Author Archives: David Mersky

Fundraisers, Start Your Engines

Over the past several months, we have spent a great deal of time talking about how best to identify, recruit, engage, onboard, develop, and retain professional leadership for your organization. Now, those leaders must begin thinking about raising money for the operation of your nonprofit.

Planning Starts Now

With many of our clients, we have already begun preparing for end-of-year giving.

With many of our clients, we have already begun preparing for end-of-year giving.

That’s correct. It is the beginning of June — seven months from the end of the year — and I am here to tell you that if you have not yet begun planning how you are going to capture all the gifts you are accustomed to receiving in the last six weeks of the year, you are, to coin a phrase, tardy to the party.

To increase the possibility of success you should begin planning now: at least half of what you will achieve is dependent on your strategic thinking and tactical planning in the coming weeks.

Fundraising Has Gotten Harder

According to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, the data makes this abundantly clear:

  • Each year, in the aggregate, there are fewer donors than gave the year before.
  • Among those who do donate, they make fewer gifts for smaller amounts.
  • Donor retention is at an all-time low and the renewal of first-time donors is absolutely abysmal.

I share this not to depress you. Rather, to grab your attention and assure you that if you think about how to retain and upgrade donors now, you can be successful in swimming against the tide.

In future articles we are going to focus on different segments and offer specific suggestions for how to work with them. These may include:

  • Major donors — the definition of which varies by organization
  • First-time donors — how to ensure you get the next gift from them
  • Underperforming donors — those who support you regularly and faithfully, but have stayed in the $100 range for the past decade (or longer)
  • Mid-level donors — those who make gifts of $250 or $500, but have the capacity to give more frequently and in larger amounts

But don’t wait for MJA to talk about it. If you think in these specific donor segments, you can then develop strategies and tactics (emails, newsletters, calls, events, etc.) appropriate for each group. By organizing your approach and resources in this way, you will have the bandwidth necessary to plan, test, and adjust as needed.

Four Essential Guidelines

For now, let me share some things that will inform and improve your planning…

#1. Focus on the relationship, not the money. 

Donors are people; they seek affiliation with something beyond their own immediate needs. If you are successful in connecting them to your mission and helping them see the value they can provide in furtherance of your objectives, they will give joyfully.

But, if you simply say, “You gave $100 last year, can you give $150 this year?,” they will conclude that to you, they are nothing but a human ATM.

#2. Communicate in a donor-centered, not organization-centered way.

You are passionate about your organization and its mission. It has needs, financial and otherwise. So you think you must focus on helping donors understand what those needs are.

But donors want to know what they can do to help solve the problems your organization exists to address.

As you create a case for giving which will inform all your solicitations, newsletters, brochures, and acknowledgements, make sure it is primarily about the donor, the cause, and the important role they will play should they decide to support it.

#3. Pay special attention to past donors who have not given in the previous 12–24 months.

It can cost four to five times as much to acquire a new, first-time donor as it does to renew an existing donor or revive a lapsed donor. Those who have stopped giving recently — in the past year or two — are most likely to give again.

Spend time trying to understand why these once-valued supporters have stopped giving and focus on bringing them back into the fold.

#4. Create a culture of philanthropy. 

This has two components: Asking and Giving.

Asking: Many donors don’t give because they don’t think they are being asked. For them, a text, email, or even a USPS letter is not enough. They need personal engagement on a one-to-one level.

Giving: Once someone has given, don’t think you are done with them until next year. You owe them acknowledgement and expressions of appreciation that inform them of their impact in ways that recognize them as the true heroes of your organization’s mission.

It’s a Different World

When I first began fundraising, the focus was almost entirely on major donors and the acquisition of new donors. We did not give much thought to retention because we didn’t have to: Eight of every ten donors renewed their support each year and more than half of first-time donors made a second gift.

Today, according to the benchmarking of the Fundraising Report Card, fewer than 35% of all donors renew their support from one year to the next; fewer than 20% of first-time donors make a second gift.

Philanthropy has become a leaky bucket. There are many reasons for this, but the fact remains that for your organization to reach its ambitious year-end goals, so that you may continue to serve those people and causes you hold dear, you must think strategically, work diligently, and create a detailed written plan NOW.

Questions to Help Land Your Dream Job

Our clients are employers — organizations that are looking to hire people. For the most part, the articles I have written in the past year have been to strengthen their process and procedures.

But that does not mean we are not concerned about prospective employees. We work closely with candidates throughout the recruitment and interview process and are deeply invested in their success. We help them understand the nature of the job, organization, and the people whom they are about to meet during an interview. We seek to ensure they are well prepared, and counsel them regarding what they should know and expect in the process of applying for a particular position.

