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

Fundraiser Procrastination: Name It. Know It. Deal With It.

Procrastination 9

Being an occasional procrastinator, I found myself drawn to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog post titled “Procrastination, Our Old Frenemy.” The item, by Jason B. Jones of Connecticut’s Trinity College, is thought-provoking and challenges those of us who tend to dawdle and delay (as most of us do from time to time) to consider the damage such dilatory behavior can cause.

The Prevalence of Fundraiser Procrastination

During my fundraising days I most often procrastinated when I had to reach out to new prospects or challenging donors. While I’m not proud of that, I do take some solace in knowing that numerous colleagues also engage in similar hesitation and delay. Indeed, when I confessed my fundraising procrastination during a recent TalentED workshop, every head in the room nodded in agreement.IMG_3248

Jones’s article conveniently served as a bibliography of other Chronicle articles on the topic. (I’ve provided links to several of those entries at the end of my post.) The article I found to be most relevant is the aptly titled “Procrastination” from the blog of Shawn Blanc. Blanc explores the causes of general procrastination, which include: lack of motivation, fear, other things we’d rather be doing, the ease with which we’re distracted, feelings of being overwhelmed, stubbornness, and our own pre-existing habits.

Reasons for Fundraiser Procrastination

Blanc’s list is a useful starting point for thinking about the causes of fundraiser procrastination, which I decided include the following:

  • Anxiety and insecurity: Being stressed about talking with strangers, unsure about how they will react, or feeling unworthy of their time and attention.
  •  Fear of rejection: Worrying about be turned down for an appointment or a gift—or about not being welcomed.
  • Absence of confidence: Uncertain about one’s own skills or abilities, lacking in training, or being unsure about the purpose or point of the expected donor contact.
  • Procrastination 10Distractions and lack of focus: Not prioritizing one’s responsibility for building relationships and driving donors toward significant gift commitments, as well as getting derailed by other demands, activities or dramas.
  • Inadequate incentives or accountability: It doesn’t matter greatly to others whether or not donor contacts are completed within a particular timeframe, and the absence of serious consequences doesn’t impart much motivation.
  • Lack of discipline: The fundraiser has never developed the appropriate habits and practices of effective gift officers.

The first step in fixing any problem is acknowledging that we have one. I encourage my fellow fundraisers to pause and consider how often, either overtly or subconsciously, they evade their responsibilities for making  timely contact with their assigned donors and prospects—particularly those individuals who are challenging, difficult, unpleasant or simply unknown.

Leadership Strategies for Minimizing Procrastination

It would be ideal if individuals would acknowledge their procrastination tendencies and take their own steps to overcome this impediment. But knowing that “contact postponement” is widespread among gift officers at all levels of experience, I urge managers to proactively help gift officers confront and address this impediment. Drawing upon my own experience, as well as insights from the various Chronicle articles, I recommend that fundraising leaders employ the following strategies to minimize fundraiser procrastination:

  • Heal Thyself: Lead by Example. If you expect those you lead to not procrastinate, then don’t’ engage in those bad habits yourself.
  • Deadlines and Targets. Set times by which critical fundraising calls must be finished, along with weekly goals for completed contacts—including calls to secure meetings, advance relationships, and thank donors for gifts.
  • Procrastination 7Make Appointments. Set aside time each day and/or week during which your fundraisers are expected drop everything else to be in their workspaces making calls. If an extenuating circumstance arises, the missed calling time must be made up immediately.
  • The Buddy System. Encourage fundraisers to have one or more colleagues to whom they are accountable for making their expected contacts. Support staff who work with gift officers can fill this role, as well as help ensure the set-aside time are protected from other intrusions.
  • Self-Rewards. As an incentive, ask fundraisers to schedule their most enjoyable, stress-free tasks for immediately after the expected donor contacts are to be completed.
  • No “Padding” of Portfolios. Every fundraiser develops relationships with certain donors and prospects who they look forward to meeting. Make sure that gift officers don’t fill their time having multiple visits with these low-risk, low anxiety calls.
  • Training and Practice. The most effective antidote to fundraiser procrastination is providing staff with solid training and lots of practice with the activities that often prompt procrastination: getting appointments, cold calls, overcoming objections, and dealing with difficult people.
  • Remember that Fundraising is Fun. Once they get rolling, most fundraisers discover their pre-contact anxieties dissipate. But staff can’t achieve this epiphany until they get out and “just do it.”

Procrastination 1The Blanc article also explores the possibility that “unchecked procrastination bleeds over” into other facets of our work and personal endeavors. Blanc suggests that “having structure and focus in one aspect of our life gives us clarity and momentum that brings structure to the other areas.” His theory is both plausible and encouraging, and it’s one I’m planning to further explore myself.

