How To Improve Fundraiser Retention

Fundraiser Retention

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

That disturbingly high turnover rates and low morale plague fundraising professionals is nothing new. Research going back almost two decades shows this to be true.

One study in particular found that the “average fundraiser stays on a job only 16 months.”

In fact, just last year, author Rob Webb called on us to act on fundraising turnover right here in NonProfit Pro.

The past research on turnover was best summarized by our colleague Penelope Burke as follows:

While the desire to change jobs was often motivated by more than one factor, these are the top four reasons why respondents were seeking another career opportunity:

  • 48% – to obtain a higher salary elsewhere.
  • 39% – because they felt they had achieved all they set out to accomplish.
  • 15% – to reduce commuting time / to work closer to home.
  • 31% – to get away from the “old-school culture” of fundraising.

The “old-school culture” of fundraising encompasses a number of issues identified by survey respondents, such 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.” Also, viewing fundraising expense as unfortunate cost rather than essential investment (fundraisers themselves sometimes perpetuate this view, by the way). And, last but not least, 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 my colleague Greg Warner, CEO and Founder of MarketSmart, shared ways for us to improve fundraiser retention, I thought you’d might like to know what he had to say.

Greg and I know each other through the CFRE-Certified Fundraising Executives International Network, a group of professionals in philanthropy, connected through LinkedIn, who have earned the Certified Fundraising Executive credential (or aspire to) and serve in executive-level positions. 

Here are Greg’s four practical recommendations for countering the “old-school culture” and raising retention rates:

1. Fundraisers, in his view, “suffer from the perception that their job is to go around begging for money,” an effort that tends to be seen as “deceptive, intrusive, and sometimes 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, Greg advises organizations to “do a better job of re-affirming and uplifting the honorable work of fundraisers, reminding them that what they’re doing really matters a lot and makes a profoundly positive difference.” 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. Nonprofit administrators may treat fundraisers as outsiders and may even perceive successful fundraising as a threat, “because they don’t want their own role to be reduced in importance.”

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, Greg says, 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 fulfil this role, Greg points out, “they raise more money and like their jobs far better.” Cementing an authentic partnership with the nonprofit administrator is critical to the fundraiser’s mental wellbeing.

3. Fundraisers “lose motivation” if administrators “take all the credit” for a record number of gifts, or “spread the credit around to ‘everyone’ on the team.”

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 proactively “manage-up” privately with the administrators about sharing the credit.

4. Fundraisers are often compelled to act as organizational press agents and expected to “explain to donors all the ways the organization is so great and wonderful.”

When, instead, fundraisers seek to operate from a more discerning donor-centric angle as described in item two above, “the administrator,” notes Greg, “may stigmatize them, directly or indirectly.  Either way,” he says, 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 little valued, their “passions cannot overcome these opposing pressures.”

The old-school, organization-centric approach, Greg Warner tells us, “Scored the lowest in job-satisfaction, trust and commitment for fundraisers” and itself needs to be addressed and moderated.

I’ve personally experienced all four of the turnover situations that Greg 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 look out for and avoid. 

These recommendations are actually a guide for preventing fundraising mishaps and improving your return on investment.

What’s your experience of dealing with turnover or having left a position after less than a year and a half on the job?  We welcome your comments and questions.

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