Author Archives: David Mersky

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.

Put Yourself In Your Donor’s Shoes

By David A. Mersky

My friend Mark Satterfield and I worked together many years ago. He is a marketing guru whose focus of late is in helping professionals in “the art of marketing to the affluent and high-net-worth clients.”

Recently, he said, “rich people are not interested in getting something that feels corporate in pitches for services. They are like everybody else — they want to be engaged, made to laugh, have their hearts touched.”

I was really intrigued by what Mark had to say.

Because I have noticed how often it is that people who are naturals as storytellers, conversationalists, and relationship managers seem to forget these tendencies when they go to work for a nonprofit, either professionally or in a volunteer capacity. Suddenly, and regardless of the socioeconomic level of the people with whom they are communicating, they become “corporate.”

They talk like robots, use unnecessarily big words, and try to sound as impressive as possible. As if the path to a donor’s heart lies in statistics and dry professionalism.

My Own Disappointing Experience

A few years ago, as part of my search for how organizations can better steward the relationship with first-time donors, I contributed to a wonderful nonprofit. I really believed in what they were doing. Sadly, it was one of the most unfortunate experiences I have ever had.

First, they never recognized my initial donation. The following year, they asked me to contribute again with no acknowledgment that I had already been a supporter. And the way they asked was terrible: a postcard whose message was, “Where is the donation you were going to give to us?”

The postcards kept coming and, rather than feeling joyful at having done something meaningful in contributing to the success of this organization, I began to feel guilty.

This impersonal approach is not the way to secure lifelong support from a first-time donor.

Relationship First

Effective fundraising is fundamentally about managing the relationship between your organization and its donors. It requires putting yourself in their shoes and never forgetting that it is only through their generosity and passion that your work can continue.

Here are five things that your donors want from you:

#1. To Know They Made a Difference

Nobody gives if they do not care about what is going to happen with their donation.

They want to know… did they save a life, put a meal on the table, pay for a new bookcase in a library, provide much needed healthcare, provision clean water that is vital to life itself.

Your job is to let the donor know that having asked for their gift, you are going to do with their money what you promised. So that the donor will know they have done something good in our broken world.

#2. To Feel Appreciated

How would you feel if somebody kept asking you for favors or borrowing money without ever thanking you? Well, that is how your donor feels if you do not express appreciation for their contribution. No donor wants to be your ATM!

You need to say thank you and let them know what a hero they are and what impact their gift has had. Absent words to that effect, few people will give again. In fact, the nonprofit sector is so bad at appreciating first-time donors that fewer than one in five will make a second gift.

#3. To Know That You Are Trustworthy

Yes, their money is in your account — but it is still their money. You are only a temporary custodian. You must now use those funds wisely.

So, report to them regularly on your progress. Send an impact report, a newsletter, an annual report, etc. Talk about the amazing things the donor has accomplished in supporting your cause. Show them how much you value what they have enabled you to get done.

#4. To Feel Heard

Sometimes, when people contribute, they will send along a note. Or they might call you, or make a comment on your web site, LinkedIn post, or Facebook page. Pay attention. Take note of what people are saying.

And, to encourage communication from your donors, ensure it is abundantly clear how to contact you. Then, make the interaction truly a two-way street by responding to each comment, whether nice or nasty, constructive or critical. Sometimes, that is all you need to do to cement a relationship.

#5. To Enjoy an Easy Donation Process

More and more gifts are being given online. Many of these are small — ten, twenty, a hundred dollars.

You might think, “I am focused on the five-figure gifts and beyond.” Of course, those are important. But remember that the person who makes a small first gift may have great capacity. They may be testing to see how — if — you will respond.

Overall, it should never take more than a minute or two to donate; nobody wants to fill out countless forms. Many people abandon the process because it is too complicated, causing your organization to forego not just that contribution, but all future contributions from that initially interested, now frustrated, donor.

Test and Retest the Process

It may seem that your organization is doing everything right, but how do you really know? Ensure that things are working as you would want and expect by contributing to your own organization through its standard channels and experiencing the result firsthand.

