Much has been written about development director turnover. Yes, it’s a problem; it’s a problem well documented (and perhaps a little over exaggerated). New research from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy offers a more nuanced analysis of the turnover question, suggesting higher turn over occurs earlier in a professional’s career. But the fact remains that the average tenure for development directors is eighteen months.

While the economy is not in your favor if you’re hiring and there is a shortage of qualified candidates to fill the number of positions available, I think development director turnover is directly related to the approach executive directors and board members take when filling a position. I see (and have personally experienced) three main reasons why development staff seek new opportunities:

1. Development is not adequately funded beyond a staff position.

I hear it from board members and executive directors many times, “But we hired a staff person, why aren’t we seeing the fundraising results we expect?” The most experienced and successful development professional won’t be successful for long if they don’t have a budget to create materials, send direct response appeals, a professional database to track gifts and relationships, train staff and volunteers, cultivate relationships through personal contact, and continue their own professional development. Funding development requires more than just staff. It’s no different than an accountant without pencil, paper and calculator, or a doctor without a stethoscope. Ensuring adequate resources for development is an important step on the path towards a culture of philanthropy.

2. Board members and executive directors abdicating development responsibility.

“Whew, we’ve hired a director, we don’t have to worry about fundraising anymore.” A new development director shouldn’t reduce board members’ fundraising activity. Actually, it should increase! The activities will change and be more focused, but you will quickly lose a good director if you and your board members leave them holding the bag. In a development director, you are hiring a relationship manager; she/he will manage relations between you and your donors. Don’t abandon her/him, unless you like interviewing new candidates.

3. Expecting too much, too quickly.

The old adage is that it took a lot to get into this mess, it will take a lot to get out. That applies to fundraising. Development directors are not magical, they cannot spin gold from straw. Board members and executive directors (probably the former more than the latter) must understand that it may take 18-24 months before a development director will be “turning a profit.” That is not to say you can’t hold them accountable, but choose metrics thoughtfully. A new director needs to spend time meeting donors and volunteers, so measure visits and quality steps. There is also an education period, so charge new directors with spending time with program staff and board members as well as seeing the programs in action.

A couple months ago I had lunch with a CEO who was hiring her first development director. She asked me the most thoughtful question she could have, “What can I do to ensure the new director is successful…and stays.”

After commending her for the concern she shows, I shared a few recommendations:

  • Set clear and reasonable expectations, remembering those expectations won’t always include monetary goals.
  • Set expectations with board members and other staff before new director comes in.
  • Be available.
  • Help find the director a mentor or connect them to continuing education.
  • Move out of the way! Not completely, but whatever you do, don’t micromanage.

The relationship between CEO and development director is a special one; it’s a partnership. The interview and onboarding processes are just the beginning of the relationship. Like all relationships, it will take time, compromise, empathy, trust and respect. Some of the best CEO/ board member/development director relationships I’ve seen are united by shared vision, cooperation, and concern to support each other.

Staff turnover is a complex problem, with no single solution. However, you’re investing a lot of time and effort in hiring staff, for the sake of those you serve, make it count.

Adam Clevenger
Adam L. Clevenger, CFRE is Senior Associate at Loring Sternberg & Associates. He also serves as a board member for the Indiana Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.