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


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

Something Worth Reading: “The Human Capital That Wins the War: Engaged Workers”

I stumbled over this article post today while perusing linkedin. In the past we’ve talked about how fundraiser performance doesn’t follow the traditional bell curve, well this article touches on a theory for why this is true not only in development, but across sectors: the lack of engaged workers. In particular Mr. Hope says:

You can hopefully call up the same list in your own heads right now. Many people would call this your 20/80 list. The 20% of the people who end up doing (and often even voluntarily signing up to do) 80% of the heavy lifting, consistently; within your company, government, organization, school, unit, department or group. I call this my 8-10 List

1-5 is mediocrity. Even the Bible suggests, “be hot or be cold, but if you are lukewarm I will spat you out.” Translation: even God does not like mediocrity. 

5-7 is entertainment. It’s the person you date, but you do not marry. 

8-10 is excellence. Not black excellence, or brown excellence, or white excellence, or male or female excellence, or Republican or Democratic excellence. It’s just excellence. It’s real leadership. 

Looking at your own development shop – who are the 8-10s as described by Mr. Hope? What is different about their behavior? Do you treat these individuals any differently? The most effective development shops are those who can find those strong workers and retain them. But, what Mr. Hope does touch on, is that sometimes the difference between a 5-7 and a 8-10 is not potential or intelligence; it’s engagement. Great leaders are often expected to be leaders and given the freedom to use their creativity to solve interesting and new problems. What leadership expectations are we putting out there for development professionals? Has the era of metrics and benchmarking brought measurability at the expense of creativity and performance?

5 Contingency Plans for When Hiring a New Fundraiser Has Stalled

It’s a recurring problem for many development shops – you have an open senior fundraising position, either newly vacated or newly created, and, after publically posting the position, you have little to no response and/or the group of applicants is not what you wanted. Your hiring process has stalled. More often than not this happens most acutely when your office is in desperate need of filling the position and there is an urgency to find the right person. Now you are stuck putting off other important work so that you can find the right person for this job, delaying work timelines, lowering your fundraising results, and adding more stress to your already heavy load.

stressed guy

This guy is thinking about reviewing the third round of applicants.

So – what do you do next? Here are 5 contingency plans to consider.

Plan BRevising the Job Description and Re-posting

We’ve already touched on the importance of an institution appealing to top performers rather than relying on a high quality applicant pool. A good first step is to review the what and where of your first job posting.  Is it a copy-paste from your institution’s template or does it emphasize the appeal of working in your office? Does it only list responsibilities and task work or is there language on the importance of the position and growth opportunities? If you read the job post as a 3rd party would it appeal to you? Few development shops can simply rely on their institution’s reputation to attract talent; a strong job post accounts for that and uses clear objectives, goals, and benefits to help close the gap.

Additionally, over the past several years the fundraising sector has seen large title inflation. Someone with 5-10 years of frontline fundraising experience could be labeled as anything from a Development Officer to a Major Gift Officer to a Director of Development to a Sr Development Associate to a Sr Capital Projects Manager, etc. (the list goes on and on and on). Do you have the right title for the level of fundraiser you are trying to attract? If you cannot change the title of the open position then it is imperative to have a very clear outline of its seniority  at the beginning of your post. Job posts are easily overlooked if potential applicants do not understand whether or not their background is applicable to the position.

One final component of Plan B is to make sure that you have posted the position in the right locations. The idea is to get as many potential candidates to see the post as possible. Go beyond the careers section of your webpage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pay to post on the big sites (Careers.com, Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed, etc.), but you can focus on national sites for non-profit/development (devex, idealist, etc.) or philanthropy-oriented association or publication job boards (AFP, Chronicle of Philanthropy, non-profit times, AHP, etc.). If you have local universities or colleges with strong career services you can also access their alumni through their job boards.

Plan C: Using Your Office’s Network

We’ve talked about how employee referrals make the strongest new hires. Have you kept in contact with your network in the development field? If you have staff members who would be peers to the open position, then chances are they know other similarly experienced individuals who might be a good fit (if your team does not want to refer anyone then there are likely to be larger problems at hand). Do you work with an external consultant? Many have extensive networks and can at least steer you towards strong individuals who are looking for a change.  If a formal job post is not attracting the candidates you want, try to identify a group of people directly or indirectly connected to your office whose interest you might pique and reach out to them.

Plan D: Contract a Talent Search Firm

With the level of competition for talent in development, especially with regards to senior positions, sometimes the easiest option is to bring on an external firm to manage the recruitment and screening of candidates. While the expense for this plan can be great, bringing on a search firm brings three benefits to the process: it reduces the amount of staff and managerial time devoted to the candidate search, it accesses a pool of candidates that the firm has already screened and knows to be searching for new positions, and it can significantly reduce the length of the position’s vacancy and bring someone on board sooner. There are several companies that focus specifically on fundraising and development and have decades of contacts to reach out to, an advantage you might not otherwise have.