We know that if the interviewee does well, our clients will be well led, well served, raise more money, retain more donors, and deliver more and better on their respective missions.

Among the things we emphasize when preparing candidates for the people they will meet and the range of interviews they will have, is the importance of asking — not just answering — questions.

Indeed, while most job applicants (in fact, virtually all people) assume they are in control when speaking, the opposite is true. The person asking the questions controls the flow and direction of the conversation; successful candidates understand this and make sure they are not simply passive responders.

How to Use Questions as a Candidate

Often, near the end of an interview, the hiring officer will say, “Our time is nearly up, do you have any questions for me?” That’s fine, however I believe a better approach is to engage the interviewer with relevant questions throughout the conversation.

For example, perhaps the interviewer asks how you go about preparing for a major gift solicitation. Once you have responded with a specific example (e.g., how you used a team approach that led to an eight-figure result), you might ask, “In relation to major gifts here, tell me a little about the board’s involvement in the identification, engagement, solicitation, and stewardship of donors.”

An interview should not be an interrogation; it’s a conversation. In addition to demonstrating your value, you are conducting an evaluation of your own — of the organization, the position, and those with whom you would be working.

It’s a two-way street, so plan on asking a question each time you conclude an answer, so that you may gather the information you need to make your own assessment.

More Examples…

The interviewer asks, “Tell me about your management style. Are you a team player or a lone wolf?”

There is no right answer — either may be of value to the organization. But as you conclude your answer, you might ask, “Tell me a bit about your own leadership style.” As you listen to the response, think about whether this is the kind of person you might want as manager, mentor, or teammate.

The interviewer asks, “What do you plan to accomplish in your first 30, 60, or 90 days?”

It’s a common question. So rather than waiting to be asked, maybe you should preempt it by asking, “What goals would you have for me in the first 30, 60, or 90 days?”

The interviewer asks, “What has been your greatest professional success or failure?”

You will want to have a prepared answer for this question, as it is also quite common. In fact, we advise all candidates to have prepared answers for every conceivable question they might be asked.

Your answer might conclude with a question such as, “What was yourgreatest success or failure? What did you learn from it and how did you leverage it in your personal and professional development?” Or, “What was the organization’s greatest success or failure? How did that change the nonprofit’s goals or (development) strategies?”

True conversations involve two (or more) active participants who share a back and forth on equal footing. The more you, the interviewee, can get the interviewer to talk, the more you will learn. Further, as you follow-up the other person’s responses, you come across as engaging, prepared, and eager to learn, all traits that every quality organization should value.

Is it Okay for Me to Ask So Many Questions?

Of course, there is an appropriate balance between answering and asking questions. You need to listen with your eyes as much as your ears to sense if the interviewer is feeling uncomfortable with yielding some control over the conversation.

But that in itself may suggest a red flag worth paying attention to. If they are not open, flexible, and willing to engage with you, consider whether this is the kind of person and organization with whom you can see yourself working.

By being prepared to both answer and ask substantive questions, you are showcasing your capabilities while simultaneously conducting the due diligence necessary to ensure you have found a good fit.

Give Your Current Employees the Care and Attention They Need and Deserve

In real estate, you hear talk about whether we are in a “buyer’s” or a “seller’s” market. In a buyer’s market, there is excess inventory. This gives buyers the upper hand. In a seller’s market, it is the opposite. There are not enough homes, a situation that advantages those with something to sell.

It works very much the same in the field of talent acquisition and management. Sometimes, jobs are scarce. This gives organizations great leverage in candidate selection. Other times — today’s reality — it is the candidates who are in short supply. During times like these, organizations need to exert extra effort on identification and retention. They need to think strategically about who they want to employ, always remembering that nonprofits (in particular) need to build and maintain cohesive, capable, committed teams.

Recently, I have written about attracting talented people and hiring smarter. Today, I want to focus on retaining the talent we have.

It is well documented that turnover is the single greatest expense an organization will experience. And yet, most organizations simply do not work to keep the quality people they already have on board.

This is a shame and an unnecessary oversight. An employee who doesn’t leave does not need to be replaced. So, let’s talk about what we can do to ensure employee satisfaction and keep retention strategies top of mind across the organization.

Live to Work or Work to Live

Our post-pandemic world looks very different than what came before. Nowhere is this more evident than regarding employee expectations and concerns.

We recruit staff for clients throughout the United States. The first question most potential candidates ask is, “Is this job remote?” If we say no, the next question is often, “Could it be hybrid?” From there, expectations around in-person attendance become part of the negotiation. That is just one example of the need to meet candidates — and current employees — where they are.

