High Fundraiser Turnover Rate Remains a Problem

Here we go again. There is yet another report about the high turnover rate among fundraising professionals.

According to a Harris Poll study conducted for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Association of Fundraising Professionals, more than half of the fundraising professionals in Canada and the USA that were surveyed say they plan to leave their job within the next two years. Among respondents, 30 percent say they plan to leave the fundraising profession altogether by 2021.

The ongoing high turnover rate among fundraising professionals is costly to nonprofit organizations. There is the cost of hiring and training new staff. There is also the enormous cost associated with the loss of continuity and the abandonment of relationships with prospects and donors.

Social media and the blogosphere have been reacting to the new report. For example, Roger Craver, at The Agitator, offers a well-done summary of the data and shares some additional resources exploring the problem. Unfortunately, much of the discussion I’ve seen overlooks what I view to be the real problem that allows high fundraising staff turnover to continue. Let me explain.

Soon after becoming a fundraiser, I began hearing talk about the problem of high staff turnover. That was back in 1980. Many causes were identified. Many solutions were offered. Sadly, nothing substantive has changed over the intervening four decades. Nothing! NOTHING! N-O-T-H-I-N-G!

I’m fine with surveys that continue to point to the turnover issue. I’m fine with many proposed solutions to the situation. However, do not expect me to believe anything will actually change.

As I see it, with the benefit of four decades of experience, the biggest ongoing problem with fundraiser retention is a near complete lack of will, on the part of nonprofit boards and C-level staff, to fix the situation. If that nonprofit cultural flaw remains unaddressed, those working in the nonprofit sector will likely continue having the same conversation over the next four decades.

Only after there is a willingness to improve the situation can we begin to address issues including: compensation, proper planning and goal setting, appropriate expectations of fundraising professionals, humane work conditions, proper staffing levels, professional development, and more.

Mike Geiger, MBA, CPA, President and CEO of AFP, says:

I am very concerned about the levels of pressure that fundraisers feel in their jobs. Despite the different kinds of support that many fundraisers feel from their organizations, being in a role where a charity depends so much on your work—that brings an incredible and unique level of stress. We need to look at all the issues involved—resources, staff, culture, and leadership and management, to name just a few—and develop programs that reach out to organizational leaders and help them understand how to best support fundraisers.”

To solve any problem, one must first identify the problem. When it comes to fundraiser turnover, we have long known there is an issue. I’ve known about the problem for nearly 40 years, and I suspect the problem existed long before that. However, I submit that that is not THE problem. THE problem is leadership’s lack of willingness to do anything significant about the high turnover rate. So, how do we address THAT problem? Until we do, any other discussion on the subject of fundraiser turnover is nothing but spitting into the wind.

In other words, the question should not be: How to we reduce the high turnover rate among fundraising professionals? Instead, the correct question to ask is: How do we get nonprofit boards and C-level staff to commit themselves to finally address the turnover problem?

What recommendations do you have for how the nonprofit sector can, at long last, address this decades-long problem?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

26 Responses to “High Fundraiser Turnover Rate Remains a Problem”

  1. A leadership and culture movement is needed! Nonprofits need to request help around training managers which will change the culture of the organization. And foundations should provide funding for management development for leaders.

    • Dane, thank you for your comment. I’m interested in your suggestion about foundations funding management development for leaders. I think there are a number of things that foundations and major individual donors can do to encourage better nonprofit management. Unfortunately, foundations and major individual donors remain focused on funding mission fulfillment while often ignoring infrastructure issues. Do you have any thoughts about how to encourage a slight focus-shift at foundations?

  2. Michael,

    Excellent and right-on-point analysis of THE problem: lack of leadership at the top. Look forward to thoughts and suggestions for strategies and tactics to change this. We must keep this issue front and center

    Thank you for keeping this torch alight.

    Roger Craver

    • Roger, thank you for your comment and, more importantly, for your continued efforts to shine a light on this important issue. In a future post, I hope to explore some ideas for how we might find a solution by barking up a different tree. So, stay tuned.