When you provide everything your donors want, you will enjoy the benefits of stronger relationships and watch as your philanthropic revenue increases year over year.

Four Secrets to Major Gift Fundraising

By David A. Mersky

Recently, I reached out to a former client, now friend, as she was about to experience an important moment in her life — her eldest child was graduating from middle school that evening. I’ve known her and her family for years and I called to wish them well.

She is the Chief Development Officer of an independent school. After catching up a bit, I asked how things were shaping up for her coming fiscal year.

She explained that she is facing an unrealistic goal. Her Board, challenged with increased expenses and not wishing to raise earned income (tuition), decided they would simply raise the target number for development to make up the difference.

In essence, the fundraising goal for the coming year is based on balancing the budget, rather than as a result of a donor-centered analysis and a realistic appraisal of what is possible.

Your Input Determines Your Output

Faced with this challenge, my friend and her team decided to do the best they could. In the coming year, she convinced the leadership of the school to expand staff to enhance their fundraising capabilities and meet the new goal. This was very smart. By changing the game and adding resources to increase revenue, she has moved to solve a short-term challenge with a long-term solution.

It’s worth noting that this won’t occur immediately. Indeed, we counsel our clients when hiring that they should expect new staff to generate zero revenue in year one, achieve breakeven in year two, and experience 5, 10, or even 15x revenue thereafter. Hiring front-line fundraisers is a worthwhile, but long-term investment.

Further, and beyond revenue generation, the investment in staff creates an increased capability to connect with donors on a more personal level. In its current state, my friend’s team lacks the bandwidth to maintain connections and deepen relationships with its donor base. Absent that connection, past, present, and potential donors may find other places to go that are better equipped to show the love they seek.

My friend’s insightful response to her current situation demonstrates an understanding of what it takes to be successful in major gifts fundraising. Specifically…

#1. Fundraising is not Transactional

Philanthropy succeeds as a result of long-standing and deep personal relationships.

For example, if I want to see a play, I go online and buy tickets. It’s a transaction, one in which most theatres do not see anything other than an exchange of money for a seat in their inventory.

Great theatre programs, on the other hand, are always thinking about how to build and sustain a relationship. They invite patrons to join the newsletter list and subscribe as a season ticket holder. That connection may lead to additional and greater dollar purchases, involvement as a volunteer, or a gift at the end of the calendar year.

It’s the difference between a Broadway theater (a business) and the Seacoast Repertory Theatre (a wonderful, worthy cause).

#2. Donors Need to be Invited to Act

There is a widely held belief that above all, donors need to be educated — about the cause, the mission, and the history of the organization. This is not the case and it is the wrong goal.

Rather, donors must be asked to give in a way that is impactful in their own lives — to become a “heroic” donor whose gift makes a difference to the organization and the people whom it serves.

With a larger staff of people, an organization can share with each significant contributor a deeply personal story about the impact that donor’s gift will have. By meeting with donors individually, one can uncover what motivates them to support the organization and let them know that without their generosity, the work could not continue.

#3. Fundraising is a Two-Way Street

Done well, fundraising is a conversation, a give and take. Great fundraisers are not waiting for their turn to speak — they are actively listening, so they may respond to what the donor is saying in a considered and authentic way.

If we want major donors to give, we must give them something in return. Not tangible gifts (e.g., swag in the form of a coffee mug or paperweight), but instead, the knowledge that they are making a difference… changing the world… perhaps even saving a life.

In doing so we provide a psychic benefit and an enhancement of the donor’s sense of self-worth.

#4. Each Donor Requires a Customized Goal

By increasing the bandwidth of her staff, my friend is going to have additional eyes, ears, hands, and legs available to engage in “campaigns of one” with individual donors. That’s critical; successful major gift work is much more than simply asking, asking, asking. It requires:

  • Plan. A detailed, strategic plan for each donor that outlines the financial goal and tactics.
  • Engage. Fundraising is a contact sport; it necessitates getting out there.
  • Ask. Nothing happens if you don’t ask — this is the CTA—the call to action step.
  • Thank. Not once or twice — a minimum of seven touches during the year in which one demonstrates appreciation, acknowledgement, and recognition. Without those, you don’t have standing to come back again.
  • Report. Regularly, transparently, and authentically sharing the impact the donor’s gift has had and will have.
  • Repeat. Major gift giving is a cycle that repeats annually.

