Why Fundraisers Leave—Differentiating Retention Strategies for Your Front Line

Originally published February 26, 2015

Fundraiser recruitment and retention is a hot topic in our industry for good reason: the demand for talented fundraisers far exceeds the supply. Development shops of all shapes and sizes are struggling to keep the talent they have. However, how we think about retention may be misguided.

There are a few key trends to consider:

  • Most fundraisers believe that their salary and benefits packages are competitive.
  • Less than 10% of front-line fundraisers are actively looking for a new job.
  • Management and leadership largely shape how satisfied or dissatisfied team members are.

The trends listed above are about fundraisers in general, but there are several layers to how front-line fundraisers become engaged in your organization and vulnerable to poaching over time.

BWF studied how front-line fundraisers differed in their engagement based on their tenure at an organization. We found that retention strategies are better differentiated based on how long someone has been a member of the team, largely due to the following three trends:

Newcomers to the Team Need Time and Guidance to Adapt

Fundraisers with less than two years of tenure at an organization had slightly higher dissatisfaction rates and lower rates of high satisfaction than their peers who had been there at least two years(24% of those with <2 years reporting being very satisfied versus 36% of those who had been there 2–5 years). The top reason for dissatisfaction? Office culture. Regardless of whether newcomers to your development program are experienced professionals or novices, they are coming to an office with different values, relationships and approaches. Learning how to navigate a new institution and find your “fit” amongst a team is a top obstacle for new hires.

Team Members are Most Vulnerable to Poaching and Most Costly to be Poached Between Years 2 and 5

After the first two years, we can assume that newcomers who might have been frustrated with culture have either adapted or left. Fundraisers are then finding their stride, bonding with team members, progressing beyond a discovery-heavy portfolio, and seeing their first big successes with your donors. On average, their satisfaction increases. This is also the performance “ramp-up” period for fundraisers (our data show that portfolio performance grows slowly in newcomers through year 3 and then jumps dramatically). The institution begins to receive a healthy return on its investment during this period.

However, this is a period of high risk for losing your team members. Even though only 6% of this group is actively searching for a new position, nearly 30% are passively open to opportunities when they are approached. And after 24 months at an organization, fundraisers have a long enough time period on their resume to avoid raising eyebrows. Be assured that they are being contacted (27% report at least 10+ instances of contact about new opportunities in a year-long period). This can also be a period where team members become disillusioned, pointing to leadership and unrealistic expectations as primary causes of dissatisfaction.

Dissatisfaction Increases as Fundraisers Gain Tenure

Across stages of tenure, there is one more interesting trend: those with over a decade of experience at an institution have the highest dissatisfaction rates. High tenure fundraisers are more comfortable with your office culture and accustomed to the expectations placed upon them. They are, however, equally familiar with any dysfunction in your development office, particularly if there is weak management and leadership. Frontline fundraisers who have been at an institution over 10+ years may now have limited management oversight but bigger responsibilities and are more acutely affected by mismanagement than their lower tenure peers.

Source: Bentz Whaley Flessner Front-Line Fundraiser Study, 2014.

So What Does This Mean for You?

Here’s how you can hone your retention strategies based on these findings:

  • Focus on easing the adjustment to a new culture and institution for new hires.
  • Create growth and leadership opportunities before formal promotions.
  • Improve transparency in expectations during fundraiser performance ramp-ups.
  • Foster ownership of institutional and management improvements amongst high tenure team members.

BWF’s TalentED practice partners with non-profit institutions to optimize fundraising outcomes through customized team and skill-building workshops, talent management and learning development program assessments and planning, and thought leadership and research on the talent crisis in development. To learn more about how you might better find, keep, and grow your talent contact us at training@bwf.com.

Copyright © 2015 Bentz Whaley Flessner & Associates, Inc

MGOs: Why a New Job Should NOT Be on Your 2015 To-Do List

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The rate of turnover among fundraisers remains high, and among no cohort of advancement professionals is this movement more pronounced than major gift officers (MGOs). Recent studies and surveys by CASE, AFP and others suggest the average tenure of a frontline fundraiser is now somewhere in the range of 2.4 to 3.5 years.

