Fundraising Professionals: Decorating Your New Office? Don’t Bother. You Won’t Be There That Long!

P6Summary of a 2-Part Presentation for the Las Vegas Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (March 25 and September 23, 2016)

Decorating your new office?  Don’t bother.  Fundraising professionals change jobs on average just 16 to 19 months after being hired, so you won’t be there very long.  Although the days when workers stayed with an employer for many years is a thing of the past, a turnover rate of 16 to 19 months is extremely high.  Even our most job-mobile generation, the millennials, stay in a job about 5 years—three times longer than fundraising professionals.

This high turnover rate is bad for a nonprofit’s bottom line.

Turnover is expensive in general. 

Replacing an employee can cost as much as two times that employee’s annual salary in recruitment costs and lost productivity.  Additionally, it can take six months or more to replace a professional level employee.  When that employee is a fundraiser, development activity grinds to a halt—and the cost in missed development opportunities may be immeasurable.

A tenure of a year and half is too short for effective development activity. 

Stepping into a position that has likely been vacant for six months, it takes newly hired fundraisers as much as a year to get “up to speed” while they build relationships within the organization and rebuild neglected relationships and lost trust with donors and funders.  During that time, they may be able to do little more than gather low-hanging fruit.  Then six months later they are off to a new job, and the cycle repeats itself.

This high turnover rate is bad for fundraisers—personally and professionally.

Changing jobs (even voluntarily) ranks among the five or six most stress-creating life events.

Changing jobs creates a level of stress that ranks up there with getting divorced and experiencing a major illness or accident.  People who change jobs every year and a half are living with a perpetual stressor that can wear them down physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.

Frequent job changes can stall a career.

In the nonprofit world it is often the case that the only way to increase your income or advancing your career is by changing jobs (a problem we will come back to).  When potential employers see a pattern of changing jobs frequently after a short tenure, however, here is what they are thinking:

  1. Since the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, you probably will not stay with them any longer than you stayed in any of your previous jobs. We just suffered through a “development drought” while we went through a long, expensive and annoying recruitment process—and we do not want to be doing that again a year and a half from now.
  2. If you haven’t been in any one job for even two years, you probably have really just spent most of your time finishing up someone else’s work and going after low-hanging fruit—and probably have not really acquired and developed the advanced skills we need.
  3. Let’s keep looking.

Is it Burnout?

I have no doubt that people in the fundraising profession do experience burnout, but burnout does not sufficiently explain the revolving door trend.  Even fundraisers who report being happy and satisfied in their current positions take part in this ongoing profession-wide churning.

Additionally, I am always wary when people start talking about burnout because the tendency is to treat burnout as the employee’s problem, and therefore solutions focus on how the employee can deal with burnout.  Develop better time management skills.  Get more exercise.  Once the talk shifts to burnout, however, we rarely turn out attention back to what is actually going on in the organization.  And with an average turnover rate of about a year and a half for fundraising professionals, something is going on in nonprofit organizations.   In fact, many factors coalesce to create an environment that encourages fundraisers to move on—but there are steps you and your organizations can take to slow down the revolving door trend.

Compensation:  low compensation is the number on turnoverreason that fundraisers give for changing jobs.

Many nonprofit organizations do not (and some cannot) pay a competitive salary.  The smaller the organization the less able it is to meet its workers’ salary needs.  Additionally, our compensation needs naturally increase over time.  The salary that works for a new college student in a small apartment does not work for a couple or for a family that needs to plan for college and retirement.  All this works towards encouraging you to move from smaller to larger nonprofits that can pay more (leaving smaller nonprofits with less expensive and less experienced fundraisers).

Strategies for Fundraisers

Sharpen your career management skills. 

Given the current “turnover tarantella” in the fundraising profession, most fundraisers should anticipate looking for a new job sometime in the not-too-distant future.  If they want to slow down their participation in the rapid and frequent turnover trend, they should develop the skills they need to make good decisions about their next position.  With improved career management skills, they are more likely to be offered and accept positions in organizations that are a better fit for them—and when the fit is better, they are more likely to stay longer.

 Strategies for Leaders/Managers

 Pay a competitive salary to all employees. 

Easier said than done.  Few organizations are in a position to simply raise everyone’s salaries.  But if your organization does strategic planning (and it should), then that plan should include goals and objectives for bringing salaries in line with industry standards.  It is a matter of fairness, and people like to be treated fairly.  Additionally, when people see there is an actual strategy in place for getting them to fair compensation, that tells them that they are as important as programs and services or the new building that is being planned.  When people feel they are being treated fairly and are important to the organization and its leaders, they are less likely to move on.