Change the Game

Donations and the amounts given don’t increase if you always do what you have always done. It necessitates a change in approach and tactics.

I am confident that when I call my friend next year to check in, she will be able to tell me how successful she has been. Not just by the dollars raised, but also by the actions taken, the relationships deepened, and the donors who now see themselves as true heroes to the organization they so eagerly support.

Let’s Reduce Fundraiser Turnover

By David A. Mersky

Let's reduce fundraiser turnover.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about and helping organizations increase their fundraising results. By achieving ever greater results and revenue, they can expand their mission and fulfill their vision. But, much has changed during my career, especially in the last several years.

When I began as a professional in nonprofit work, one could rely on donor retention year over year in the 75–80% range. Today, that number is dropping like a stone and is barely above 42%.

There are many reasons for this, but the one that causes me the greatest concern — and that is most within our control — is staff turnover within fundraising organizations. Here as well, times have changed.

When I began, fundraisers and staff members of organizations often stayed with a single enterprise for their entire careers. Today, as fundraising has become ever-increasingly professionalized, the average tenure of a frontline fundraiser is just 16 months.

In addition to representing the single greatest cost to an organization, high turnover has a tremendously negative impact on that organization’s ability to achieve its fundraising goals. Not only can it take several months to find a suitable replacement (during which time acknowledgements are not generated and asking does not occur), when a fundraiser leaves, a direct and familiar connection between organization and donor has been severed.

Fundraising is Relationship-Driven

Sadly, today’s nonprofit world has lost much of its appreciation for the vital link that fundraisers represent between donor and enterprise. It has reached the point where we almost behave — and are increasingly perceived — as if fundraising is somehow a deceptive practice: “I am here to trick you out of your money in order to advance our cause.”

In truth, it is anything but that.

Still, the perception persists. People who were once highly valued and respected for their skill in identifying, developing, and nurturing donor relationships are increasingly challenged in a world that is lacking in trust and basic civility.

Of course, every organization has some degree of turnover and morale issues. However, by bringing a corporate mindset to philanthropy, we have become overly reliant on transactional metrics, causing many of our most dedicated and highest quality people to seek greener pastures.

Here are steps you can take to reverse this unfortunate trend within your organization:

#1. Appreciate.  

Fundraisers are the essential link between donors and the mission, vision, and values of your organization. They are the sine qua non, without which there would be nothing. There would be no revenue if somebody were not there to ask and to help donors actualize themselves through their philanthropy. Let the donors, the board, and the fundraisers themselves know that we cannot do this without them.

#2. Invest.

Demonstrate your belief in the value of frontline staff by providing personal and professional development, thereby enhancing their ability to succeed. Provide individual coaching, offer regular training, send them to professional conferences and events where they will meet others and learn how to thrive from the best.

#3. Recognize. 

Recognition is a public expression of an individual’s value. Employee of the month, fundraiser of the week, bonuses for achieving mutually agreed upon objectives – these and steps like them suffuse the organization and demonstrate a tangible commitment to fundraiser accomplishments.

#4. Understand.

Fundamentally, fundraising isn’t about raising money… that’s simply a byproduct of the job. Great fundraisers serve as an advocate for the donor or funder, helping them advance themselves by making philanthropic gifts that have an impact and change or save lives. When you empower a fundraiser to see themselves in that role and tell them, “I may write your check, but you work for the donor,” more money comes in and more donors remain as recurring, faithful, and enthusiastic advocates for your organization.

#5. Reorient.

Too often, nonprofit leadership insists that the organization and its achievements take primacy over everything else. “How else can we justify asking for money if they don’t understand what we do?” While there is a measure of truth to that, your staff person will find greater fulfilment and success when they see their role first and foremost as helping people plan their giving to achieve the impact they want to make on the world in which they live.

