Promotions that Lead to Attrition Part V: The Too-Late, Falsely Promised Promotion

This is the fifth of a six-part series. Read parts I, II, III, and IV.


What it looks like initially: Michael was hired because he had amazing potential. While his experience in fundraising was limited he came on board with 10+ years of sales experience and wowed everyone during the interview process. He was subsequently hired as a major gift officer. During the hiring process multiple people, including his boss, mentioned that they expected him to be a director of development within a year.

Cut to 24 months later; Michael has proven to be a performer but no promotion has happened. Red tape and bureaucracy make it difficult to promote someone so soon after hire – a reality no one initially relayed to the employee. On top of this – Michael has started to see a nice return on his outreach and is competitive with his peer development officers, all while earning $20k+ less than them. He has also seen his peers turnover for big titles and salaries outside of the org. He brings up his expected promotion yet again, finally provoking his manager to push it through and elevate his salary and title to be equal with his peers.

Where it goes wrong: Michael has effectively spent a full year+ fighting for a promotion he was promised at hire. When it finally does happen there is no rush of gratefulness or satisfaction by the employee at the recognition he receives in a promotion.  The benefit the organization gets from promoting him is far outweighed by the decreased engagement caused by the frustration he has faced. The strenuous process has furthermore left him with serious doubt as to the career potential of staying at the organization long-term. He also doesn’t trust what he hears from leadership as much; if they weren’t honest with him at the hire, what else could they be hiding?

How people usually leave: Michael will get his promotion and likely try to make the best of it. His next job, however, will be multiple steps up and out of the organization. The promotion experience has taught him that growth is achieved by leaving not staying. Instead of trying to find a way to grow internally he will apply elsewhere when he’s ready for more rather than approach his manager.

What you can do about it:  These delayed promotions happen particularly often when hiring individuals with transferable skills and resumes. There are things we can do on the talent management side to lessen their impact:

  • Don’t make promises at the hire that you cannot keep. If your organization’s HR process and approvals don’t allow for rapid promotions then you must admit that and focus on “selling” the other benefits of working at your organization to your candidate of choice.
  • Establish clear timelines and expectations for new hires over years not months. Development officer work in particular is subject to its ups and downs and someone new to the industry does not have a full understanding of the numerous factors in performance. In this example, Michael might have been focused on documenting estate commitments or might have been visiting and soliciting dollars close to the equivalent of other DOs in his first year, but is actually simply closing gifts cultivated by his predecessor. This makes the numbers look good but actually is a weak long-term strategy and might legitimately prevent him from moving up a level for some time. Without a clear timeline of long-term milestones and expectations, however, it is unfair to ask Michael to understand why he’s not getting a promotion when his numbers look good.
  • If you do hire with a promise of an early promotion: approach the hiring and early promotion process as the equivalent of a probation period. Instead of an annual review use the one-year anniversary as a measure of performance and confirmation of the position change. Work with HR to codify this process early and confirm with them before you make an initial offer.

Promotions that Lead to Attrition Part IV: The Empty Promotion

This is the fourth of a six part series. Read parts one, two, and three.
What it looks like initially: Jackie has shown great promise in her role running the fundraising team for a mid-size unit on campus. She’s made all of the right decisions, she’s successfully faced tricky board situations with poise, and leadership knows she is looking to move up or the organization runs the risk of losing her. She is promoted to a new, exciting title, Executive Director of Special Campaign Outreach, a role never used before in the organization.

Where it goes wrong: The new title is just that: a title. Functionally there is no difference between what Jackie’s responsibilities are now from her previous role. The prestige of the new title was billed as a large retention offer to Jackie: increased weigh-in on strategy, visibility to the board, ownership of new initiatives. What it offers to her in practice is no staff support, increased ambiguity, undefined expectations, and increased pressure to maintain her previous level of output despite being in a new role. She is given no more access to leadership nor are decisions delegated to her.

How people usually leave: Someone in Jackie’s position is likely to spend a few months making the most of an undefined role. She might initiate one or two new ideas and see them sputter out in implementation because she lacks the resources to drive change. She may burn internal bridges because she has no buy-in from leadership. Her new title does catch attention of recruiters, however, and eventually an institution with a clearly defined role will attract her. In many cases this recruitment is to the leadership team of the institution.

What you can do about it: Part of successfully attracting and keeping talent people is to be able to provide programs and responsibilities that inspire and challenge them. Creating a new role for a rising star isn’t a bad practice per se; it just requires strategic execution. To avoid a scenario like Jackie’s your leadership team should connect ahead of the promotion decision to:
  • Immediately and concretely define the role’s access to leadership and influence in decision-making.
  • Project workload and core responsibilities for this position three years from now. If you cannot articulate what the role will eventually become then it is an empty promotion.
  • Build a succession plan for Jackie’s previous responsibilities and former unit. A multi-month transition to the new role in which Jackie is given the opportunity to handoff her core responsibilities while taking on a new challenge eases the pain of a transition and maintains her confidence in her abilities during pressure points of the new position.

