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


Something Worth Reading: “Don’t Fear Fund Raising: Matching Donor Passion to Your Department’s Needs”

Fear 1Successful educational fundraisers know that faculty and academic leaders can be invaluable allies in building productive relationships with donors and securing funding for institutional priorities. Deans, department heads, professors and researchers possess a deep understanding of the programs they direct, as well as a credible and persuasive passion for those initiatives that few professional fundraisers can match.

Unfortunately these potential partners are often reluctant to engage in the cultivation and solicitation of prospective benefactors. Their hesitation can be rooted in a lack of understanding about how major gift fundraising is conducted, anxieties about asking for money, fear of rejection, or even concerns that a donor may attempt to exert control over their work. On the other hand, their perceived reluctance might also be a simple case of not being invited to participate.

In his recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “Don’t Fear Fund Raising: Matching Donor Passion to Your Department’s Needs,” Texas Tech professor and dean David D. Perlmutter does an excellent job of demystifying the fundraising process for his fellow academicians. Perlmutter’s piece provides insights into the process of setting fundraising priorities, clarifying and articulating those needs, and underscoring the uncomfortable notion that what most excites faculty members may not be what resonates with donors.

Perlmutter’s most important lesson, however, is, that effective educational fundraising is usually an iterative process and that our greatest successes often follow the rejection of an initial approach. Accordingly, faculty and administrators must be prepared to listen actively, “be willing to shift gears,” seek to “recast and redirect” their appeal, and “leave the door open” for future discussions, even when the first appeal proves unsuccessful.

So if you are a department chair, director of a center, or dean of a college, what should you do if you find that what the donor wants is not what you need? …. Be willing to shift gears. Don’t be hypnotized by your agenda. Keeping your priority list handy does not mean you should ignore out-of-the-box opportunities.

Dean Perlmutter’s terrific insights, however, are not enough to prepare academic leaders for fundraising success. Institutions committed to actively and effectively engaging faculty and academic leaders in the fundraising process must also be committed to providing education and training for these key allies.

In addition to demystifying the fundraising process, a training program for faculty, department heads and deans will also supply them with the perspectives, tools and techniques they need to hone and articulate their priorities and to successfully engage and build relationships with donors. After helping lead workshops this summer for academic leaders at several TalentED clients, I found it  both remarkable and satisfying to observe the resulting relief, excitement and resolve among our participants once they were been equipped with the tools for success.

So make the most of this readily accessible talent pool at your institution by ensuring your faculty and academic leaders receive the perspective, preparation, encouragement and support they need to maximize their chances for fundraising triumphs. Don’t leave it to chance.

Thinking about the personality of your fundraisers: A breakout of extroverts and introverts in development

In recent conversations a recurring  question has come up: In a field dominated by “people who love people” can introverts be successful fundraisers?

The answer to that question seems to be consistently affirmative. However, it’s important to think about how, as talent managers and supervisors to fundraisers, we utilize the strengths of fundraisers whether they are introverted and extroverted.

Keep in mind that, as Myers-Briggs (among others) has shown, personality is not an either-or equation. We all exist along a continuum of extroversion-introversion and some introverts may possess a traditionally extroverted strength.

intro extrovert infographic



The Abundance of Titles in Frontline Fundraising

I’m going to focus the next few posts about the diversification and inflation of titles in fundraising-related positions.

Title inflation is the new hot topic in talent management in the field (something we’ve brought up before). It can be a struggle to retain or recruit fundraisers without being able to offer them a bump in position (even if that bump is only in name). In many cases this can result in a false inflation of titles that may not directly correlate to level of experience or leadership responsibilities. Some institutions refuse to update name titles, however, either due to institutional regulations or leadership direction. Furthermore, there is little to no consistency in the hierarchy of these new titles, resulting in a decent amount of confusion. Below is a visual example of what a hiring manager in the non-profit sector might have to navigate to find a new hire. Keep in mind the categories below could each be further broken out in 4-5 ways depending on unit titles, additional responsibilities, seniority at the institution, and recruitment endeavors.

Frontline Fundraisers map

In the next few posts I will be doing a mapping of what titles specifically are commonly used in the non-profit sector, broken out by institutional type. Keep your eyes peeled or follow targetingfundraisingtalent.wordpress.com to make sure you don’t miss these updates!

Five behaviors of top fundraisers

Happy Tuesday everyone!

In this previous post we talked about attributes and personality traits that are commonly found in top frontline fundraisers. But many fundraisers without all of those attributes can be very successful. Likewise an individual can possess all the qualities of a great fundraiser and have low results because his behavior leads to weaker relationships and lower gift income.