Now, more than ever, organizations need to meet employees’ personal aspirations and priorities. Besides rewarding compensation, great nonprofits offer employees career development, recognition (public or private), and alignment of mission and values. It may seem obvious, but paying close attention to the employee raises employee satisfaction. It keeps your best players on board. Failure to do so risks losing them to the potential for career advancement and recognition at another organization.

The Value of Questions

A fundamental element in building a culture of retention is employee engagement. Managers should question, listen, and negotiate changes as needed. In large shops, you could use surveys. Then, follow-up with regular and frequent one-on-one discussions. Supervisors should use these engagement techniques to increase employee satisfaction and retention.

Here are examples of questions to help uncover what matters to employees…

  • Do you believe our organizational values are consistent with your own?
  • Are there organizational process barriers that prevent you from doing your best work?
  • Do you feel trusted to make meaningful decisions day to day?
  • Do you believe you are fairly compensated for your responsibilities?
  • Do you think leadership and management support you and address our shared responsibilities?
  • Do your responsibilities and work best suit your interests?
  • What can we do to enhance your satisfaction here?
  • What kinds of things do you want in the next stage of your career (e.g., the chance to learn something new; a title change; a different role)?
  • Would you recommend to any of your friends that they come work here?

When employees can respond to these kinds of questions, it helps them feel valued.

Management transparency and truthfulness enhances employee satisfaction. Diligence in following up on concerns and requests increases employee retention. But giving lip service to change is worse than not engaging with employees at all.

Retention is a Core Success Strategy

I am not suggesting that every request from every employee is valid. Yet, I do recommend continual engagement with your best people. In that way, you will learn what they want for themselves and for the organization.

You thought of your employees as high-quality, talented people when you hired them. If you still recognize their value, you ought to treasure them in a way that reflects that.

In this “seller’s market,” treat your employees with integrity. Reward them publicly, with acknowledgement of their value at a staff gathering or board meeting. And privately, in both regular interactions as well as in chance encounters at the proverbial water cooler.

Work diligently to earn and preserve your staff’s loyalty. Then, you will receive their best efforts and retain their services for years to come.

Hiring: A Better Approach, Part II

When we were last together, we spoke of some of the challenges regarding hiring. We took a high-level look at things an organization and its leadership might consider throughout the search process. These included:

  • the importance of a formal approach;
  • the need to assess behavior, not just appearance;
  • the value of a prescreening interview; and
  • the overall idea that effective hiring is rarely the result of “good luck.”

This month, I want to examine the interview phase and share some suggestions that will help you hire the very best candidate for the job, the team, and your organization.

Let’s start with questions…

Many hiring managers feel tremendous pressure to ask the “right” questions of an interviewee. This concern often leads inexperienced interviewers to fall back on cliché: Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses. Where do you want to be in five years?

Unfortunately, this stale approach is guaranteed to result in a boring interview and few usable insights regarding the candidate’s fit and future potential with the organization.

A better practice is to think about important questions for which you want actual answers. Questions that don’t simply engage the candidate in playing the “interview game,” but instead, reveal the degree to which they will work well with others on the team, contribute to and represent the organization, and perform the job in question.

Some examples:

  • What’s the most important thing you can contribute to our organization?
  • How do you recognize when you are overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious and how do you manage those things when they occur?
  • What are three things you like and three things you dislike about your current position or organization?
  • What kind of mistakes have you made and what kind are you likely to make in the future?
  • To whom do you turn when making an important decision for which there is no obvious answer?

Then, prior to the interview, print these questions on paper. When you meet, hand them to the candidate (or share via Zoom if meeting virtually). Let them know you will return in a few minutes to listen to their thoughts.

This unconventional approach accomplishes two important things:

First, it reminds the interviewer that they need to listen more and talk less,circumventing a common mistake that many novice interviewers make.

Second, it puts the burden on the candidate, where it belongs. It lets them know from the start that you are there to hear what they have to say and that the interview is intended to reveal who they are and of what they are capable.

Most people, candidates in particular, welcome the opportunity to talk. If you show them you are willing and eager to listen, you are going to learn a great deal.

Don’t we need to “sell” the organization to the candidate?

Of course, but you will have time for that later. For now, your job is to let the candidate speak — and bite your tongue when you feel the urge to interrupt.

As for the appropriate balance between your listening and speaking, I used to say the ratio should be two-to-one, correlating with your two ears and one mouth. I now believe a four-to-one ratio is even better, adding your two eyes to the mix. Pay attention to the valuable information being transmitted nonverbally, whether in person or virtually!

I also recommend taking copious notes during the interview. This will focus your attention, help you recall the conversation, and keep you from hiring a candidate who is glib or attractive, but not the right person for this job at this time.

Pay Attention to the “How”

In addition to the content and substance of a candidate’s responses, you want to get a sense of who they are and how they communicate. Who the candidate is matters a great deal in a people-focused profession such as fundraising and development.

