Five reasons why fundraisers leave – the challenge of keeping talent in a time of competition

We’ve seen and heard a lot about fundraiser turnover – that the average tenure is 2 years or less an an institution, that millennials don’t have staying power because they’re always looking for the next big thing, that non-profits can’t keep up with rising salaries and titles available in the big shops. But where does speculation end and truth begin?

First off – we are doing better in keeping employees engaged than we think. There is not a huge contingent of fundraisers constantly seeking new employment. In fact, as figures 1 below shows,  less than 5% of all fundraisers with less than 10 years of experience are actively seeking new employment.

figure 1

(source: 2014 Bentz Whaley Flessner survey data)

Whos looking for jobs


With the high demand for talent we have to assume that those who are actively seeking new employment will find it in the next few months. The  incredibly low ratio of open frontline positions to active candidates (based on careerbuilder data) makes that unavoidable. But what of the remaining 10-25% of candidates who are not actively searching but whom data shows are likely to leave? How do we better understand their motivations so we can minimize turnover and maximize our talent effectiveness? Below are five reasons why fundraisers leave:

Reason #1: Bad culture and/or management

Everyone wants to come to a workplace that they enjoy. Environment, colleagues, and expectations are key drivers of engagement of employees. A toxic culture will often push out your best talent, making competing offers look more appealing each day that they come into an office that is dominated by bad behavior, negative values, or favoritism.

Similarly team members may find themselves most frustrated by their managers. In many shops fundraisers are managed in one of three ways (a) they report to a senior leadership team member with too many responsibilities and direct reports to have time to work closely with the fundraiser, (b) they fall under a more senior fundraiser who is tackling both management responsibilities (with no training in management) as well as fundraising for a full portfolio, or (c) they have dual reporting lines with conflicting expectations and priorities  between central development and their unit/dean/division chair. In any of these scenarios the employee management of the fundraiser is easily pushed to a second tier priority. As a result fundraisers grow frustrated, feel neglected, and often find themselves butting up against reason # 2 which is….

Reason #2: Limited growth and learning opportunities in the first five years

There is a natural tension in development between creating growth opportunities and waiting for the ROI to be realized from new hire ramp up periods. New fundraisers usually do not produce sizable gift results until 3-4 years into their time at an institution (a time frame that extends or contracts based on the portfolio size and warmth that is inherited).  However, these team members will not wait 4 years to grow, be promoted or receive recognition. In fact after the first 18-24 months of an employee’s tenure they are considering a career move every six months. Nonprofit institutions who don’t match that frequency with touchpoints, new opportunities, or meaningful professional development can lose these fundraisers in their first few years, just when it’s most expensive to do so.


Why is five years the cutoff here? For one thing, we know that employees who reach the five year mark are more likely to stay at an organization for the long-term. We also have learned that after five years employees are generally looking less for frequent promotions or learning opportunities in favor of increased autonomy and focused professional development.

Reason #3: Leadership or institutional changes

Major change increases attrition risks across the board – having potential to spur talent loss from both frontline and operations teams. In an industry where there are high turnover rates at the top, from university presidents (average tenure 7 years), to non-profit CEOs (average tenure 3-5 years), to deans (average tenure 5.73 years) to chief development officers (50% leave within 2 years) attrition has a tendency to spread from the top down.  With the loss of a leader and addition of a newcomer in a senior position the entire team faces a shift in priorities, performance expectations, management style, and social power.

Other major changes to a development program can also lead to talent leaving you due to changing expectations, shifting culture, or a change of focus in priorities. In many cases the change itself distracts or prevents fundraisers from being able to focus on what they were hired to do – raise money. Key an eye on your top talent when any of the following other changes occur:

  • re-organization of programs (including creation or absorption of an institutionally related foundation)
  • major expansion or contraction of program size and headcount
  • systems conversions, centralization of major processes
  • political or social controversy
  • unionizing faculty or institutional staff

Reason #4: Campaign and career milestones

In this post we talked about major milestones in a career in development. There are certain key events that shape how people reflect on their careers in this industry. For fundraisers these often revolve around participating in or leading a successful, historic campaign, managing a team, and raising at least one seven figure gift (for those who are at smaller institutions the goal threshold for largest gift may be lower). In many cases a fundraiser will leave if (a) they feel that they are unable to reach or achieve these milestones or (b) they have surpassed such milestones (a successful campaign, a big gift, etc) and are looking for what’s next.

Reason #5: Lack of passion for the institution, connection to its impact

The best fundraisers are those who are more philanthropic and altruistic themselves; that passion allows them to connect with donors in a more authentic manner. Those top fundraisers who bring in $100m+ gifts remain at an institution for a long time, fostering a deep passion for the institution, and connecting and caring for its donors. In short, the best fundraisers are those who view themselves as part of the inspired donor community rather than a party to it. Fundraisers can leave an institution if they become disenchanted by the reality of the organization, they lack a connection to the impact of the organization, or their own philanthropic interests and passions lie elsewhere.



One thought on “Five reasons why fundraisers leave – the challenge of keeping talent in a time of competition

  1. Pingback: Salary History – Does it matter in development? | Targeting Fundraising Talent

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