So, for part II of this series we will talk about what activities and actions set the top fundraisers apart from their colleagues and industry peers. When we look at portfolio yield and performance metrics as well as donor feedback we find that there are five areas where a top fundraiser sets himself apart from the rest. The strongest fundraisers:

1. Make more calls:  The most effective fundraisers are rarely in the office; they spend a majority (at least 60% of their time) making calls, visiting prospects, and networking. Think of it this way: if a fundraiser has a portfolio of 130 prospects, with 25% of those prospects being a high priority and capacity, he should expect to meet with each of these top prospects at least 3x per year. To meet the minimum commitment for just a quarter of this portfolio would then require an average of ~8 calls per month (not including phone contact, scheduling, events, etc).  Presumably the remaining 3/4 of his portfolio will also need to be seen or engaged at some point.  Major gifts are successfully solicited through relationships; if a fundraiser is aggressively setting meetings and reaching out to prospects then he will be more effective at relationship building and bringing in new gifts.

2. Make the ask earlier: Soliciting prospects is a common problem area for many organizations. Let’s face it – asking for money can be uncomfortable and awkward, no matter how willing and engaged the donor may be. So, what some development officers do (whether consciously or subconsciously) is postpone asking for a gift, delaying solicitation by months and even years. Top performers on average make the ask in 3-5 less visits than their peers. This behavior allows them to meet with more people in their portfolio and increase the total number of solicitations in a year. If a prospect is properly cultivated, an earlier ask will help to set the precedent for their giving as well as offer the clearest picture of the prospect’s overall giving intentions (useful for those of us who have held out for a seven figure gift only to discover at solicitation that a prospect’s intentions are more at the $25k level). Moreover, because top fundraisers make the ask earlier they are reinforcing their own role and relationship with the donor; it is easy for those lines to become blurred when a prospect is not asked for a gift after 18 months of visits and meetings.

3. Follow-through on closing the gift: Solicitation is the beginning of the process. It is unfortunately common to meet with constituents and prospects who intended to make a gift to an institution, but never received the follow-through to secure the gift. The best development officers not only commit to closing a gift but prioritize their time to actively focus on securing a gift within 60 days of the solicitation.

4. Strategically include institutional leadership: It can be difficult to have spent 10+ months meeting with an individual, building rapport and becoming close with a prospect, only to be expected to hand off the “climax” of the process to someone else in the institution. Egos can easily get in the way. The strongest fundraisers, however, know that leadership can help elevate giving in way that a DO simply cannot.  Bringing in project leaders or institutional administrators heightens the stakes of an ask for both donors and fundraisers. When it is successful it will frequently increase the size and perceived prestige of the gift, as well as build a multilateral, stronger relationship with the donor.

5. Keep in contact with donors after the initial gift: Our colleagues in the area of annual giving know all too well the cost of an initial gift and value of retaining donors; entire analytics models are build around this concept. For major giving, where the gifts are larger and the timeframes longer, one can lose sight of what’s ahead once a significant gift is successfully secured. Successful major gift officers are more attuned to what it takes to get the next gift, even if that gift is 3+ years in the future. For top donors the central efforts of stewardship may simply not be enough to keep their interest and inspire them to give more; philanthropists will notice the drop in interest in them once a gift has been secured. Your best fundraisers maintain their relationships with donors between gifts, communicating those messages of partnership and transparency that high net worth donors have shown repeatedly to  value.

Some food for thought after looking at these five categories is: (1) how do you know when fundraisers are doing the activities above that will make them more successful? and (2) how do you encourage these behaviors in the fundraisers that you already have? Over the next couple of weeks we will try to answer those questions.




Want to learn more? Part III(Six best practices top development shops offer to set fundraisers up for success)  is now up!

Four qualities of strong potential development officers

In a previous post we discussed how frequently fundraisers do not fall into an even bell curve. It’s very difficult to find and keep those frontline fundraisers who excel and consistently bring in big gifts. A good first step in the process is thinking critically about how to identify a potential star fundraiser in the first place.