What words do they use? What does their body language demonstrate? How comfortable do they seem in their own skin?

For example, while speaking with a candidate recently, she said, “You ask very good questions. I need to think about my answer for a few minutes.” That was a wonderful way to deflect and give herself time to think. Her easy, confident manner told me a lot about how she might handle herself in a work situation.

Two Final Thoughts

#1. Keep it real.

There used to be a lot of emphasis on stressing a candidate during the course of an interview — creating an artificial situation designed to see how the candidate would perform.

Unfortunately, this reveals little of value and builds walls rather than relationships. Your goal in an interview is to get a sense of how a person will perform in a real-life situation, not in a made-up scenario that is unlikely to occur.

#2. Focus less on “passion.”

I think passion in the workplace is overrated. Of course, we want people who are eager to do the work and who believe in the mission. But their wanting to do the job is more important than whether it was their lifelong dream, even when looking for a CEO, COO, or Chief Development Officer.

Nonprofit work is team based — we want people who can be sensitive to and respectful of others while collaborating on the fulfillment of long-term goals. Under these circumstances, passion takes a back seat to cooperation and a willingness to chip in wherever and whenever needed.

Hiring: A Better Approach

Believe it or not, it will soon be the fourth anniversary of the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we came out of that, we encountered something not seen previously: “The Great Resignation.” Many people realized they were unhappy with their jobs — whether due to the circumstances surrounding them, the work itself, or some combination — and simply quit.

Since then, nonprofits that conduct their own searches have found it harder to find qualified people for open positions. And those who are interested in the positions are asking different questions than years past. Questions like:

  • Do I need to work during “standard” business hours?
  • Do I need to come into the office five days a week?
  • Do I need to come into the office at all?

Of course, hiring well has never been easy. But it has become a great deal more difficult given today’s smaller pool of candidates and the larger demands those candidates now place on organizations.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to take the path of least resistance — to fill the position as quickly as possible, even if it means settling on a less qualified candidate. This is a critical mistake. When qualified candidates are in short supply, the hiring process needs to be slowed down, not sped up.

Indeed, hiring the “wrong” person is among the costliest mistakes an organization can make. The old saw about investing in people, not ideas, is as true as it has ever been. If the people are not right, the organization will struggle to succeed, regardless of what other assets it may possess.

But managers with open positions already have full-time jobs. Further, they are (usually) not well-equipped with the training and skills needed to make quality hiring decisions.

How then can your organization ensure hiring is done carefully and thoroughly, and that you are identifying and engaging with those individuals who can contribute the most?

Some suggestions…

Create a Formal Process

If we are being honest, most organizations have a haphazard, undefined approach to hiring — something akin to a Rube Goldberg cartoon come to life.

Instead, it is important that you delineate, in writing, a clear description of what your hiring system looks like — from the moment you become aware of an opening, all the way through the new hire’s first month of employment.

We recommend that senior management comes together every few yearsto review the process and make sure everything possible is being done to identify, engage, recruit, and retain the very best people.

Assess Behavior, Not Just Appearance

How many times have we hired someone simply because they looked impressive, spoke articulately, and told great stories? Yes, those things are an important part of the presentation these individuals will make on your behalf as they seek to further your cause.

But it’s not enough, and it can be misleading. Shift your focus to the candidate’s capabilities and proven accomplishments.

If your organization offers programs and services that can be observed, ask the candidate to visit one of your sites and write up a summary of their impressions. If you don’t have such programs, ask them to look at your web site and provide a written assessment. These actions offer a window into how they think and communicate, while shifting much of the burden back to the candidate and away from the hiring manager.

Dig deep into their past track record. Speak in depth to their references and to others in your network who may know them in a different context. Do whatever you can to assess how they have functioned elsewhere, to envision how they may fit within your shop.


One positive outcome of the pandemic is that we are all now accustomed to Zoom. This tool can save you and your team a great deal of time when used as a prescreening device.

Prior to inviting candidates in for a face-to-face interview, assign someone on your team — not necessarily the hiring manager — to speak with these people. You want a screener with a well-honed BS detector. Someone who has a good sense of the company culture and what it takes to fit in. Only those who clear this initial hurdle are asked to move forward in the process.

This type of first-level screening can go a long way in culling those who are a poor fit for the job at hand, while making best use of the hiring manager’s time and attention.

Effective Hiring Is Not Luck

For any position in which human interaction is paramount, there will always be a great deal of subjectivity involved in the hiring process. That’s not necessarily a negative — ours is an industry in which how things “feel” plays an important role.

Still, a process that is too random and too dependent on impressions is likely to result in candidates who are not up to the task or who are not a good match for your organization. In today’s tight job market, a deliberate and well thought out approach is vital.