 Find other ways to make working for the organization attractive.

Be creative.  Think of things that make the working environment better for fundraising professionals.  Think of things that can save them time.  Think of things that make it easier for them to maintain a balance between work life and personal life.  All these things help eliminate unnecessary stress—and when the level of unnecessary stress goes down, people feel good about where they work.  And when people feel good about where they work, they tend to stay around.  They also tend to be more productive.

Make a habit of acknowledging people’s efforts. 

We all like to know that our efforts matter and that our work makes a difference.  We feel good when those efforts are acknowledged.  Being thanked makes us feel good about ourselves. about our work and about the company where we work.  Letting people know that what they have done matters keeps them engaged, excited and motivated—and engaged, excited and motivated people are more likely to stay around.

Career Advancement:  Lack of career advancement opportunities is the second most often reason given by fundraisers for changing jobs.

Development departments tend to be small with limited opportunities (or none at all) for advancement within the department.  Also, nonprofits tend to have small executive leadership teams; while many development people hope to move into leadership positions—even executive director positions—a small leadership team offers very limited opportunities for advancement within the organization.  Fundraisers quickly realize that if they want to “move up” they have to “move out.”

Strategy for Fundraisers

Be proactive when it comes to your career development. 

Fundraisers shouldn’t wait for employers to provide training and development opportunities.  Rather they should plan their own development program.  This decreases the need to move from one organization to another in order to develop new skills and abilities.   They may still have to “move out” to “move up” but it takes fewer intermediate job changes to get where they want to be.

Strategy for Leaders/Managers

Make a commitment to staff development—even if you can offer little or no actual career ladder to climb—and think of it as an investment rather than an expense.

 The payback of investing in staff training and development is immense.

  • Knowing that an employer is willing to provide training and development makes an employee feel valued—and that breeds loyalty. Loyal employees are not prone to leave.
  • Employee development keeps work from being boring and can keep your employees engaged at work. Engaged employees are more likely to stay around longer.
  • Employee development is viewed as a benefit and helps with the compensation difficulty discussed above.

But the payback goes beyond employee retention.

  • Investing in training and development produces well-trained, confident and engaged employees who are going to do better work in the long run—and that is going to save money as they become more proficient and efficient.
  • Employee development makes an employer more attractive to potential employees. When an organization invests in its people, it attracts the best staff, while offering training, continuing education, conference attendance—or even something as simple as a book allowance—attracts employees who are looking to better themselves.
  • Being committed to employee development improves the organization’s reputation. When staff members do leave to work elsewhere they take the message that they come from a great place to work.

Structural Issues

At some point every organization is challenged by structures and processes that seem to impede rather than support its ability to meet goals and achieve its mission. Simply put, what got them from Point A to Point B in the past no longer works—or at least it is harder and takes longer to get from B to C.  Reporting structures can become roadblocks.  Communication slows and requires a magic decoder ring.  Silos develop inhibiting collaborating and stifling innovation and creativity. New skill sets are needed that no one seems to have.  The structural challenge most often cited by fundraisers as a reason for leaving involves leaders, managers and board members.

Poor leadership and managerial skills drive employees to look for work elsewhere.

When you ask employees what would improve retention rates, in addition to better compensation and more advancement opportunities, they cite strong leadership.  They want leaders who, among other things, can:

  • Communicate well (including the ability to listen)
  • Facilitate change
  • Strategize and connect their people to that strategy
  • Empower people and engage them in decision-making
  • Build trust, bring people together, inspire and motivate people and show appreciation.

These are all skills that leaders can learn and develop.  But it is easy for nonprofit leaders to focus their attention and efforts exclusively on immediate needs and to pay less attention to the systemic issues that ultimately drive an organization’s long-term success. One area that they often neglect is their own development.

Lack of board formation drives fundraisers to look for work elsewhere.

One of the frequent consequences of structural challenges in an organization is a lack of clarity about who does what and how.  That lack of clarity can extend to an organization’s board.  Often board members don’t understand their own role on the board in general and in fundraising in particular.  Many board members do not actually understand how fundraising works, nor do they understand the specific strategies fundraisers use to generate contributions.  They only know that they are supposed to assist with fundraising.

