How to Improve Fundraiser Retention
Research going back almost two decades has shown disturbingly high turnover rates and low morale plague fundraising professionals. One study in particular found that the average fundraiser stays on a job for only 16 months.
Penelope Burk best summarized this past research on turnover. She explained how there was often more than one factor influencing the desire to switch jobs, but these were the top four reasons:
- 48% to obtain a higher salary elsewhere.
- 39% because they felt they had achieved all they set out to accomplish.
- 31% to get away from the “old-school culture” of fundraising.
- 15% to reduce commuting time and/or to work closer to home.
She described respondents most frequently cited “old-school culture” of fundraising views as:
- A lack of appreciation for the time it takes to cultivate donors and raise increasingly profitable gifts, often expressed by boards or CEOs as, “We have to have the money now.”
- Viewing fundraising expenses as an unfortunate cost rather than an essential investment.
- Seeing paid fundraising staff as replacing, rather than enhancing or supplementing, fundraising by leadership volunteers.”
To borrow the psychologist’s Carl Jung’s powerful metaphor, fundraising turnover is the shadow side of our profession. We can learn a lot by understanding what’s sabotaging us.
So when Greg Warner, CEO and founder of MarketSmart, shared ways to improve fundraiser retention with me, I thought you’d might like to know what he had to say.
Here are his four practical recommendations for countering the “old-school culture” and raising retention rates.
1. Avoid Misperceptions About Fundraising
“[Fundraisers] suffer from the perception that their job is to go around begging for money,” Warner said.
This effort, in his view, tends to be seen as deceptive, intrusive and confrontational.
Well, people do have these perceptions and often base them on unfortunate experiences that can mar their views of the work for a lifetime. However, Warner advised organizations to work on re-affirming and uplifting the honorable work of fundraisers.
“[Remind] them that what they’re doing really matters a lot and makes a profoundly positive difference,” he said.
To accentuate the positive, we need to do a better job of describing the relational work behind fundraising. Ask your CEO and board members to do the same.
2. Develop a Partnership Between the Fundraiser and the Nonprofit Administrator
Nonprofit administrators may treat fundraisers as outsiders and may even perceive successful fundraising as a threat, fearing their own role may lose importance, Warner said.
In addition, administrators may not understand what fundraisers really do. Sure, a fundraiser’s job is to raise money. But the real task of fundraising, Warner said, is to help donors and funders “advance their personal hero story through giving transformative gifts.”
The donors and foundation officers believe — and should be made to feel — that they are the heroes of the fundraising tale. The fundraiser is the guiding sage. When fundraisers are empowered to fulfill this role, the outcome is much better.
“They raise more money and like their jobs far better,” Warner said.
Cementing an authentic partnership with the nonprofit administrator is critical to the fundraiser’s mental well-being.
3. Give Credit Where Credit Is Due
Fundraisers lose motivation if administrators take all of the credit for a record number of gifts or give credit to the entire team,” Warner said. The converse is equally galling — when administrators not only take credit for the success, but blame the fundraiser for perceived failures in a down year.
Fundraisers should not lose control of the story behind their work. If necessary, they should privately and proactively manage up with the administrators about sharing the credit.
4. Encourage Fundraisers to Be Donor-Centric
Fundraisers are often compelled to act as organizational press agents and expected to share how the organization is great, Warner said. Instead, fundraisers seek to operate from a more discerning donor-centric angle as described in recommendation No. 2.
“The administrator may stigmatize them, directly or indirectly,” he said. “Either way, [the] fundraiser will feel it eventually.”
Most fundraisers care deeply about the missions of the organizations they serve. But when they feel their role is misunderstood or undervalued, it’s difficult for their passions to overcome these opposing pressures.
The old-school, organization-centric approach “scored the lowest in job-satisfaction, trust and commitment for fundraisers,” Warner said.
I’ve personally experienced all four of the turnover situations that Warner highlights, and those experiences have been painful. Yet for those of us who have worked through the struggles, it’s also been worthwhile.
The fact is that awareness of the high rate of turnover among fundraising executives and the reasons for it enables every nonprofit CEO and board member to know what to identify and avoid. These recommendations are actually a guide for preventing fundraising mishaps and improving your return on investment.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Laurence is author of "The Nonprofit Fundraising Solution," the first book on fundraising ever published by the American Management Association. He is chairman of LAPA Fundraising serving nonprofits throughout the U.S. and Europe.