AI and Nonprofit Hiring

By David A. Mersky

Do you know much about AI (Artificial Intelligence)? We have written a bit about it — Abigail did a terrific piece recently about AI in fundraising. I confess that I am far from expert. However, lately I have been thinking quite a bit about AI’s potential impact on the nonprofit hiring process.

And then I came across a very interesting study published by the MIT Sloan Management Review. Among other things, it found that job applicants who use AI receive 7.8% more offers and have starting salaries that are 8.4% higher than those who don’t.

Since this blog tends to concentrate on executive search, let’s flip the AI focus to hiring.

If you are not aware of how AI is being used by candidates as you set out to hire your next great team member, suddenly, it is no longer a level playing field. Not only because you are competing for those same candidates with organizations that utilize AI, but also because the candidates themselves have more tools at their disposal than ever before.

AI Makes All Candidates Seem More Attractive

The 2024 job applicant will be using AI in any number of ways.

For example, many job postings contain very detailed requirements; AI can check that one’s resume meets all the necessary prerequisites. AI can also act as expert copywriter and proofreader — crafting cover letters, removing typographical errors, eliminating improper grammar, and polishing one’s presentation overall.

In larger organizations in which the first reader of a cover letter and resume is a computer, AI’s ability to match the candidate’s profile to job requirements and remove obvious errors is clearly to their advantage. But this improvement to the initial submission of materials is just step one…

If the candidate is fortunate to get through your initial screening and be invited to meet with you on Zoom, they will first brainstorm every interview question they can imagine (often with the help of an AI tool, such as ChatGPT). Next, after asking AI to consider articles you’ve written, your organization’s annual report, your web site, etc., AI can provide on-target answers for the candidate. From there, it’s just a matter of adding some personal stories and humanizing the responses.

AI: Threat or Opportunity in Hiring?

The short answer, of course, is probably both.

As it improves in capability and ease of use, allowing more and more candidates to employ it as a job-search enhancer, AI will increasingly complicate the already challenging process of separating the stars from the duds.

On the other hand, the best candidates have always done the most in-depth research and thorough preparation. By using AI to improve how they present themselves to you and your organization, they demonstrate a willingness to innovate, experiment, and engage with the newest ideas and technologies. After all, isn’t that what you are looking for in a new hire?

As for me, I believe the jury is still very much out regarding AI’s ultimate impact on the hiring process. But clearly the tide is overwhelming; AI will continue to play a greater and greater role in not just hiring, but in how we conduct business overall.

And, because of that, I think the human element will become even more essential. There will be a greater need to hire people who can think strategically, act tactically, and cultivate relationships with donors that are genuine and characterized by integrity. I don’t think AI will be able to screen for those attributes for quite some time.


Let’s Talk About Compensation – Broadly Speaking

By David A. Mersky

I have written a lot these past few months about the importance of employee retention, in large measure because the process of hiring somebody is so expensive and time consuming.

We have talked about employee onboarding and about corporate culture, both of which are critical to enhancing the self-worth of your new hire by helping them feel you are truly invested in their success and longevity with the organization.

One thing we have not yet covered explicitly is today’s topic: compensation.

I suppose one might think that nobody goes to work at a nonprofit in order to make a lot of money. That may be true. However, nonprofit organizations compete against one another for talent. Some of these, depending on their location, mission, and prominence, may seem more attractive to potential staff than their counterparts.

Compensation is one area in which nonprofits with lower profiles, or that do not operate in major metropolitan areas, can compete effectively for the best and brightest. Focusing on performance-based compensation — not commissions — is one way to compete for talent.

More Than Just Money

I am well aware and endorse the point of view of fundraising professional associations that argue against paying commissions to fundraisers. The media is replete with stories of consultants who charge based on dollars raised and who end up taking more in compensation than whatever incremental benefit they provide to the organizations that hire them.

Fundraising is, after all, a relationship-based field, like financial services or real estate. Fundamentally, it is designed to have one person advise another as to how best to advance the mission of an organizationabout which they both deeply care. Donors need, and want, to know that the money they give goes to support the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the scholars, the athletes, the doctors and researchers, etc. — and does not simply line the pockets of the fundraisers themselves.

All that said, and provided it is not budget-busting, we often recommend performance-based incentives (for development or fundraising staff in particular) as a means of both hiring and retaining quality staff. Here are some things to keep in mind when structuring such a program…

#1. All for one and one for all.

Compensation should be focused on team or department achievement, as opposed to that of the individual. By prioritizing success in this way, you will create an environment where everyone is more likely to work collaboratively and to support one another in their respective roles. In this way, it is never about the individual gift itself, but about the collective work of the team.