Plan E: Re-evaluate Your Expectations

Sometimes we simply has unrealistic expectations for the positions we have put together.  Perhaps the position really covers too many areas for any one person or the position’s seniority doesn’t match the experience expectations or the offered salary just isn’t competitive. For examply, you need a campaign manager and only want candidates who have at least 10+ years of frontline experience in your field, can boast of experience with major capital campaigns, have managed a senior team in prior positions, and are comfortable in front of boards. Chances are individuals with that level of experience will be looking for a position more senior than “campaign manager.”  You might want a planned giving director with a law degree and 5-10 years of experience, but can only offer a salary of $75k in San Francisco.  That’s going to be hard to compete with the salaries offered by other institutions and law firms.

If your hiring efforts have consistently had low results then it may be time to re-evaluate your expectations for the position. Ask yourself these questions: What experience is absolutely necessary for this new hire to be successful? Am I offering enough compensation, seniority, benefits, etc. to appeal to the caliber of candidate that I am demanding? Sometimes this can be as simple as boosting the offered salary by $10-20k; other times it can be as complicated as revisiting the responsibilities and creating a new level of leadership that better  reflects a vertical move (rather than simply lateral) for the type of applicant you seek.

Plan F: Re-imagine the Position and Staff Organization

Sometimes, despite your best efforts and outreach, you simply cannot find the right person for the job you created. Maybe your organization is in a small town in Arkansas and you couldn’t entice any candidates with the right experience from the big city. Maybe your institution is still fighting a stint of bad publicity or controversy. Regardless, sometimes the best thing to do is to adapt in the face of the hiring gap. Assume the position can’t be filled by an external candidate. Who internally could step up? If you have a team member with great potential but limited experience look into personal coaching and professional development options to build their capacity and skill sets and increasing support staffing for a new work load.  If your open position required both leadership gift fundraising and program management consider splitting those duties to better match the talent that you do have (it’s extremely hard to find strong fundraisers who can also effectively manage and lead a program).

The longer a senior position is open (especially one critical to the agenda of your institution such as a campaign manager or leadership gifts officer), the more expensive it becomes to fill that position. Meanwhile your team can lose focus and divert time better spent on other activities as you go through yet another round of applications, interviews, and disappointments. It’s better to always have a contingency plan in place (or five).

The Fundraiser Talent Shortage – An Interview with Bruce Flessner


I recently had the opportunity to interview Bruce Flessner, principal at Bentz Whaley Flessner. Bruce has been a lead consultant and adviser to top nonprofit development shops for over 30 years.   I used my time with Bruce to focus on what his clients are saying about talent. The transcript of our conversation is below.

How often do your clients ask you about talent management?

Hourly. …

More seriously – it is something I get asked about every day. Not a day goes by that talent management doesn’t come up with my clients in one way or another.  I have regular conversations with leaders who don’t have enough people, or they have the wrong people, or their people are doing the wrong things.

Do you see this problem more in any specific sector of the nonprofit world?

No. It’s widespread across all non-profit sector.  From my experience it isn’t any better in any sector. Some areas might have stronger players as individuals because they are bigger; they’re raising more money and bringing in bigger gifts. But, what I have seen, is that even the largest shops have trouble with their talent, because those stronger players are more and more in demand.

What are some of the common challenges you see across the US in finding and keeping talent?

The first challenge I usually see is that there is more demand for new positions than there is supply of talent. We are constantly dealing with people expanding the size of their development programs and launching major campaigns and fundraising pushes. The number of non-profits is growing as is the size of development programs across the country. That growth has been hard to support with experienced fundraisers.

As a result I see the second trend of how hard it is for these shops to retain their stars because they’re in constant demand to staff and lead these campaigns and big initiatives anywhere. A good fundraiser is constantly going to be on the receiving end of recruitment and job offers, which makes retention very difficult.

The third challenge I see is that development programs, realizing they have to grow more talent to meet demand, face a conundrum. Leaders within a program are caught between needing to going out and do the fundraising work itself with donors and volunteers and committing time internally to train and develop new people. This tends to spread your best people thin.

What have you seen institutions do to successfully recruit and retain talent?

Some of the largest institutions have been able to develop in-house talent management offices and programs. I’ve seen that strategy succeed in improving recruiting efficiency and supporting training initiatives.  However, it hasn’t solved all problems as often talent management individuals might not be as well versed in development and can miss areas of professional development or opportunities to find new hires.

I’ve seen others reach out to third parties to find new training opportunities for young staff,  but the programs that are out there tend to be hit or miss. Often times you see a program try to host or send it’s fundraisers to a training, but it has no real outcome because the content and skills-work hasn’t been coordinated with the direction of the program or needs of the group.

What would you advise a non-profit looking towards a hiring push in fundraising or big growth in their development program?

