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.