#2. Involve staff in the setting of metrics and targets.

Resist the urge to dictate goals from on high. Rather, engage staff — across all functions — to create goals that are both meaningful and achievable that advance the work of the organization. You are much more likely to motivate the team if they are heavily involved in whatever targets are set.

#3. Look beyond the numbers.

Many of the metrics developed will no doubt be quantitative in nature— total cash raised for the college’s annual fund; rate of alumni participation by class; number of face-to-face visits (virtual or in person); percentage of increased gifts in the portfolio versus decreased gifts; to name just a few. Fundraising is numbers-based and quantifiable goals are appropriate.

However, not everything that matters can be put into a spreadsheet. Many of those who contribute significantly to the overall effort do so in non-donor-facing roles. Supervisors, record-keepers, researchers, and those involved in accountability and stewardship are also essential parts of a successful effort. Be sure you find ways to measure and include the work of these important players.

#4. Compensation is a broadly defined term.

A healthy work culture is one in which team members feel supported;that encompasses much more than just financial compensation.

For example, it may mean helping staff strike a balance between professional requirements and personal life by providing compensatory time off when evening or weekend work is required.

Or, it might include your investment in their professional development, whether that means encouraging attendance at workshops and conferences, internal mentoring programs, or more formal educational programs.

Supporting them with quality, up-to-date technology so that they can perform their jobs effectively and with a minimum of hassle is another area that can play an important role.

“Compensation” is whatever you do to invest in the skills, experiences, and work satisfaction of your hardworking staff.

Your Employees Have Choices

As a nonprofit, you operate in a competitive environment. Just as you compete for the attention and resources of donors, you also compete for the time, energy, interest, and commitment of those who work and may one day work within your organization.

Are they there solely for the money? Rarely. But, in most cases, they are also not there solely for the mission. They are evaluating the entire package of what it means to join and stay in your organization.

A well developed, generous compensation plan can offset structural aspects of your organization that are more difficult to modify (size, location, prominence, etc.), resulting in a well-functioning, long-serving group of development staff at every level. This is how you enhance revenue and achieve the mission, vision, and values that are the hallmark of your enterprise.

Retention Requires Attention

By David A. Mersky

When last we gathered, I wrote to you about the importance of onboarding. This helps ensure that your new hire will be well integrated and likely stay in your employ for a good long time. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all that was required to retain staff was to have a terrific onboarding program? But you and I both know there is more to it than that. That’s what I want to focus on with you today.

Last month, I mentioned that when somebody leaves your employ, the cost to replace them can be as much as three times their compensation in screening, interviewing, vetting, and onboarding.

The costs are even greater at the higher levels. As Penelope Burk notes in her book, Donor-Centered Fundraisingthe departure of a senior fundraiser can cost the organization up to nine times their salary in time, resources, and lost opportunities.

How then can we increase retention of our most important hires? How can we enhance the long-term productivity and value for our organizations? (These questions apply to donors and funders as well. But that is a topic for another time.)

Here are four ideas to consider that will enable you to support and motivate your team, enhance their satisfaction, and ensure their retention:

#1. Evaluate Your Organizational Culture

Successful fundraisers look to work in an organization with a mission they can embrace and a culture in which they can thrive. Those cultural issues become even more important in a world where remote and hybrid work have become the norm.

Indeed, a 2022 study from MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that it was rarely salary and benefits that caused employees to seek greener pastures. It was more likely a toxic work culture that led to turnover.

To ensure long-term satisfaction and enhanced staff retention, it is up to you to develop a culture of belonging, inclusivity, and growth, both personal and professional. Senior leadership must set an example of openness and transparency in their interactions with each other and staff, as well as in the characteristics of the organization itself.

#2. Assess the Metrics and Goals by Which You Measure Performance

Organizational metrics are about more than simply evaluating financial progress this year. They must also support and lead staff to increase the value — and values — of your organization for the long term. 

Metrics are a means to an end. A singular focus in this area creates unhealthy possessiveness and competition among staff to be the star. Also, it is not good for long-term donor relationships or commitment to the mission, vision, and values of the organization if the only focus is the current dollars instead of the lifetime value of the donor.

Metrics should be designed in a collaborative way and they should help fundraisers understand their role in helping the organization achieve its mission. Look beyond monetary goals and think in terms of goals which also strengthen the donor relationship.

Celebrate milestones achieved collectively as well as individually, making sure that non-frontline staff contributions are acknowledged as enthusiastically as those of your star performers. Recognition in some form, across the board, is critical for retention.

#3. Engage Frequently with Staff Regarding Career Objectives

The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance found that a lack of career growth (in addition to dissatisfaction with organizational culture mentioned earlier) was a significant driver of resignations. Don’t wait for somebody to submit their two-weeks’ notice to have a conversation about what you could do to keep them. At that point, they are already out the door.