Whatever the actual tenure numbers may be, it’s obvious that a lot of major gift officers are on the move. And if you’re not already among them, it’s highly likely there will be attempts to convince you that you should be: A 2014 survey by our firm, Bentz Whaley Flessner (BWF), found that two-thirds of all frontline fundraisers with at least two years of major gift experience had received at least three recruiting contacts during the prior year, with a significant subset of that cohort receiving even more (see adjacent chart).

In other words, if you’re a major gift officer with even a smidgen of experience someone will try enticing you to move in 2015. My advice: Don’t do it.

Bar Chart 001My rationale for dissuading you from changing jobs boils down to the proverb, “good things come to those who wait.” Frontline fundraisers who truly want to achieve success and produce transformational outcomes must be prepared to make an up-front investment of time—in their institutions, in their donors, and in themselves. Frequent moves do not serve you well, for several reasons:

  • Practice, Practice, Practice. The skills for effective cultivation, solicitation, negotiation and closing are only acquired through practice. Major gift fundraising is an art, and to become good at it requires training, repetition and lots of hands-on experience. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests that proficiency in any complex task is only achieved after 10,000 hours of practice. If we accept Gladwell’s rule and apply it to fundraising, we can project that a first-time gift officer will require almost five years to become effective at their work: 10,000 hours ÷ (40 hours x 52 weeks) = 4.8 years.
  • Gladwell is Right. Additional research conducted by BWF on behalf of our clients confirms the validity of Gladwell’s proposition:  When measuring the year-to-year progression of major gift officers’ productivity, it MGO Productivity 001isn’t until their fourth year that fundraisers begin to generate significant output from their prospect portfolios. (See adjacent graph.) Once a gift officer turns that corner, their output continues to grow at substantial rates.
  • Relationship-Building Requires… Relationships. BWF’s finding that gift officers require ramp-up time before generating significant returns from their portfolio should not be surprising. Major gift fundraising is a relationship-based endeavor, and relationships cannot be built overnight. While the most important relationships are always between the donor and the organization, the connection between a donor and a fundraiser is crucial. Only through a series of conversations and contacts can a gift officer come to understand a donor’s interests, capacity, motivations and readiness. And moving through that process requires the donor to have a substantial level of comfort with and trust in the fundraiser who is their principal contact. Frequent changes in fundraisers interrupts and delays the process—or even terminate it if a new gift officer doesn’t quickly pick up the ball again.
  • Longevity Yields a Better Portfolio. Another reason it takes a few years for gift officers to begin tapping the capacity of their assigned prospects is that new fundraisers usually receive a “discovery” portfolio that will initially require numerous qualifying calls, many of which will result in prospects being dropped from consideration. Those dropped prospects will be replaced by others before this iterative process eventuallyBalancing Time And Dollar develops for each fundraiser a solid collection of genuine major gift donors. Our firm’s experience is that it takes gift officers 2-4 years to transition a discovery-oriented portfolio into one that is weighted toward bona fide donor prospects and will begin to produce significantly greater gift income. Those who leave a position prematurely don’t get to harvest the fruits of their labors.
  • Fundraisers are Measured by Funds Raised. Because the demand for good fundraisers outstrips the available supply, it is possible to move from job to job over a short period of time. It’s also possible for a newbie to get lucky with one or two big gifts early in their tenure, and parlay that into another job. But in the final analysis, effective fundraising is all about building relationships and closing big gifts. If you cannot one day point to a single multi-year tenure during which you showed progressive growth and demonstrated your ability to close multiple large gifts, you will have fallen short of your full potential:  You will have limited the philanthropic capacity of both the organizations you served and their donors, as well short-changed your own prospects for professional advancement and personal satisfaction.
  • Results Get Rewarded. We all want to be rewarded for our work, and we can sometimes convince ourselves that by leaving our current employer we’ll find better rewards elsewhere. Nonetheless, even in our present day culture of immediate gratification, rewards still have to be earned, and the process of earning them takes time. As I suggested earlier, unless gift officers allow themselves adequate time to fully explore their portfolios, develop relationships and produce results, those earned rewards won’t be forthcoming. Our firm’s experience is that truly productive fundraisers are highly prized, and institutions will act within reason to retain them. But a gift officer can’t expect such VIP treatment unless they’ve earned it, and they definitely cannot earn it during a short tenure.
  • Define Your Rewards and Go After Them. What are the rewards major gift officers want? Compensation, of course. But BWF’s 2014 survey of frontline fundraisers revealed that gift officers’ most desired rewards are actually not dollars but other less tangible items: A better prospect portfolio, professional development opportunities, information from and access to leadership, new challenges, and recognition. And you do have some control over these perquisites: Make a case to attend a workshop to Medalsdevelop a relevant new skill set. Suggest that you be involved in preparing a major solicitation. Ask to take on a new responsibility (that won’t interfere with your other duties).  And above all else, challenge yourself to become more strategic and engaged with your own best prospects–and thus produce more gift dollars.
  • Everyone Loves a Winner. If you allow yourself to learn, develop and grow as a major gift officer, then positive results should follow. It’s at that point–where you can show that you are knowledgeable and skilled; that you have developed a productive prospect portfolio; and that you have also demonstrated staying power at one or more organizations–that you can write your own ticket. Fundraisers with such a record are truly in short supply, and if you can show that you’re one of them, both your current and other organizations will covet your services.