Promotions that Lead to Attrition Part III: The Promotion on Paper But Not in Practice

This is the third in a six part series on promotion-related losses. Read Part I and Part II.


What it looks like initially: Alan is promoted to a new role at your organization that involves him moving from being a direct report to a peer of Bonnie. He joins the same management team and has taken on a load of direct reports that were stretching Bonnie too thin. Bonnie and Alan now both report into the VP.

Where it goes wrong: While the what of the new relationship and org chart have been made clear the how of their working together is never addressed. As a result the individuals involved still maintain the power dynamic of the previous relationship. Bonnie still largely makes or influences decisions related to the team Alan manages. As someone new to a leadership role – Alan may not know how to represent his interests at the new management level, is given limited autonomy, and feels excluded from decision-making. He may even feel like a junior or secondary member of the management team to which he was promoted.

How people usually leave: Attrition in these circumstances usually comes in one of two ways: an escalated personality conflict between Alan and Bonnie that requires the VP to intervene or Alan withdrawing from decision-making and leadership conversations, resulting in unrealized expectations or underperformance and eventual severance (either voluntarily or involuntarily).

What you can do about it: Anytime the management or leadership team changes there should be a proactive evaluation and establishment of decision-making norms and autonomy expectations. This process has to be lead by the head (in this case the Vice President or Chief Development Officer equivalent) and involve both focused discussion amongst the new leaders as well as one-on-one sessions between the VP and his/her direct reports.

Another helpful practice is to provide outreach and resources to any newly promoted individual rising to a new level be it a manager or a leader. Ensure that they have a professional mentor and consider investing in a 3-6 month leadership coach for him/her.

An alternative to this scenario that is seen more frequently on a lower level in the organizational chart is where someone is promoted from a peer to a manager of a close colleague. Without deliberate attention and conversation about new expectations and behavior the result ends up being the same.


Note: The book “Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice” is a great resource on understanding the new expectations and presence required when an employee’s promotion places them on a new decision-making level.

Promotion Leads to Attrition Part II: Counter-Offer Losses

This is second of a six-part series on promotions leading to attrition. Read Part I here.


What it looks like initially: John is a middle to strong performer and has just hit his sweet spot with his portfolio. The team has struggled with turnover in the past and is just now settling into a consistent rhythm. All of a sudden leadership is blindsided because John has come to them with another offer. In a desperate attempt to retain John, HR manages to push through a last-minute raise and title bump.

Where it goes wrong:  No one in the organization believes this is a normal,merited promotion. Individuals with similar tenure and performance will start asking where their promotions are and their engagement and performance will fall. Seeking outside offers as the way to grow will become more likely to be accepted as the norm by other team members. Additionally, John, who may have been driven to seek the offer for rational reasons, will now be held to an impossible standard. Leadership will judge him more harshly in comparison to others and consistently expect him to “prove” he was worth retaining.

How people usually leave: 80% of the time in this scenario John will leave your organization anyway within a year. He’s already considered his options, his resume has likely been sent out at a few different competitors beyond that of the offer he already received, and the underlying factors that drove him to consider a new job (title, recognition, someone paying him more) are left unresolved or even exacerbated by the counter-offer process.
What you can do about it: Only make counter-offers when an additional 9-12 months will make a critical difference to your program, and make those offers with the expectation that this individual will leave you soon  anyway.
  • Work with your HR or organization administration to allow for retention offers that can happen without a viable or documented counter offer. Let your retention strategy be proactive based on performance and potential, and assume that all DOs are getting recruiting calls regularly.
  • Create clear expectations and milestones that indicate readiness for the next level. Follow through with those team members who deliver on those expectations.

Part of talent management success in an industry like development is the acceptance that fundraiser turnover will happen and, instead of trying to build an impossible program that retains DOs indefinitely,  the creation of a program that maximizes the time you do have with fundraisers.

Promotions That Increase the Attrition Risk of Your Team: Scenario A – The Unprepared Manager

It sounds counter-intuitive, right? Promotions are one of the greatest tools we have to reward and retain our performers. However, without a talent-forward strategy, promoting individuals can actually result in increasing the chances that they or others will leave your organization. In fundraising, where the ramp-up of performance requires 3-5 years of tenure, this means that our patterns for promotion of fundraisers can cut off their potential and impact on fundraising results. Over the next few days we will cover six scenarios in which promoting an individual actually harms your chances of retaining them.