Rather, you should have regular conversations. These enable you to engage openly about your staff members’ aspirations and professional development. Also, they provide opportunities for you to signal recognition of their value and contributions. As a manager, it is up to you to ensure that your employees’ skills and preferences align with their responsibilities and expectations. If all you do is play “gotcha” and focus on areas of underperformance, you will simply foster dissatisfaction with you, the organization, and the work itself.

Look for areas in which your staff excels. Personality assessment tools and open conversations can help uncover hidden talents. These conversations then lead to opportunities for growth. By being intentional in aligning people with the roles that are best suited for them, their satisfaction will increase, as will your revenue.

#4. Promote Flexibility

In our post-pandemic world, we have learned that working remotely is often as productive (if not more so) as working in an office. While a fully remote work culture may not be an option, a hybrid one certainly ought to be. The days of having to “punch in” at 9 and out at 5, five days a week, are long gone.

Surely there are times where we want to come together as a team. But even that can be done remotely. The MJA team meets regularly on Zoom with everybody working remotely from coast to coast.

Be creative in thinking about how you can promote this type of flexibility.

Improving Your Bottom Line

By focusing on these four areas, your organization will improve job satisfaction for its most senior fundraisers — indeed, for all staff — and increase retention rates.

You will have created a more supportive and fulfilling work environment, one which will inevitably lead to greater fundraising success for your organization.

Retention Begins on Day One

By David A. Mersky

Our firm conducts many searches; you see them listed here every other week when we publish this newsletter. We are proud of our success identifying candidates and helping them integrate into their new positions across the country.

However, in doing this work, we witness a great inconsistency, one that occurs regardless of an organization’s size: the nonprofit spends months to get the right candidate and only a couple of days onboarding new hires. The results range from spectacular to abysmal, with much variation inbetween.

Recently, I saw data that terrified me: 22% of turnover occurs within the first six weeks of employment. Further, 4% of new hires leave a job after a disastrous first day! With onboarding missing, it’s not surprising.

That’s expensive. Some estimates put the cost of quick turnover at three times the employee’s salary — in lost opportunities, productivity, and retraining. And while we do not charge for redoing a failed search, the indirect staff and volunteer leader costs in terms of time spent screening, interviewing, and onboarding yet again are onerous for the organizations.

That’s why we say, to use a familiar phrase, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Avoiding Onboarding Disasters

Onboarding is a critical point in the talent lifecycle. It is that process which bridges the gap between the candidate’s previous experience and the new employee experience. A quality onboarding program is a catalyst for employee satisfaction and retention.

Sadly, many organizations — of any size — devote minimal resources and leadership support to an employee’s first day, week, or month. Some don’t give it even a single thought, opting instead to just toss the employee into the deep end, as if they already know how to swim in that organization’s unique pool.

Do better. What follows are some suggestions.

Before the new employee arrives…

  • Make sure they have a desk assigned to them (even if they will be hybrid, they will need a place to work) and a computer with any needed software. If you still use landlines, set up a phone and extension.
  • Set up their email address and add them to your employee directory. Be ready to add their picture and bio to your web site.
  • Send them the necessary new hire paperwork in advance. If you are set up for them to complete this online, all the better.
  • If you provide parking and permits are required, send that to them so they can park easily on their first day.
  • Remind them to bring a driver’s license (or passport) along with a voided check so you can set them up for direct deposit in your payroll system.
  • A week or two in advance of their start date, provide an agenda for that first day so they know what to expect. Provide bios (or links) for those they will be meeting.
  • Suggest that they may want to post about their new job on their own social media. Give them the company branding and appropriate hashtags so they can show pride in their new position.

When the new employee arrives…

  • Have their direct supervisor review the specifics of the job’s roles and responsibilities. Discuss expectations regarding how the employee will be managed and how best for them to “manage up.”
  • Provide a tour. If you operate in a two-room suite it won’t take long. But if you have a large building, such as a community center, show them the conference rooms, the staff lounge, the kitchen, the restrooms, etc.
  • Schedule regular meetings between the employee and supervisor. One-on-ones are vital for new hires and should take place at least weekly.
  • Introduce the new hire to other staff members with whom they will be working directly. Let the entire organization know that this person is joining the team, share a bit about who they are, and explain what they will be doing.
  • If possible, greet them on that first day with coffee, Danish, yogurt, etc. Schedule a purely social lunch for them and their teammates.

Check In Regularly

Those first few weeks and months are critically important for getting your new hire settled and comfortable. As part of your regular meetings, make sure to elicit feedback by asking direct and specific questions, such as:

  • How do you feel things are going?
  • What do you enjoy most about your role?
  • Is everything as you had expected?
  • What has surprised you?
  • What is working or not working?
  • Do you have everything you need to succeed?
  • How can I be a better manager for you?
  • How can you become a better manager?