  1. You need to be able to develop your own talent. You’re not going to be ina position where you can always go out and buy talent, even if you have the budget to do so. Competition is too stiff.
  2. Make talent management a serious part of how you evaluate and use senior leadership. Your leaders’ performance evaluations should touch on how commited and effective they are at developing junior people as well as growing the overally abilities and capacity of their teams.
  3. It is easy to spend a lot of your time on recruitment, but you probably should spend more time ensuring that you can keep your existing most accomplished individuals, because others are spending their time seeing if they can snatch your best performers. Without planning and programs for retention you can get in a cycle of losing your best people every few years. A lost experienced fundraiser becomes a lot more expensive than a new hire.

Let’s turn to the perspective of those who might be the candidates for these many open positions. What do you think those top performers are looking for in their current and potential positions?

I think that we sometimes believe that everybody has the same motivations because it’s easier, and they often do not. So first we need to understand what is motivating these individuals.

Some want to earn money – and compensation is an important part of talent management, but not the most important. Some might be escaping a bad boss. Others can be drawn to the prestige of the organization or its cause comes close to home. I also have seen many fundraisers become interested in a position because they like the particular geography or location of the institution and want to live west coast or in New York City or whatever.

So what might cause a top performer to consider leaving their organization for the competition?

It can be a few things. First I hear a lot along the lines of the grass always looks greener. It’s hard to know if that’s a good decision because, as I tell the individuals who bring this up, you don’t live on the other side of the fence. It’s easy to think you’ll be happier at some place that doesn’t have X or can offer you Y, without know what that actually means for the work environment. Sometimes fundraisers leave because of genuine dissatisfaction – they don’t get recognized for the value they bring, or they do not get along with supervisor, or they feel a lack of institutional commitment to development.

The best managers recognize that there’s a multitude of things that motivate people in the hiring  and retention process so that they can cater their approach to the wants and needs of the individual.

Have there been any trends in front line fundraiser hiring that you have noticed over the past five years?

I’ve seen compensation levels move up fairly rapidly, especially for those who can bring in seven figure gifts consistently.  In the short run this is good for the individuals benefiting from the higher salaries as well as in attracting new people to the industry. In the long run, however, I think that this puts pressure on the industry to deliver the results of this rising investment. In many places right now your average development officer makes more than star faculty members. In the long run this will produce more challenges and prompt larger conversation about value and institutional identity.

Looking to learn more? Try reading our other posts: Six Best Practices Top Development Shops Offer to Set Fundraisers Up for Success,  Four qualities of strong potential development officers, and Five behaviors of top fundraisers

Mr. Flessner is a recognized expert on new wealth philanthropy and has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Star Tribune, Dallas Star, Detroit Free Press, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Chronicle of Higher Education and many other major newspapers. He has served on the board of directors of the Council on Foundation’s New Ventures in Philanthropy. He is a frequent speaker at CASE, AFP, AHP, and other professional association conferences. His clients have included Carleton College, Concordia College, DePauw University, Gustavus Adolphus, Macalester College, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Rollins College, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Saint Thomas , University of Sydney, Anne Arundel Medical Center, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Beth-Israel Medical Center, Brown University, Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, Children’s Hospital Boston, Cleveland Clinic, Indiana University, Miami Children’s Hospital, Mississippi State University, Oklahoma State University, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Texas Tech University, University Hospitals, University of Illinois, University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of North Carolina System. www.bwf.com 

Something Worth Reading: NonProfit Times “Employee Referrals Gets Jobs Filled, Challenges Keep Them Going”

Having a good work culture can mean the world of difference in so many different facets of a development office. Take, for example, this article (begin on p 4)  from the Nonprofit times. It basically discusses the high value of employee referrals for new hires through highlighting a few members from the NPT top non-profits to work for list for 2013. It should be no surprise that those organization with strong management and communications have higher satisfaction, which, in turn, leads to employee referrals, which, in turn, leads to better hires and a stronger team. It’s a cycle that reinforces itself.

In working with non-profit educational institutions and healthcare centers a type of question that is regularly asked of constituents and donors is “would you recommend this school to your friends?” or “would you refer an acquaintance to this hospital?”. A prospect or donor’s response to that one question will reveal the most about how favorably they view the nonprofit and how engaged they really are. So, why don’t we ask those questions of our staff and fundraisers?


One other area of interest in this recap of the best non-profits to work for is this tidbit:

Training and Development proved the weakest category, across the board, for nonprofits.

Between program management, actual fundraising, keeping a team fully staffed and budgeted, and working with leadership and boards, it is easy to let staff training and development slip as a priority. A strong development office, however, is one that grows, not necessarily in overall staff size, but in capacity, knowledge, expertise, and creativity. While some of that growth can be accomplished on an individual level, the strongest programs know that adequately training new staff and developing the skill sets of existing staff can greatly facilitate real growth and see positive outcomes, both in development office performance as well as job satisfaction.