A New (Old) Perspective

Too much attention has been paid in recent years to the metrics above all else: cash brought in, gift renewals compared to last year, etc. While that is important, fundraisers’ effectiveness — and their willingness to stay with your organization — will only occur if they are no longer required to view donors as human ATM machines.

To retain your best fundraising staff, provide clear direction and measure what you value most (e.g., relationships, contacts, communications with donors). Then, recognize and reward those who begin each day with your organization’s long term, best interests in mind. Only then can you count on consistently meeting — and often exceeding — your ambitious fundraising goals.

5 Traits of Highly Effective Face-to-Face Fundraisers

By David A. Mersky

5 Traits of Highly Effective Face-to-Face Fundraisers

Face-to-face fundraising is in a class all its own. It is distinct from email, telemarketing, direct mail, and other high volume, “one to many” tactics in which nonprofits customarily engage.

Instead, the best of those who practice face-to-face fundraising focus on a portfolio of just 25-50 high net worth individuals, each of whom is a campaign unto him or herself.

Fundraisers of this type meet with donors and potential donors personally and repeatedly.

Accordingly, their ability to guide these people in making ever larger gifts in support of the work you do requires much more than the “standard” qualities one looks for when hiring — work ethic, intelligence, skills, technical expertise, etc.

Those things matter, of course. But when meeting with somebody face-to-face and asking them to make an audacious gift to your organization, it’s about much more than the basics. It requires an individual who can assume the role of counselor — listening, asking probing questions, and helping the donor share his or her aspirations and passions for your organization.

The stakes are high and these individuals can be challenging to find, identify, and retain. With that in mind, here are five traits to look for as you interview and endeavor to bring great face-to-face fundraisers into your organization…

#1. Emotional intelligence.

This person must be effective at perceiving and understanding other people — and they must have a good sense of themselves.

Can they detect the emotions of a donor when meeting? Can they sense any anxiety, compassion, or empathy that the prospect may be feeling? Can they mirror — even through their breathing — the person who sits across from them? Are they capable of listening carefully (using both eyes and ears) and carrying on a sincere, two-way conversation … or are they simply waiting for their turn to speak?

This is “permission-based” fundraising. You are looking for someone who can help others feel comfortable, while they themselves are perceived as trustworthy and confident, all the while focusing on what’s important and relevant.

#2. A love of people.

The most effective face-to-face fundraisers exude likeability and are naturally interested in other people. This trait can’t be taught or easily faked. It is hard coded into their DNA and an authentic aspect of who they are.

They tend to be joiners in activities outside of work, so make sure to ask about how they spend their free time. Do they coach youth baseball? Do they sing in a choir? Do they volunteer at a local food bank?

The specific activity is not what matters. You are looking for those who simply can’t get enough of others and who demonstrate that by their behavior.

#3. Patience. 

Major, transformational gifts do not happen on the first, second, or even fifth visit. They take time and occur as a result of long and deep relationships; they are not transactional.

Your ideal face-to-face fundraiser is not a “closer” or salesperson. He or she is an individual who is willing to invest in these relationships over the long haul. They believe strongly in your organization and its cause and will commit the time necessary to helping others invest philanthropically.

#4. An exceptional memory.

Will this person remember the people they encounter, recalling the details of others’ lives and their wishes for your organization — weeks, months, and years after having met? And can they do all this at a moment’s notice, without having to check their notes or database?

Nothing strengthens a relationship more than the warm, honest recollection of a person with whom you have met. It demonstrates true caring for the other person and makes the fundraiser more like a friend and advisor than just the representative of a nonprofit organization.

You can get a good sense of a candidate’s memory by asking detailed questions about others in your own organization whom they may have already encountered.

#5. Impeccable integrity. 

People who possess this trait do not need to pretend to care about the donors with whom they work. For them, integrity informs everything they do; it comes naturally.

They are focused on the development of sincere, genuine relationships that support and reflect the interests of the donor. In fact, when we work with face-to-face fundraisers whom we have placed in client organizations, we say, “That organization is paying you, but you really work for the donor. If you represent the needs and priorities of the donor with integrity, both the organization that employs you and the donor will benefit.”