It’s true that your success is not entirely your own responsibility nor completely under your control, so I also offer two caveats to my admonition to stay put:

  1. Your organization and supervisor also have obligations to position you to achieve and sustain success as a fundraiser: you need training, coaching, resources, support and opportunity. And not every organization is as supportive as it should be. But rather than fret about what’s missing, take charge of your own progress as much as you possibly can–which may include finding coaches and mentors outside your current organization.
  2. There are sometimes reasons to leave an organization before you are able to establish the long-term track record I have suggested, such as a truly unreasonable supervisor, a toxic work environment, lack of professional development or growth opportunities, or an otherwise an unstable organization. But take to heart the familiar maxim, “the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t.”

2015 dIf you are a major gift officer considering a job change in 2015, be sure that you first conduct an honest self-assessment of whether you have done all that you can to become the seasoned, knowledgeable, productive and stable fundraiser that will be prized by your current and/or prospective organizations. And if you choose to leap, be sure you’re not doing it impulsively and that you have full knowledge of where you’ll be landing.

Otherwise, stay put. Instead, challenge yourself this year: make the most of your prospect portfolio, enhance critical skills, and take other actions that will increase your value. Make 2015 a year in which you, your organization and your future career prospects will become better, stronger, more productive, and well positioned for future success.

And continue following our blog, too: In subsequent posts we’ll be sharing additional insights into specific things you can do this year to enhance your performance, work more effectively with colleagues and supervisors, and position yourself for long-term success.

Thinking Critically About Hiring: Deciphering the Frontline Fundraiser Resume

Originally published October 8, 2014

Fundraising organizations are constantly hiring new talent, both to grow the size of their shops and to replace those fundraisers who have moved on. However, due to the talent shortage the industry faces and the variations among fundraising organizational structures, finding a pool of qualified candidates and identifying which individuals bring the skills, performance potential, and approach needed most by your team can be difficult.

As you look towards your next hire consider the following:

Proactively focus on the people you want. The organizations that do best in fundraiser recruitment are proactive in hiring, not reactive. They look to a pool of previously identified candidates and desirable hires before a position is even open. Development shops should focus on who they would like to join the team in the next two years, not just what specific positions they would like to fill. Then, each open position becomes an opportunity to create the right appeal for the candidate you want.

Similarly by focusing on the hires you want to make, and not only the specifics of a position, you can consider qualified individuals with positions that don’t look like an immediate match but may become the perfect fit. For example, an experienced, high-performing individual who has the title of director of development for a college of engineering might have a passion for art and be the best candidate for partnership with your art school.

Remember that the culture of your particular organization and personalities of your development team may determine which individuals will be most successful. Someone may have the perfect background for a specific program or initiative, but not the right personality for the team involved.

Don’t be blinded by institutional prestige or titles. BWF often observes the 80:20 rule for fundraisers: 20% of your staff are high performers who bring in 80% of gifts and gift income. Choosing a candidate based solely on his or her institution or title runs the risk of choosing a low performer from a high-capacity organization.