Do you agree that procrastination is a significant concern among fundraisers and directly impedes our progress? Have I named the correct reasons for it? Have you found other strategies for dealing with it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!

In the meantime, let’s all commit to helping our staff and ourselves follow through on making the calls, building the relationships, and soliciting the contributions that are central to the success of our fundraising programs and the institutions we represent.

Perhaps you can begin by forwarding this post to another procrastinator. And then log off and start making some calls!

Additional articles and posts about procrastination:

A New Year’s Resolution List for Leaders to Consider Right Now

Something Worth Reading: “Senior Executives are Often Unaware of Development Opportunities”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently highlighted a very interesting report on the executive leadership of non-profits. The report’s findings? That the most senior executives aren’t always on the same page as their leadership team.

Related to development and training, the following quote from the article is particularly troublesome:

Nearly all senior-most nonprofit executives believe their organizations are providing formal professional development opportunities, according to a new study, even as half of those serving immediately below them report that no such opportunities are in place…

Ninety percent of the senior-most executives said their organization offered formal development opportunities, while just 52 percent of leadership team members said such opportunities existed.

This speaks to the disconnect we’ve discussed before on this blog, but rather than managers and their direct reports in fundraising the data demonstrates that the top executives at non-profits have a parallel disconnect to their development leaders. When this relates to professional development opportunities the entire organization suffers. In fundraising a lack of executive understanding of the training needs and actual programs for development paired with ignorance of existing opportunities by leadership means that the institution is likely to (a) fall behind in appealing to and retaining top frontline talent, (b) perpetuate or exacerbate frustrations between performers and their managers, and/or (c) miss opportunities to improve both performance and engagement.

In many non-profits executives have ideas but do not engage or bring in others for implementation. A similar lack of implementation planning is evident in this report’s findings on succession planning where CEO beliefs (they overwhelmingly are in favor of it) conflict with reality (less than a third actually have succession plans).

The whole report is worth reading and looking over. For those in talent management it’s useful to know trends in leadership that affect how staff interact with and view their managers and executives. Among its findings:

Over 9/10 of CEOs believe that developing leaders in an organization is key to succession planning yet 1/2 would recommend hiring an external candidate to fill the CEO position.

Leaders 45 and under mainly prefer a salary increase whereas those over 45 mainly prefer acknowledgement as an incentive to remain with their current organization.

27% of Leadership Team members are ready to become CEO now and 38% do not aspire to become  EO at all.

So – what do you think? Is this consistent with your organizations? Have you personally seen damaged relationships or unrealized potential due to a non-profit CEO’s overlooking of a critical issue?

Something Worth Reading: Those We Lead Tend to Live Up (or Down) to Our Expectations

MFL1Although Steve Browne’s recent blog post for TheHiringSite, How We See Others: The Role of the Talent Advisor, is directed at human resources professionals, I suggest that his provocative observations and recommendations have equal relevance for those of us in the advancement field who have responsibility for the success of fundraisers and other professionals.

Browne’s post is concise and simple, but its take-away is powerful: Stop focusing on why your employees and teams might be problematic and instead focus on their strengths and possibilities:

You need to understand the Pygmalion Effect*… [It] states that people will behave how you see them. If you think someone is a problem, they will be one. If you think they are talented, they will perform.

Perhaps Browne’s post resonates with me because during my career I have both delivered and received messages that conveyed low expectations or a lack of confidence. And I know from those personal experiences that when a supervisor encourages an individual, they frequently go on to overachieve; however, when an employee receives more criticism than praise or otherwise senses a lack of support from their supervisor, they will not be motivated to expend additional effort to excel–and indeed often respond in quite the opposite manner.

MFL2I suggest that all of us who supervise fundraisers and other advancement professionals follow Browne’s advice and start thinking of those we lead not as staff or FTEs but as “talent” with untapped potential; likewise, we should also begin to view ourselves not as managers but as “talent advisors”–coaches and mentors whose objective is to empower our own team members to grow, stretch and make the most of their abilities.

And if we do that, then perhaps–just as Professor Henry Higgins’ attitude changed toward Eliza Doolittle–we will soon “become accustomed to” the unique attributes and contributions of our own employees and thus find ourselves equally downcast about the possibility of losing these valuable partners.


 * For those unfamiliar with Pygmalion, it is the 1912 George Bernard Shaw play upon which My Fair Lady–both the 1956 Broadway play and 1964 movie (source of the scene with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn posted above)–are based. Shaw, in turn, took his play’s name from a character in Greek mythology.

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.