In sum, hiring well is never an easy task. It is doubly true when you are seeking to engage someone who will represent you among your most important past, present, and, hopefully, future benefactors.

When evaluating face-to-face fundraisers, look for these five key traits. They are even more important than the standard qualities and experiences you expect in all your other staff.

The Key to Every Hiring Decision… A Cultural Fit

By David A. Mersky

We live in a world where technical skills, industry knowledge, and relevant experience are no longer enough to define the perfect hire. These matter, of course. But they are not as important as how well a new employee fits within your organization’s culture and shares its core values.

Do candidates manifest the attitudes and behaviors that will enhance your ability to achieve your mission and vision? Particularly when seeking frontline fundraisers, do they have the interpersonal skills and love of people – board members, donors, prospective funders, etc. – to enable them to succeed?

Moreover, you want people who are open to new ideas. This is what your organization requires to compete for attention and funding in what has become an increasingly complex environment.

It may be that you will hire people who are very different from you – in background, temperament, abilities. But if they share your organization’s core values, they can become strong members of your team. 

A New Workplace Environment

Cultural fit has always mattered. But today’s post-pandemic world has upped the ante. Many people now refuse opportunities unless given a fully remote option; some are reluctant to take a chance on making a career move; others want to work less (or not at all). 

Taken together, this has made identifying, recruiting, engaging, and retaining quality people more difficult. In that context, if you make a mistake in hiring, it’s going to be more expensive and take more time to fix. That’s why it is essential at the outset to find prospective employees who will be a strong fit for your organization’s culture and values, and who possess the interpersonal skills necessary to succeed.

Find the Perfect Match

It used to be said that if you hired a brilliant person, that was all you needed to do because they would figure out the rest. But the genius who does not share your organization’s core values and have the interpersonal skills will never be a strong member of your team and will quickly become isolated and ineffective.

It really is about finding a values match. You need to find people who participate eagerly in formulating a vision, who thrive in a learning environment, and who create alignment with their colleagues and the ethos of your organization.

Great organizations treat these kinds of employees as the treasures they are because they understand their value, both internally to their colleagues as well as externally with all your stakeholders.

So, what can you do to identify and hire those who will integrate smoothly into your organization?

#1. Always be looking.

Not only when you have an opening. As you do your networking, meeting new people and strengthening existing relationships, be mindful of those who may be a good fit – whether or not they are looking for a new job or you have one to offer. This is “unconstrained recruiting;” the person you meet today may become your most valued employee six months or a year from now.

#2 Favor potential over experience.

Don’t be so risk-averse that you need to find someone who has done exactly what you think the job requires. After all, the job may very well change and what you thought was relevant experience may no longer be.Hire instead those with an insatiable curiosity and a demonstrated capacity to learn.

#3. Seek a specific kind of intelligence. 

Perfect SAT scores and a 4.0 GPA don’t necessarily add up to the kind of wisdom that will help them succeed in your organization. They must be pragmatically inclined, linguistically agile (both orally and in writing), and able to respond with great facility when challenged.

#4. Avoid the lone ranger. 

Collaboration is a necessity. You want people who will readily share information, solve problems cooperatively, and who are emotionally and socially committed to the success of the enterprise as a whole.

Cultural Fit Comes First

There are no guarantees when bringing a new person on board. But if you follow these four principles, you are more likely to ensure a strong and lasting match. 

And you, as the manager or leader, will build a team that will enable your organization to be nimble, facile, and above all, successful.

Job Interviews Done Well

By David A. Mersky

Every prospective hire for your organization, at every level, will be interviewed before an offer is extended. The number and type(s) of interviews will vary depending on the position in question, but however they occur, interviews are the essential step in the hiring process.

As the individual making the final decision — whether your role is Board chair, CEO, hiring officer, supervising manager, or something else — it is vital that you remain active in the process. You may not be involved in the initial, screening interviews (this is often done by Human Resources or an outside Executive Search Firm), but as the candidate field is narrowed to two or three possibilities, the final conversations require your careful attention and active participation.

This is critical. Dropping the ball at this late stage (i.e., hiring someone who can’t do the job for love or money) is a waste of time and resources.