Title seniority and responsibility vary widely across the development sector. Individuals might have a senior title yet have no real difference in responsibility from their junior colleagues. Likewise an individual may have a strong history of high performance, but his or her employment history is at an institution that does not use “senior-sounding” titles for promotion.

Be wary and know the signs of “position hoppers.” A recent BWF survey of fundraisers found that generally less than 7 percent are actively seeking new opportunities, while 25 percent are passively open to opportunities that are sent their way. Within this industry there is a subset of “position hoppers” who have resumes filled with 2- and 3-year stints at institutions with increasing title and prestige. Be very cautious with these candidates. Chances are your organization will not be the exception to their rule of taking the next bigger and brighter thing. Considering that true fundraiser performance doesn’t occur until around the 4th year, these sorts of hires are extremely risky for your organization, because in 24–36 months you will face yet another vacancy and a portfolio of partially developed prospects.

Look for a history of strategy over activity. Many position descriptions for fundraisers request some history of soliciting gifts at a certain level. While a history of actual gifts secured can demonstrate competence and qualification, the candidate’s ability to use and create strategy to secure those gifts and to build the donor relationship is a more valuable predictor of success. There are fundraisers who technically have secured 7- and 8-figure gifts merely by having the luck of a particular prospect being assigned to their portfolio.

Look for individuals who can both articulate the relationship building and challenges of securing a gift and demonstrate results, not necessarily those who just have the right numbers. For candidates from a smaller organization, the strategy, outreach, and engagement required of a $50,000 gift might far exceed that of another candidate with a higher capacity prospect pool and established program.

Ultimately, a fundraiser must do four things: contribute to the institutional culture, add value to the team, increase capacity in reaching and engaging donors, and secure major gift commitments. Filling a position haphazardly or waiting for the perfect candidate to appear will result in bad hires, decrease donor outcomes, and can negatively impact team morale. Look for the candidates who demonstrate their qualities and results to you, not just allude to it with a resume, and you will be a step ahead.

Maximizing the Return on Your Investment in Staff Development

The Manager Gap – Why Fundraising Managers Are Important and Five Factors of Ineffective Frontline Leadership

When you dive into the topic of talent management in fundraising and development one key topic arises again and again: the challenge and shortage of effective management, especially of frontline fundraisers. This is an issue that has rebounding implications, as ineffective (or nonexistent) management can cripple an entire program. Prioritizing management of fundraisers is thus important because:

  • Management and leadership drive fundraiser engagement and have a strong determining role in overall retention. Most surveyed frontline fundraisers who reported low satisfaction attributed it to leadership or management elements not compensation, cause, or geographic location.
  • Managing and building strategy for the frontline impacts performance dramatically,both in short and long term. Managers have the ability to not only inspire collaboration and strategic thinking, but they are the key players in meaningful goal setting and professional growth for the fundraising team, but factors largely influence fundraising performance.
  • Managers serve as a critical leadership linkage between institutional initiatives and human capital. Fundraisers focus on donors, rightfully so. Institutions focus on vision and programs. Those who manage fundraisers fill the gap between those two activities, building outcomes from institutional direction and providing focus in individual agendas.

Branson Quote

Managers in development are thus hugely important to building momentum, providing staffing stability, and driving performance. Why does fundraising management fall short so frequently then?

Any combination of the following five factors are typically at play when management of fundraisers is ineffective:

  • (1) Leadership buy into the misconception that, as seasoned professionals, fundraisers require minimal management. Yes, we’ve talked about how high performing fundraisers need to have independence, but the opposite of micro-management is not absence of leadership. Frontline fundraisers frequently report frustrations with their lack of access to and direction from their managers and team leaders. Moreover, donor relations and gift outcomes are optimize by multiple points of contact and clear strategy. Managers who are disengaged from their team negate that opportunity.
  • (2) There is a small talent pool of frontline fundraisers with meaningful management experience. Development and major gift officers are looking to be managed by “one of their own”, meaning that they trust and respond more readily to individuals who themselves have experience as a fundraiser. We’ve talked about the general shortage of frontline fundraising talent across the country, and the shortage is even more pronounced when searching for individuals who both know major gift relationship-building strategy and are comfortable building a budget and negotiating office politics. This leads us to…
  • (3) Fundraising shops are growing rapidly and promoting individuals without professional skill investment.  More and more unit-based and separate fundraising programs require larger teams. As these teams grow the most senior fundraiser is often promoted and management responsibilities are subsequently treated as a “add-on” to existing fundraising responsibilities without meaningful training. Of surveyed fundraisers with 10+ years of experience the most frequently requested training and professional development topic area was in leadership and managing a team. We have a full class of individuals with great fundraising skills and new management expectations, but little support in building their capacity to meet those new expectations.
  • (4) There are rising demands and responsibilities for existing leadership. Plainly, many managers and leaders in development don’t have the time (or don’t believe they have the time) to spend building and engaging their team members. There are too many fires to put out, too many volunteers to respond to, and too many items on the event calendar to plan for, not to mention that these leaders often have high-level portfolios of their own. Non-profit development leaders are often overworked and talent management falls to the bottom of the totem pole too frequently. This can often be a symptom of a larger problem, which is that…
  • (5) The development office and team members aren’t fully valued at an institution. Some organizations operate with the assumption that fundraising exists outside of institutional programming and general engagement. Fundraisers are expected to “do their thing” and bring in money, separate from institutional staff (whether they be program managers, faculty, physicians, or CEOs/Presidents). What this dynamic effectively communicates across an organization is that, not only is development somehow less related to the institutional mission and impact, but also that the happiness and engagement of those who do development work is a lower priority.

Major Gift Officers… or Magicians?

Magician 5

A recent survey of 335 chief advancement officers in higher education reported that colleges and universities will be seeking median increases of 16% in their gift revenue for the 2015 fiscal year, while one in four of those institutions are planning for income growth of 25% or more. (“Colleges Plan on Big Jump in Fundraising Next Year.”) By most any standard, those are very large increases for established fundraising operations.

The recent survey, which included nearly 100 respondents whose organizations failed to meet their fundraising goals this year, shows that leaders in higher education are placing more pressure on their top fundraisers… to bring in more money.

If you are serving at one of the institutions that’s projecting that kind of ambitious growth this year, what gives you confidence in your ability to achieve such a bold target? Or if you don’t have full confidence, what is giving you pause? Do you think the national giving picture has improved this much since the Great Recession? Or are such aggressive projections being driven by pressure from administrators and governing boards and not by a realistic assessment of historical trends and current realities?

During my three decades in institutional advancement I have witnessed far too many examples–both in my own organizations and those of colleagues–in which fundraising goals were established without any meaningful analysis. All too often the patterns evident from recent outcomes were disregarded, significant revenue growth was expected without applying any new resources, current pipeline activity was not considered, and donor readiness was ignored. Instead, ambitious growth was demanded simply because someone wanted or needed the new dollars to fulfill their own narrow objectives.

As sportscaster Al Michaels declared in 1980 at the conclusion of history's most famous hockey game: "Do you believe in miracles?"

As sportscaster Al Michaels declared in 1980 at the conclusion of history’s most famous hockey game: “Do you believe in miracles?”

In many instances where revenue growth is unilaterally imposed, these aggressive expectations may not only be unsupported by serious analysis, but whatever evidence does exist actually points to the likelihood of a contrary outcome. (See adjacent illustration.) And of course once such spurious targets are formally adopted, they become the responsibility and burden of the fundraising team, which is then expected to beat the odds, if not perform a true feat of magic.

If unable to reach an aggressive and unreasonable new target, fundraising teams will be scrutinized, criticized and held accountable. And if the fundraisers are somehow able to “pull a rabbit out of their hats,” their likely “reward” for doing so will be the assignment of even more ambitious goal for the following year.

Are you and your fundraising team ready for these pressures? Will you be able to deliver such miracles this year? If aren’t ready, what are you doing to become prepared? Better yet, what can you do to push back on arbitrary and unrealistic targets? My BWF and TalentED colleagues would love to hear your thoughts, stories and suggestions, as well as work with you to overcome these challenges.