The Unprepared Manager 


What it looks like initially: Jane has been a fantastic performer, in this case a top fundraiser. In order to retain her you promote her to a manager role with new responsibilities, a fancy title, and a pay bump.

Where it goes wrong: Jane has never managed before and because her status as a major gift fundraiser was already high her new role has a high level of visibility and influence. By default people tend to spend more time where they are comfortable, and Jane adheres to this standard and spends all of her time on what she knows: fundraising. Her team gets neglected and Jane finds herself underperforming for the first time in her career, something she does not handle well.

How people usually leave: Pretty soon Jane’s team’s frustrations become too high and they find other opportunities. An alternative scenario would see Jane herself leaving because she no longer wants to be a manager and sees no way to trace her steps back towards being an individual contributor once again.

What we can do about it: One thing we cannot afford to do is stop promoting people to become managers out of fear that they’re not ready for it. Our best performers want to keep growing and it is our duty in talent management to facilitate that growth. To avoid this scenario organizations should:

  • Offer Career Alternatives to Management: Your best fundraisers may not be good management material. In turn, knowing the cost of the time they spend in the office, the last thing your development shop may want is to take a high-producing fundraiser off the road. We need to be better about offering fundraisers increased portfolio and strategic planning responsibility without tacking on management as a contingency for success.
  • Build and Test Management Skills Ahead of a Promotion: Much of what you use as a manager can be cultivated prior to formally being responsible for the supervision of others. With a little creativity we can build out pilot programs and structures in which a rising fundraiser can investigate what management is truly like prior to taking on a role in which supervision is critical to their professional success. The University of Washington, for example, has built a fantastic model in which more senior fundraisers are asked to take on a “technical lead” with junior DOs prior to formal supervisory roles. This helps grow the senior fundraiser, coaches newer development officers in good fundraising practice, and prevents someone from taking on a management job only to realize that they have no interest in being a manager.
  • Acknowledge and Have Strategy for the Skill Gap: Anytime someone has been promoted there will be a learning curve before they are successful. New managers and their teams are particularly susceptible during the first 6 months in the role. Help a new manager better define her style, read the needs of the leadership team, and connect with her team through formal training, coaching, and mentorship built into the promotion.

Salary History – Does it matter in development?

hidden-moneyIn fundraising we are always recruiting, especially for development officers. Turnover is an unpleasant reality for which the best non-profits are always prepared. But what does strong recruitment look like? Are we asking the right questions rather than those that are standard? One commonly debated question to ask is about salary history.

Advocates for learning a candidate’s salary history early in the conversation argue that:

  • Someone’s salary provides a clearer picture of his/her true role in an organization. We work in an industry with wildly inconsistent and often inflated titles. Salary can help draw out a more consistent comparison of someone’s experience.
  • Salary history helps the recruiter know if their organization can “afford” this individual. Often salary bands and budgets in development are severely limited and assessing whether a candidate lines up with the projected expenses of the position prevents us from expending resources and investing time in a candidate where salary is a non-starter.
  • Salary history and data help hiring managers advocate for and secure more competitive offers from institutional decision-makers.
  • The discussion around salary helps to shed light on the motivating factors for a potential employee, helping identify fundraisers who are driven more by the mission than their own personal gain.

Personally, I do not find asking salary history to be the best move in recruitment. My primary three reasons against asking about salary history are:

  • Salary history doesn’t always correlate to what a candidate is currently looking for or will accept in their next position. Someone may be actively trying to live in a new city or want to raise their kids in a family-friendly college town or be looking for a healthier team to be a part of, and those factors may weigh more than getting a large salary jump in their next job.
  • Making offers based primarily on previous salaries can contribute to institutional inequity. Take a scenario where you make two strong hires: one from a large institution in an expensive city and another from a smaller, local, non-profit organization. If you start recruitment with salary history in mind you are setting up future colleagues who would otherwise be peers at your organization to come in at different salaries and have a semi-permanent pay gap between them.
  • A strong recruiter should know the industry, its institutions, and its pay well enough to make a mostly accurate assumption about salary based on job history and initial conversations with the candidates. Between the multiple vendors providing salary benchmarking, public universities having to disclose salary information, and the industry knowledge and networks of the current team, the tools for assessing salary are available to anyone recruiting development talent. Having the staff time and team member knowledge of how to utilize those tools tends to be the larger barrier organizations face.

In the for profit world there is currently a divide between the old practice of asking for salary history and the new paradigm of talent shortages. Development mirrors this dialogue. I suspect this conversation is far from over.