Preparation is Key

One thing is certain: Any candidate who survives to the final round of interviews is going to be exquisitely well prepared. You must be too.

Almost without exception, these finalists know the standard questions to expect; they have been coached by career counselors to respond with quality, prepared answers. They will also come armed with questions of their own — about your organization, the position, the compensation, and more. 

But this is not a one-time performance in which you are gauging their ability to interview well. You want to know how they will perform on the job. What skills, experience, and knowledge will they bring to bear to meet your organization’s unique challenges and opportunities? How well will they represent your company externally, if that will be part of their role?

So, you need to get beyond the pat answers. This requires preparatory research that extends beyond the resume:

  • Google them. Have they written articles? Appeared on podcasts? Spoken at industry conferences? What is their social media presence, and does it feel like a fit for your organization?
  • Find them on LinkedIn. What do they post about and how often? What groups do they belong to? What organizations do they follow? Have they received testimonials from others and, if so, what is said about them?
  • Check their references. Of course, you won’t hear anything negative, but listen closely to what and how these people speak about the candidate. Are they reserved or enthusiastic? Do they seem surprised that this person is being considered for this kind of job? By speaking to references now, before you have even met the candidate, you will circumvent the tendency to use reference-checking to validate a positive impression you have already made.

Conducting the Interview

Most people who conduct interviews have little experience doing so, but you need to maintain control. To help stay on track, think of the interview as a play with three acts:

Act One: Set the Stage

You want to get an authentic sense of who they are as a person, not just as a job candidate — you are an advocate, not an adversary. The better and more quickly you can help them open up, the more you will learn.

So put them at ease by conveying that this is a conversation between equals. Greet them warmly and by name. Sit next to them in a comparable chair (not behind your imposing desk). Tell them, “I am so happy we are having this chance to meet. I have learned so much about you from those who have already spoken with you, and I look forward to getting to know you myself.”

Seek common ground. What interests have you discerned from their resume, your research, and what others have told you? For example, if you both enjoy cooking, find out what they like to cook and how they became interested. Connect on a human level.

Act Two: Search for the Fit

Be direct and forthright in describing the opportunity. People tend to hear only what they want to hear, so be careful not to gild the lily; offer a realistic view of the position. Then invite the candidate to make their pitch.

Listen carefully. Do they appear to really understand the role? Are they genuinely enthusiastic or simply following a script? Do they seem open to learning? Overall, you want to look for future leaders who are striving to succeed and grow, not those who see the next position as a final stop.

See if you can flip them off their script. Pose scenarios that force them to respond in ways they may have never considered. Engage them in topics that are particular to your organization, since whatever coaching they receive tends to be more general in nature:

“You will have less autonomy in this job than you’ve had before. How do you feel about that?”

“You will be reporting to someone who holds the same position you have had at a different organization. How will you manage that?”

“You have many of the skills we are looking for but in a different field. How will you get up to speed?”

Further, take advantage of the research you have done by asking very specific questions about their past experience: “I see that you were responsible for Teen Programming at the Boys and Girls Club. Did you encounter bullying among the kids? The staff? How did you manage those situations?”

Above all, ask questions that are designed to help you understand how they will perform in this position.

Act Three: Get to Closure

The candidate will be prepared with questions for you; make sure to provide an opportunity to ask them. This is also the time to let the candidate know your timeline for concluding the process and extending an offer, as well as any other pertinent logistics.

Finally, pay attention to how aware the candidate is of the time that has been allotted for the interview and how capable they are of ending the meeting appreciatively and graciously. This speaks to the chemistry they will bring to both the workplace and when interacting with your external stakeholders.

Step Back and Think

With the interview process completed, wait a day or two. Take a breath and view your conversations through the lens of a little time. This will help you avoid the halo effect that accompanies a bubbly personality, engaging sense of humor, and overall likeability. 

Talk to others who have met the candidates, review your notes, and resist simply reaching for the shiniest object. 

Lastly, don’t be afraid to trust your gut. If you have prepared well and conducted a thoughtful, structured conversation about who they are, your gut can be quite perceptive.