Don’t Leave it to Chance

All of the critical processes within your organization — payroll, computer backups, financial reporting, etc. — are done consistently and with clear intention. Everyone knows that these things are essential, so deliberate steps are taken to ensure that they are done well.

Onboarding requires the same commitment and focus. It should be a standard operating procedure that is developed even before a search has started.

As my mother used to say, well begun is half done. By ensuring a thorough and well-coordinated onboarding process, you will reduce turnover while ensuring that your employees remain happy, productive, and successful for years to come.

Maximize Your Next Capital Campaign

By David A. Mersky

Labor Day has passed and summer is already in the rearview mirror. I know that because emails and phone calls have begun arriving in the office, asking us to come and talk to boards of organizations that are thinking about doing a capital campaign.

“Would you come and explain to the board what it would take?”

Over the years, I have learned that what we are really being asked to do is help Executive Directors and Development Officers guide their respective boards in overcoming some common misconceptions.

Indeed, the questions we receive upon arrival reveal what little experience board members and staff have in terms of fundraising to renovate a building, expand facilities to meet needs, or strengthen the balance sheet by increasing the endowment fund.

Here are some of the questions — and our responses — that well-meaning, but misinformed board members typically ask…

Won’t the capital campaign hurt our annual fundraising?

No. In fact, if you are intentional in your planning and engagement throughout the process, annual fundraising for operations should increase during a campaign.

By “intentional” I mean that your donors see the campaign as part of a comprehensive effort, one in which you ask for a capital/endowment gift as well as an increased annual gift — a gift that they would maintain during the time they are paying out their capital pledge.

Most people are sophisticated enough to know that you can’t just build a building or renovate a facility. You need resources to keep the lights on, pay staff, operate the programs, serve your clients, etc. The annual funds are needed for operations that are separate from the campaign or endowment.

How large should the board’s gift be as a share of the total?

It depends. If your board is made up of individuals of significant wealth who are passionate about what you do, they may account for 30–40% of the total. In other organizations, it may be 5-10%. Overall, when the board’s collective gift is announced, it should be 100% participation and evoke a “Wow!” Because when other people see this, they will also jump on board so that their gift calls up a similar response.

But beyond a specific percentage, what’s most important is that all board members give to the best of their ability and that they do so in a meaningful way. The most important metric is that everyone feels they have joyfully accomplished something together.

How large should the lead gift be?

Capital campaigns differ from annual fund programs in that in the former, the “pyramid of giving” is much steeper. Typically, 90% of the money comes from just 10% of the donors.

As with the board’s gift, the benefit of a large lead gift is that it sets an example. It says that somebody believes wholeheartedly in your cause, encouraging and emboldening others to participate.

We recommend identifying three to five individuals who have the wherewithal to make that lead gift. Then strategize on how you can bring one or more of those individuals into the inner circle.

Should we approach “Wealthy Person X” or “Foundation Y” in our community?

There is often an assumption that those in the community with a demonstrated financial capacity — whether an individual, a foundation, or a company — “should give to us.” But that’s not how effective fundraising is done.

Most of the money will come from people and organizations that already know you – those with whom you have already developed a deep and strong relationship and who believe in what you do.

Money alone is not enough to makes someone a prospect, there needs to be a connection. This does not mean that you shouldn’t find ways to makethat connection… but the initial step is not to solicit them for a capital campaign commitment. That comes much later in the scope of a relationship. You must first show them what you do, how they can contribute, and explain why they might want to be a part of it.

How long should a capital campaign take?

Successful campaigns take a minimum of three to four years from initial conception to conclusion of the “quiet phase,” at least half of which is advance planning and raising the majority of donations. From there, it may take another three to four years to reach your target participation rate and before pledges are fully paid.

This means you must plan to maintain engagement with donors and funders all along the way, so that they know what is happening. Otherwise, those who gave at the beginning may begin to wonder what has become of the gift they so generously provided.

More Than Just Raising Money

Done well, the value of a capital or endowment campaign transcends the campaign itself, serving you into the future:

  • First, it enhances the culture of asking and giving within your organization, strengthening the skills of your fundraisers.
  • Second, it reinforces relationships with your donors individually. Your reputation is enhanced with the 100, 200, or 500 people who have come together for a specific purpose at a particular time to help you achieve a goal.
  • Finally, you have raised your visibility in the community at large. Your organization is recognized as one that sets bold goals, galvanizes a community, and accomplishes big things.

Taken together, these things set the table for you to carry out successful campaigns of all types, again and again in the future.