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3 Reasons Why Fundraiser Turnover Is High (And What You Can Do About It)

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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.

Fundraiser 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.

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  • Simone Joye

    As a 30-year DD veteran, who has also served as a 3x ED, I have given up working as a DD “on staff.” Recently, I sat down with a CEO of a Chamber of Commerce. I was excited to share I had just received a million dollars from a six month cultivation. His response “jolted me.” He asked what was my personal benefit? He relayed if I worked in a for-profit and brought in a million dollars, I would likely receive a hefty bonus! Eureka! DDs need performance bonuses! You want me to raise $30 million, while my salary is $150K (if that), my retirement match, if any is 6% and I will get a 4% raise at the end of the year if I’m lucky. Then I may also be paying part of my health and dental. However, the CEO/ED is making $300,000+ a year with a housing/car allowance and getting bonuses. Add that to what everyone else has written in the comments. Fundraisers are being ROBBED for the sake of “helping the mission.” The question is not why are we leaving, but why do we stay?
  • Detroit Fundraiser

    I have been in the fundraising field for 15 years. When there is a turnover problem, it is because of unrealistic expectations of the development professional by board members and/or the President and CEO and board members and volunteers bullying development staff. Time and time again, I have seen board members berate and demean development staff because they feel they can because they give the organization money.
  • Can't Find New Major Donors? - High Impact Nonprofit Advisors

    […] should also ask themselves a question, especially with fundraisers staying in their jobs for only a few years. If fundraisers bring donors from past relationships, is it not necessary for them to take those […]
  • Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE

    As a 30+ year fundraising professional, I agree with all who said this is not a new topic. This revolving door has been revolving for a long time! I'm working with a client now who hired their first Development Director six months ago. One of the challenges not previously mentioned is the role of the CEO in managing the development position. It's new the CEO and to the organization so they are learning on-the-job how to supervise and support their new employee while also managing board expectations for the position. Helping CEOs navigate this new responsibility is an important but often overlooked aspect of the turnover problem.
  • Michael Braeuninger

    So happy to have found this article. Clearly I am not alone, and my struggles as a 5-year in development director is not unique to me. Every issue in this article I have experienced first-hand at least once. Douglas Stein's comment is probably the best advice for a fundraising professional: research the financial health and history of the organization and look for signs of bad management. I would add to that, ask tough questions i the interview including: has anyone else held the DD role before and for how long? Do you have a development strategic plan, when was it created, and how often is it referenced. Also, what is your vision for organizational growth? (this last one is important because the vision for growth might boil down to "more money" which is not a vision for growth at all). Has your prospective boss worked in F/D him our herself and what was their experience? I could go on, but for sure, you have to know what you are getting yourself into, and be very clear about how you work, what you need to be successful, and how willing they are to meet those needs.
  • Susan Axelrod

    omg Michael-you sleigh me! you are SO RIGHT. I HAVE BEEN IN THE FIELD FOR 33 YEARS AND SINCE YOU MENTION IT, DITTO! the 'turnover' rate has been the same since. I'M DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT. AS A FUNDRAISING COACH, I WORK ONLY WITH THE NONPROFIT CEO/DECISION MAKER TO HELP THEM GET IT. you're welcome. of course, I'm just one person, working with one NP CEO at a time, but I'm least I'm doing SOMETHING.
  • Douglas H. Stein

    As a casualty of the fundraising turnover crisis in 2016, my advice to other fundraisers who are being courted or are thinking of a transition: do yourself a HUGE FAVOR and conduct a thorough examination of the 990 to determine the debt position. This will help clarify what you're getting yourself into and the amount of $$$ needed annually to pay the debt service. Where there is unhealthy and unsustainable debt, there are often unhealthy and unrealistic expectations for the new fundraiser to come in and work miracles. Or maybe you're not a magician pulling rabbits out of the hat with "quick cash." That caveat is for fundraisers at the senior level. Do your homework before you even start interviewing.
  • Adam Clevenger

    Thank you, Nathan. I appreciate your thoughts. I agree, the overhead issue is a tough one to overcome. The lack of investment is a vicious cycle, this is especially true when organizations don't fund development activities, just the person.
  • Adam Clevenger

    Hey Michael, You're not being a downer; in fact, I don't disagree at all. I have the same reaction to retention and the lack of stewardship...what will it take for people to listen? The discussion about turnover is often a fundraiser's echo chamber. I talk to enough CEOs to know that they care about the issue too, but many just accept it. Complacency is probably the biggest problem facing the sector. The few, the good few, have taken the advice outlined here and built strong relationships benefitting the organizations and the professionals. Your question about the obstacles is one worth exploring!
  • Nathan Stelter

    Great post and points Adam! It's so frustrating to see the amount of turnover in the development world (we see about a 24-month tenure in development positions with some of the nonprofits we work with). It's next to impossible to build a successful fundraising program if there's constantly a revolving door. Along with your points above, I'd argue that the way some donors and ratings systems handicap nonprofits by giving them lower rankings, because they invest more in personnel and overhead, is also a cause for lack of success in recruiting, hiring and keeping great fundraising people. I just posted a blog on this the other day,
  • Michael J. Rosen

    Adam, thank you for raising an important topic. I have great respect for you and the Lilly School of Philanthropy. Unfortunately, do you know what's going to change as a result of the School's new report and your article? Nothing. Let me be clear. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. NOTHING!!! How do I know? I've been there. Nevertheless, I applaud your effort. I've been a fundraising professional for about 37 years. Almost as soon as I entered the profession, I heard about the problem of development staff turnover. Since then, every few years sees the issue once again gaining popularity. Still, nothing substantive ever changes. The problem lives on and continues to be researched and debated again at some future date. Nonprofit managers do not need new research or bright, new, shiny ideas. We know what the problem is. We know, or can easily find, the right solutions. Yet, did I mention, NOTHING changes. It's ridiculous and offensive. I could even make an argument for it being unethical. Here's an idea for a future article topic: Why have nonprofit managers refused to solve this problem over the past nearly four decades (actually, probably longer than that)? Nonprofits know, or should know, what needs to be done. So, what's the obstacle to doing what it takes? I apologize for being a downer. I just thought a reality check should be part of the conversation.
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