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: “3 Ways to Engage Employees Without Spending a Dime”

Piggy Bank 6For many advancement programs, the most meagerly funded budget lines—and usually the first spending category to be cut when budgets get tight—are professional development and employee engagement activities for members of its team. Regular readers of this blog will probably agree that such miserly investment in staff development is short-sighted and misguided, and it is likely to have negative consequences for fundraising results that will be far more costly in the long run than whatever benefits the short-term savings might yield.

While we have made multiple arguments in favor of increased and sustained investments in professional development—including the importance of practice and repetition, for enhancing performance, and as a retention strategy—for many organizations, skimpy budget allocations will remain a fact of life for the foreseeable future. So what can an enlightened fundraising leader do in the meantime to improve performance, enhance morale, and increase employee tenure without a budget to do it?

Jennifer McClure of the TalentAdvisor at CareerBuilder’s HiringSite blog just published an article that presents three valuable reminders for managers of fundraisers or any other team of employees. You can read the full article at “3 Ways to Engage Employees Without Spending a Dime,” but here are McClure’s three recommendations in a nutshell:

1.  Connect Employees’ Work to a Higher Purpose. “To capture the hearts and minds of your employees, you must hope them understand how their specific job affects your end product or service – and how their work matters.”

2.  Enable Progress by Removing Obstacles. “The most common event triggering a “best day” at work response? Any progress made by the individual or by their team. Even a small step forward counted. The most common event triggering a ‘worst day’ response? A setback.”

3.  Celebrate Successes—Big and Small. “A simple ‘thank you,’ high-five or personal note can go a long way to increasing employees’ emotional commitment. In fact, according to Towers Watson, recognition from supervisors and managers can ‘turbocharge’ employee engagement for better workplace productivity and performance.”

The experiences of our team at Bentz Whaley Flessner, as well as research among front-line fundraisers conducted on behalf of our TalentED practice, confirm the wisdom of McClure’s advice.

Each of McClure’s suggestions is solid and cost-neutral. But that does not mean they are simple and easy to implement; on the contrary, here suggestions each require commitment, focus, thoughtfulness and persistence.  But not only are these three strategies powerful and effective, they make sense for all fundraising programs—whether those programs have an ample professional development budget or not.

When is turnover healthy? Four instances where “losing” frontline talent isn’t such a bad thing

We have a healthy fear of losing talent in the world of development. For the frontline in particular, is difficult to find and fill open positions, incredibly expensive to lose someone on the frontline, and disruptive to relationship building with donors. This blog has spent some time talking about recruitment and retention strategies, tips for growing your own high performers, and data and trends behind the the world of fundraising talent management. In this flurry of trying to find, engage, and grow talent we can begin to fear losing any team members above all else.

Yes- having turnover is expensive, but there are a few instances when change doesn’t have to hurt, and in some cases attrition can be healthy for your overall team. Below are four scenarios where there are benefits that come with the “loss” of a fundraiser.

ursula 1Scenario 1: “Ursula the Underperformer”

We’ve talked before about how 20% of our frontline team bring in 80% of funds, a ratio that is fairly consistent across institutional types and structures. We’ve also discussed the 3-5 year “ramp up” period of fundraiser performance. Losing high performers is rough and the loss of potential high performers can be equally detrimental long-term. What we shouldn’t be afraid of, however, is losing or changing the circumstances of our lowest performers who have remained at the institution for years without ever achieving that “ramp up” to strong performance. This doesn’t mean that we should expect development officers in charge of smaller programs to raise as much money as their peers in big priorities and principal giving; rather, we should be looking for those Ursulas who don’t meet the expectations appropriate for the capacity of their portfolio and appeal of their programs. If you have a frontline fundraiser who has been with you for 5+ years and still is not producing meaningful gift commitments then chances are:

  • They are already disengaged from the institution
  • They lack the skill set or strategy to cultivate a meaningful pipeline within their portfolios over time
  • They are unlikely to improve on their own
  • They hold a mid-level position that could be better filled by rising talent

CarlScenario 2: “Culture Conflict Carl”

We’ve worked with hundreds of non-profit development offices – higher ed, healthcare, conservation, human interest, international aid, etc. Even across like institutions there are distinct office cultures that influence the type of management and nature of engagement of employees. In many cases you may have a “big hire” or newcomer who comes from an organization that was very different culturally. For example, your shop may be very data-driven and transparent with all activities tracked, reported and analyzed while you may have Carl, who works best in an office that uses data to bookend activity but not drive it. This is not an insurmountable hurdle to overcome, but there are likely to be some hires where the cultural fit just isn’t there. When this happens:

  • The employees described above are equally frustrated (for frontline fundraisers who had been at an organization for 2 years or less – office culture was a leading cause of dissatisfaction)
  • Team dynamics suffer and cooperation declines
  • Forcing a fit can lead to an office’s cultural values become more imposed (and thus more negatively perceived) than naturally occurring

debbieScenario 3: “Debbie Downer”

We’ve all seen this person in action. They generally aren’t happy with many things about their job whether it be management, processes, other team members or institutional leadership. What’s more is that these individuals complain and seek others’ condolences. Negative presences like this contribute to several toxic trends within an office:

  • employee disengagement (and the attrition rate) spirals downward
  • discussions become grievance oriented rather than solution driven
  • other development team members acquiesce to and avoid confrontation with these individuals even when it is not the best overall choice

The negative impact of only one or two Debbies can be felt across an entire office. The hard part of this one is that Debbie might be a high performer. She may be able to bring in gifts and it is a real risk to see her leave looking at sheer numbers alone. However, ultimately keeping her around becomes the choice of keeping one performer at the expense of the happiness and productivity of the larger team.

loganScenario 4: “Lone Wolf Liability Logan”

Human Resources tends to get quite involved when employees become actual legal liabilities, but there are employees who pose other liabilities that you should be conscious of and proactive towards. This is generally the type of individual who adopts the “lone wolf” mentality at the expense of other team members, programs, or initiatives. You can spot a Logan on your team because he:

  • expects to be exempt from new procedures or protocols (eg: keeps his own excel spreadsheet of his portfolio despite all other fundraisers using your database)
  • can drop the ball with donors and prospects who are not viewed as a “high enough” priority or will pursue gifts from prospects despite other active gift discussions being in the pipeline
  • facilitates and encourages other “lone wolves” across your faculty, program staff or institutional leaders

Logan, like his counterpart above Debbie, may produce results. Your objective when deciding whether to keep any of the four types of individuals above should be to make the conscious choice based on what the individual’s value-add is to your organization and be honest about what negative attributes he/she may take with her when he/she leave.

 

For the four above examples we are making the assumption that much of the turnover we reference below isn’t a deliberate severance or firing by the institution. We know that most fundraisers are constantly being recruited away. Healthy turnover can be encouraged by organizations through simply not actively trying to counter and outweigh the external offers that are available.

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.