Without a clear understanding of what is expected of them and without training on how to support fundraising efforts, some board members will offer no assistance or support to fundraising efforts at all.  More problematic and frustrating for fundraisers, however, are board members who go off on their own with activities that conflict with the work of fundraising staff.  This independent activity is not just frustrating and stressful for fundraisers; it is frequently damaging to the agency’s development efforts.

Strategy for Fundraisers

 Claim a seat at the board room table.

Be proactive with board development around fundraising.  Fundraisers should push for opportunities to join board meetings to inform board members on what fundraising is, how fundraising and development works, what the current development strategies are and what assistance is needed from board members.

Strategies for Leaders/Managers

Make your own leadership/management skills development a priority. 

Get help in evaluating your leadership and management strengths and weakness—then create a strategic leadership program for yourself.  This requires a certain amount of humility:  you have to be willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers and that there is room for improvement.

Make board formation and ongoing development a priority.  

Create a clear picture of the board’s role, recruit board members based upon needed skills, develop job descriptions for board members, and educate board members on their role.  Incorporate development into regular board processes.  In the area of fundraising, bring in fundraising staff to explain what they do and how fundraising works, their goals and objectives, and their strategies.  Facilitate the building of relationships between fundraisers and board members.

Cultural Issues

An organization’s culture consists of the values, beliefs and attitudes that are operative in the organization.  These operative values, beliefs and attitude may be the same as the organization’s espoused valued, beliefs and attitudes—or they may not be.    It is, however, the operative rather than the espoused that guide behavior and practices and sculpt a worker’s experience.

Fundraising professionals consistently report that their organizations’ attitude towards their development work is not altogether positive.  In some organizations (perhaps even most organizations), development work is perceived as not being part of the core of what the organization is about.  Development work is (regrettably) necessary so that they can do the real work of the organization.

When the culture doesn’t view and value development work as a mission-aligned program of the organization, fundraisers do not stay around very long.  Fundraisers often find themselves isolated and without the support they need within the organization.  When they reach out, they are politely told in a dozen different ways, “It’s not my job.”  They often find they are left out of strategic discussions and parts of the decision-making process—and then find themselves unexpectedly saddled with unrealistic expectations and unattainable goals.  By the way, conversely, when fundraisers are left out of strategic discussions and the decision-making process, organizations miss out on the possibility of fundraisers saying, “Wait a minute!  We can do more than that!”

Strategy for Fundraisers

Work on building relationships within the organization.

A culture of philanthropy is rooted in relationship-building.  Don’t ignore relationships within your organization.  Giving attention to those relationships can help shift people’s perception of and attitude towards development work.

Teach your coworkers about what you do.

Create opportunities—both informal and formal—to help people understand what philanthropy is, what you do, how what you do impacts what they do, etc.  Information goes a long way when it comes to building relationships and partnerships.

Strategy for Leaders/Managers

Start shifting the culture from a culture of fundraising to a culture of philanthropy. 

The most effective organizations embrace a culture of philanthropy.  In a culture of philanthropy fund development is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program along with the other work of the organizations.  Everyone in the organization—from the janitor to the board chair—promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving, and most people in the organization act as ambassadors and engage in the relationship building that is the heart of philanthropy and development.

Cultural change is unquestionably difficult, but it is not impossible.  Leaders can start by increasing the visibility and involvement of development staff in planning and decision-making—and by setting an example by increasing their own commitment to and involvement in fundraising.  For a full-scale cultural shift, they may need outside assistance.

One Size Does Not Fit All

High turnover among fundraising professionals impacts the success and well-being of nonprofit organizations and of the fundraising professionals who support them.  No two organizations, however, are exactly the same.  What may be behind high turnover in one organization may not be an issue in another.

If the Development Office has a revolving door, and you want to do something about it, take the time to assess and understand your own specific situation so that you can apply the right solution to the problem.  “Random Acts of Problem Solving” only work by happy coincidence and more frequently waste valuable time, energy and resources.  But with the right tool for the right job, you’ll get the outcomes you need faster and with a lot less work!


Kevin P Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.  Kevin currently provide services to non-profit organizations through a partnership with Professionals in Philanthropy.

LinkedIn: Kevin P. Dincher

Posted in Employee retention, Employee turnover, Leadership, Management, Non-profit Management, Organization Development (OD). Tags: , , , , , . Comments Off on Fundraising Professionals: Decorating Your New Office? Don’t Bother. You Won’t Be There That Long!
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