The broader cost of lost development officer time – a larger perspective

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We have discussed the value of frontline fundraiser time in a few instances. In these cases we looked at how individual development officer scenarios reflected lost potential.

In short, every hour that we divert a frontline fundraiser from actually being on the frontline results in a potential loss of gift income. For individuals this can mean that the diversion of two hours each week away from the frontline can cost $150-250k in lost gift income (based on MGO salary and gift income goals) each year.

We know that time is constantly diverted away from the frontline. Research shows that, while 54% of frontline fundraisers are expected to spend 75-100% of their time on major gifts, only 34% are actually able and empowered to focus that much of their time on major gifts.

20% of fundraisers whose primary responsibility is major giving aren’t spending a large portion of their time on frontline fundraising.

What gets in the way? It’s no surprise that the top area listed by survey respondents was administrative tasks. Our frontline fundraisers are spending their time attending internal meetings, managing staff, and running low ROI activities such as galas, events, and annual giving appeals. These are not unimportant activities for a program, especially one that is decentralized. However, as fundraiser salaries continue to grow (major gift officers regularly are hired at $90k+ at large institutions) the premiums that we pay as employers is lost on tasks that do not require the specialty skills of a frontline officer.

Moreover, many of the internal tasks that we ask fundraisers to do instead of working with donors are not the tasks that ultimately improve fundraising strategy and results. Road warrior fundraising only works with a comprehensive, high level strategy for engaging donors and strong priorities with high donor appeal. If we are asking fundraisers to spend 75%+ of their time raising money directly with donors, then the 25% of time away from the frontline should be spent deepening the pipeline, refining priorities, and collaborating with colleagues rather than drafting communications, attending management meetings, and being pulled into non-fundraising task forces.






Please note this does not disregard, but rather elevates the importance of back office support and meaningful prospect management, where strategy can create an even greater rate of return for the frontline.


Promotions that Lead to Attrition Part VI: The Unsolicited Promotion

This is the final part of a six-part series. Read parts I, II, IIIIV, and V.

What it looks like initially: Frank has been a long-time reliable stewardship officer. He grew into the role from an assistant capacity and has been mentored closely and proactively by Linda, his manager. Linda has continued to grow him as her second in command, providing opportunities to manage their staff, take on new projects, and supporting him through some major life events over the past 10 years. Feeling guilty that hers would be the next logical role for him to assume she decides to redefine his position and give him a promotion that increases his management load and responsibility for working with faculty liaisons and the gifts and records team.

Cut to 24 months later; Frank is struggling to keep up. He doesn’t want to be a leader in the organization and is now feeling too much stress having to manage more staff members. He doesn’t like to manage up and is very uncomfortable in the liaison aspects of the new role. On top of that the work he once loved – connecting donors and students  – is now a minimal part of his job.

Where it goes wrong: Frank likely stays for as long as he can out of obligation to his relationship with Linda. However, not wanting or being ready for the new role has left him both frustrated and overwhelmed. He starts underperforming and under or over-managing his team. Linda finds herself having to deal with performance issues that she had previously never thought possible with Frank.

How people usually leave: Frank will either find a new job in a smaller, less stressful organization or eventually be fired for underperformance.

What you can do about it:  Growing staff is important; growing team members with their goals in mind is pivotal. To avoid a situation like Frank’s, an organization has to work with and train managers to make sure they are prepared to advocate for their teams in the right way, namely:

  • Treating career conversations as a two-way exchange. A manager might be seeing a great future from his/her employee, but they must make changes and decisions with that individual’s own needs and goals in mind.
  • Refusing to accept only one path as “growth.” There’s more to growing as a professional than just increasing salary ranges and title seniority. For some employees, growth can come in the form of new projects, more autonomy, or increased collaboration. Moreover, in development, an individual’s best next step might be to make a lateral or even a demotional move so they can gain a critical skill/experience they need for their ultimate career goal. Tying your organization’s approach to career development to only include title and salary increases prevents more meaningful, flexible growth being an option for your employees.
  • Identify and work with employees struggling in new positions. The time to train someone for their new role is prior to them inhabiting it. Before new responsibilities are added to an employee’s portfolio there should be a concentrated effort to make sure that they are exposed to and practiced in the elements required by the new role.

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.