A 2013 study conducted by Compass Point Non-profit Services found that one in four executive directors was so unhappy with the organization’s development director that the last person to hold the job was fired; and more than half said they cannot find qualified people to fill the role. The interesting part of the study is that development directors felt the same way. A jaw-dropping 50 percent planned to leave their job in the next year and 40 percent wanted to leave fundraising entirely. In fact, according to Penelope Burk, the average length of stay for development directors is down to 16 months. Surveys show that the primary reasons they leave is for better paying jobs with more advancement.
So what can be done to address these problems? How can you avoid fundraiser turnover in your organization?
Start Strong with Clearly Defined Goals and Honesty
I have found that not-for-profit boards, CEOs and fundraising staff frequently have very different ideas about what the goals of fundraising should be. Long-term success in fundraising is reliant on strong relationships, which take time to cultivate; but board members and CEOs want immediate results that impact their budget shortfalls right away. To meet the demand, fundraisers wind up taking shortcuts to raise big dollars, which leads to burnout. If the goals were set differently in the first place, development staff would stay longer. Retaining the best possible fundraising candidates actually starts before the candidate is even hired. Begin by developing clear expectations about the type of work the person will be doing and the outcomes he or she is expected to achieve and then make sure these appear in the job announcement.
Be honest about goals from the start, but keep up the honesty when sharing about your notfor-profit. During the interview, share honest information about what is happening at the not-for-profit. Giving prospective employees the opportunity to consider the challenges of the job and commit to them before being hired will help improve retention long-term.
Develop a Pool of Strong Candidates
You can increase the likelihood of fundraiser success in your organization by ensuring that you create a strong pool of candidates from which to choose. Ideally, this pool should include candidates with a CFRE, a not-forprofit management degree or multiple years of fundraising experience. But if you can’t find that person or cannot afford that person, then do the next best thing: find a teachable person with the right combination of skills and attributes.
The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) lists the following essential attributes for fundraisers:
- Ethics and integrity
- Ability to listen well
- Ability to tell a story
- Strong values and a desire to make a difference
- Dedication to and belief in the cause
Many organizations hire people for fundraising jobs who come from other professions. Common “crossovers” include marketing and public relations professionals, bankers or trust officers, social workers and salespeople, among others. While many of the skill sets required to be successful in these professions are shared by professional fundraising, expecting a crossover candidate to understand the not-forprofit world or be well-versed in fundraising is a mistake made by many organizations. These candidates will need more training and support than you might otherwise expect.
Here are some other characteristics or skill sets I believe you must look for in addition to those listed above, and that should help you weed out poor candidates:
Writing: Fundraising professionals must be good writers in order to be successful, especially in smaller shops. We write solicitation and thank you letters, grants, marketing materials, Cases for Support and much more. Be sure your prospect is a good writer. One tell-tale sign is the quality of the cover letter. Ask for a writing sample to be sure.
Optimism: Ask your prospect about a time when things were really bad and what he or she did to rise above the situation. After all, fundraisers receive criticism and rejection regularly, and sometimes things go very badly in our organizations and we must soldier forth with our heads held high. If your prospect cannot tell a story about overcoming obstacles with optimism and perseverance, then move on.
Willingness to learn and to try new things: Many people could become good fundraisers with some additional training, so a person who is eager to learn and is humble enough to admit not having all the answers is a good candidate. In addition, a candidate who is willing to seek out new ideas, assess their validity, and make a valiant attempt to implement those ideas is a person who will succeed as a fundraiser for your organization. Bottom line: if you cannot find a person with fundraising experience or training, make sure you find someone who is willing to learn and to try new things.
Looking and acting the part: If you go to a networking event for fundraising professionals, you will find a group of people with positive demeanors, stellar manners and impeccable dress. Why? Because they have learned that to be successful in fundraising, one must look and act the part. You have to be comfortable rubbing elbows with the very wealthy or at least look like you are. A candidate who does not appear to have these attributes can still be successful (I have known many fantastic fundraisers who were neither charming nor stylish), but it sure helps make a positive first impression with a new donor.
To summarize: seek a pool of candidates who have the right level of education, experience, key skill sets, and most of all, willingness to learn the craft of fundraising.
Invest in Your Employee’s Success
Once you’ve found the person who fits your needs and understands the expectations of the job, provide sufficient training. Training is key, because even the most capable individuals will struggle with fundraising if they do not have sufficient training in the craft of fundraising. Here are some suggestions on how to invest in your new employee to help ensure success on the job.
Fundamentals Training: There are so many offerings for fundraising training in the marketplace that it boggles the mind. It is hard to know where to start and what represents the best content for your new staff person. There are many free and low-cost offerings provided by a number of respectable sources, but this piecemeal approach may leave your staff person feeling overwhelmed or scattered. I believe the very best route is the Fundamentals of Fundraising Course taught nationwide by AFP. This comprehensive survey course gives attendees both the context for how they should approach their work as well as the nuts and bolts to be effective in their work.
Mentoring: Having a seasoned fundraiser as a mentor can be invaluable to a new fundraiser. A membership in a local AFP chapter provides the opportunity for mentoring from seasoned fundraisers. I know from experience in the mentoring program of my own AFP chapter that it can be a life-changing experience for both people involved.
Credentials: You do not have to have a CFRE to be an effective fundraiser. In fact, you have to be employed as a full-time fundraiser for five years before earning the credential. It is the process of earning and maintaining the CFRE that is the most beneficial aspect. Taking the classes and doing the work necessary to achieve the credential requires a high level of commitment; but once the credential is earned, the continuing education required to keep it means your staff person is staying up-to-date on the latest fundraising approaches and ideas.
You can buck the trend in fundraiser turnover by working to retain staff before they are even hired. The formula is simple: clear communication throughout the relationship; clear expectations before the hire; positive behaviors that are reinforced with constructive feedback during the work experience; and clear, mutually determined goals revisited regularly.