There are four consistent, personality-based attributes that make individuals more successful fundraisers:

  • Strong communication skills: from picking up the phone to in person calls to drafting acknowledgement letters to preparing leadership for prospect meetings a fundraiser needs to excel at communication. Think about the sort of person who can talk about almost any topic – the individual who always finds something interesting to say. While communication skills can be taught and improved to a certain extent, those who have a natural inclination will always be a step ahead. Do not underestimate writing skills in this area as well. Written outreach and engagement with prospects will be included in almost any cultivation strategy and a poorly written or impersonal message can do more damage to a relationship and be harder to redress than a stutter in person.
  • Independence: We like to talk about fundraising teams a lot. And, while development operations/advancement service, support staff, and management do provide huge contributions to the fundraising process, much of frontline fundraising is one-on-one. A development officer is frequently the only person in the room with a prospect. Moreover, no matter how many KPIs (key performance indicators) or metrics that a manager might set ultimately it is the DO that controls the management of her fundraising portfolio as well as scheduling and outreach to prospects. Effective fundraisers thus tend to be fairly independent and self-motivated. They should be comfortable with and capable of making strategic decisions while working with prospects without second guessing themselves or choosing inaction. (We can talk later about the fine line between finding independent workers and having to deal with fundraisers who take it too far and “go rogue”).
  • Perceptiveness: The ability to read people and situations can never be underestimated. The entire discovery process is devoted to discovering information about/inclination of a prospect, and fundraisers can expect at least half of those details to come from non-verbal cues (indicators of wealth and interests from home/office decor, comfortable body language, excitement and allusions to interesting projects, etc.). Fundraisers then must be both strong talkers as well as engaged listeners and observers. They should be able to come out of a meeting able to not only recap the conversation that transpired but also estimate the prospect’s reactions to the meeting and have a sense of what would be the most effective next step.
  • Versatility: Meetings with prospects can happen anywhere; the ideal setting is one where the prospect is at ease. Fundraisers must therefore be able to blend in at everything from sports events to hunting lodges to black tie events. This does not just apply to wardrobe. An fundraiser’s ability to adapt to the conversation topics and situations at hand help to create a bond with a prospect as well as demonstrate the value that your organization places on donors’ time and interests. While some content can be taught (understanding high level finance for example is usually vital for principal donors) the best fundraisers are those that can translate such knowledge readily towards enriching interesting conversations and scenarios.

The truth of the matter, however, is that innate ability and personality only gets fundraisers so far. The attributes above must be matched with a certain set of behaviors and management structures in order to create a top performer.  There are many people with all four attributes who never progress beyond being mediocre development officers. In the next posts we will talk about the behavior that sets the best fundraisers apart as well as the structures that encourage accomplishment.



Want to learn more? Part II (Five behaviors of top fundraisers) and Part III(Six best practices top development shops offer to set fundraisers up for success)  are now up!

Having a Hard Time Finding Fundraising Talent? – It’s a global thing.

Over in the states we can get wrapped up in the idea that development trends are specific to the US. But the struggle to find and retain frontline talent transcends national borders.  As this article from The Guardian (UK) describes our friends on the other side of the pond see the same struggles that we do. Charitable organizations are struggling to fill open positions for major gift programs and retain the talent they have.  They set out looking for talent, but often can’t even find a reasonable number of viable candidates to choose from.



The pool of options in a MGO search – a few disinterested parties and some pigeons.


Part of the struggle lies with compensation; the strongest fundraisers are well aware of their endangered species designation and know that they can find salaries at a highly competitive level.  Another component, especially in the modern workplace, are the intangibles and flexibility of the workplace that drive job satisfaction.

However, even institutions with an ideal workplace and attractive compensation package in the UK are struggling because (and we know this well enough here in the US as well) there simply is not enough skilled, experienced talent to fill the many open positions in the development field. The numbers are simply not there. Nonprofit organizations are effectively trading open positions as DOs and MGOs shuffle between institutions.

So what are we to do? How do we work to fill this need with such a limited resource? The British Red Cross’s answer: Build your own team from scratch and abandon recruitment altogether.

“Astarita said the British Red Cross had a lot of success in recruiting new fundraisers though the use of unpaid interns. ‘We haven’t recruited a trust fundraiser for ages,’ he said. ‘They all come through trainee level. So we’re having to make our own fundraisers at the lower level and I think that’s increasingly going to feed through into mid ranks.'”

Of course building your own team has its own drawbacks. You run the risk of making a huge investment in human capital only to see those individuals move on a few years down the road to better paychecks, leaving you with yet another green group to train. Also, your fundraising culture might become isolated and miss out on best practices and connections that seasoned individuals from other institutions would bring. It’s a calculated risk that an organization as big as the British Red Cross can afford to make.


What do you think? Are non-profits in all countries facing the same situation? Where can we find these rare effective fundraisers?