk’s research, many charities are penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to compensation for their development staff. In her book she offers an example:
“A high-performing fundraiser making $90,000 at a national health charity is offered another job paying 40 percent more, and his organization decided it could not afford to match the offer.”
Burk says the health charity should have done so because the fundraiser, who supervised 18 colleagues working on direct-marketing appeals, might have stayed if he had gotten the $36,000 increase. And, Burk notes, that would be far cheaper than the estimated $952,000 the charity would lose in donations and other aspects of lost productivity over 3 years if the fundraiser leaves.
Part of the reason fundraisers aren’t paid enough, of course, is a consumer perspective that looks for the lowest overhead and cost of fundraising. This "overhead myth" must be retired.
Everyone would come out ahead by spending a bit more. Sure, you can spend just 5 percent and have 95 percent go to direct service. But that might mean you’ll raise only $100,000 for your mission when, if you spent a little more to gain $500,000 or even $1 million, you could achieve a greater impact.
As a society we’d be well served to get over the nonsensical hair shirt mentality that fundraisers—and all nonprofit staff—should toil for love and not for money or benefits. Where is it written that nonprofit workers should be monks? Yes, fundraising is servant to philanthropy. No, that does not mean that fundraisers—or any nonprofit employee—should be servants.
Of course nonprofit employees serve. And the concept of servant leadership, coined by Robert Greenleaf 25 years ago, holds true. However, servant leadership does not mean submission. It does not mean suffering and taking on the sins of others. It means caring for others.
And to care for others requires first caring for oneself. To serve the community well, fundraisers must also serve themselves well.
8 Ways to Satisfy Fundraisers With Love and Money
- Embrace development directors who advocate for themselves. This means they’re good at asking. Isn’t that what you want? The difference between paying a development director $X and $Y can mean the difference between hiring a mid-level skilled “implementer” and a high-level skilled “leader” with expertise, bi-picture thinking, strong planning skills and a demonstrated record of success. That extra $Z you paid your fundraiser would reap exponential rewards.
- Understand what money symbolizes for people. It’s seldom just about money, of course. I’ve never met a fundraiser who was in the business chiefly for the money. Plus, money has been shown time and again to not be a primary motivator (See Herzberg two-factor motivation theory). Yet fundraisers in the studies cited above still said this was the No. 1 reason they left or were contemplating leaving their jobs. So, what’s the deal? What do you think your fundraisers believe more money will buy them (respect, power, security or a sense of achievement)? Is there another way you can give this to them?
- Realize money is a powerful symbol of achievement and recognition—both of which are primary motivators. Those of us who’ve worked in the fundraising trenches understand that money represents impact. We don’t ask donors for “money,” per se. We ask them to help us accomplish a goal. When they give it to us, we feel they’re acknowledging our organizations' achievements. They’re recognizing our good work. They’re joining us. They understand us. Together, we’re team players. Together, we can move forward. It’s “us,” not “us and them.”
- Give fundraisers “us” compensation, so they feel validated. When they are treated as part of the management team responsible for assuring your mission survives and thrives, they feel appreciated. Recognized. Trusted. This enables them to move forward as team players, rather than stewing about the unfairness of it all. It’s beyond time to retire the too-often-chanted nonprofit employee mantra: “Overworked and underpaid.” Folks sometimes wear this as a badge of pride on the outside; inside they stew. Burk notes that “research extending back 100 years is remarkably consistent in its conclusion that working beyond a standard 35-hour week is counterproductive.” This is not good for people or business.
- Be generous with benefits. Give vacations and flex time. Burk writes that fundraisers won’t abuse unlimited time off as long as it’s tied to the caveat that they must fulfill their responsibilities to both co-workers and donors. In other words, as long as you treat them as grown-ups. Not infantilizing your staff can go a long way towards making them feel rewarded.
- Give fundraisers chances to get promoted. It’s a smart strategy because Burk reports that the learning curve for most fundraising jobs is 10 months to 12 months and, on average, folks stay for 16 months—often leaving because they see no opportunity for growth. Rather than getting only 4 months of truly productive work out of a staffer, wouldn’t it make sense to hire from within? Hiring someone unknown from outside is not only more expensive and risky, but the search for an outside candidate also means the position is likely to be vacant for a longer period. And once the job is filled, the organization will spend more time getting the new person up to speed than it would with an existing employee.
- Invest in staff development. Offer opportunities to attend courses and conferences. Burk even recommends the old world concept of “apprenticeships” in other development departments instead of a standard orientation. For example, a newly hired direct-mail fundraiser would be required to work alongside colleagues writing grant proposals or seeking major gifts. In this manner, new hires will understand how their job fits into the overall fundraising operation—and other parts of the development office they might aspire to work in one day— rather than leaving the organization.
- Recognize that where money is concerned, satisfaction depends not on absolute salaries, but on how much we’re paid relative to our peers. It may not be a positive satisfier, yet dissatisfaction ensues from its perceived absence. I would suggest that senior development professionals perceive they could earn more outside the sector. They’re intelligent and creative. They have advanced degrees. They have friends who may not be as smart or hardworking, but who earn more. Combine this reality with the fact that fundraisers often are not well supported in their jobs by chief executives, boards and other staff members (the subject of my next post; stay tuned!), and you have a recipe for malaise.
Stay tuned for Part 2—brought to you by Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones where I’ll discuss: R.E.S.P.E.C.T and SATISFACTION (I can’t get no)—how the lack thereof may be the true number one reason fundraisers leave.
For today, tell me what you think in the comments below. How is fundraiser turnover about/not about money? What’s been your experience?