  3. Great piece – I don’t have as much experience, I started in 1990, but I think part of the issue is respect for position and the work. No other industry I know hands out director positions with little or no experience. No organization would hire a CFO w/o years of financial experience but our industry will hire a Development Director with no experience, whether because they may have run a fund raiser somewhere or placed a story in a newspaper or they are a member of the board. Then the org can offer them less money, etc.

    • Joseph, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you. So many organization leaders fail to recognize the expertise and professionalism required for successful fundraisers. Those leaders tend to feel anyone can raise money. Ha! I see organizations hire and fire routinely rather than investing in getting the right person in the first place. I find it sad and frustrating, as you do.

  4. Michael, you couldn’t be more on point. The lack of commitment at the top is the real problem. I wrote about this in 2013. https://www.pamelagrow.com/2965/if-youre-committed-funding-mission-youre-committed-mission/ Sadly, I think things have gotten worse. Our students who have fared the best were fundraising EDs — and typically their first fundraising hire was NOT a DD, but a stewardship/data person.

    • Pamela, thank you for letting me know that my post resonated with you. And thank you for being one of the folks to keep a shining spotlight on the issue. I appreciate the link and will definitely check it out as hope others will.

  5. Right on, Michael. I’ve been in the profession for about the same time as you, and I have struggled to remain in Director positions in nonprofits I loved. My struggle has come from relentless pressure to meet unrealistic goals, continually having to re-educate ED’s and Board members about THEIR responsibilities for philanthropy and fundraising, and lack of resources and support. Over and over again Boards try to pass the hot potato to ED’s and/or DoDs. They do not learn from the turnover (sometimes they do raise the salary a bit, but make no real structural change in how they operate) and misunderstand what it takes to have an effective fundraising team. I despair of the problem being fixed by a few seminars. There is no respect for the profession or its science and art. They would never think of treating their CPA the way they treat their fundraising executives. And they deserve to reap the consequences of that. The problem is that no one holds them responsible for those consequences.

    • Susan, thank you for sharing your thoughts. One of my professional pet peeves has been that AFP and CFRE International have not done enough to engage nonprofit board members and senior managers. I think there’s more they can do to educate nonprofit leaders about the fundraising profession and how to attract and retain the finest talent. If we continue to do what we have been doing, we’ll continue to get the results we have been getting. We need to think creatively if we want a different outcome. In a future post, I hope to put forward some ideas. Meantime, any suggestions you and others have would be greatly appreciated.

    • Spot on, Susan! One of the most effective CEOs I’ve ever worked for got it…she said what individual donors bring to an organization that grant and institutional funders don’t is “patient capital” a long term investment and as such we need professionals who build on that through relationships. I wish all boards and CEOs thought of the profession is this light.

      • Karen, thank you for your comment. I particularly appreciated your closing line. It leads back to an important question: How do we get boards and CEOs to change their thinking? Until we can accomplish that, I’m worried we won’t be able to reduce the high turnover rate.

  6. You’ve captured it perfectly Michael. Fundraisers are “parachuted in” to turbulent environments (their ED’s are often new too), and then expected to achieve immediate results. The appeal of the cause carries them for a while, but lack of support and lack of clarity as far as expectations leads to an early departure. I find leadership defines these positions almost exclusively on numeric goals and then throws everything but the kitchen sink into the job description – annual fund, major gifts, marketing, social media, special events, etc – and then wonders why they leave a year and a half later.

    • Patton, thank you for joining the conversation and identifying some particular issues. I appreciate your kind comment and insights. My wife once served as a Director of Development at a museum. Because she was superb at her job, the Executive Director kept adding responsibilities to her plate. After a time, my wife found her calendar almost booked solid with internal meetings. So, she discussed the matter with the Executive Director and offered a number of possible solutions that would allow more time for donor meetings and actual fundraising. Unfortunately, the Executive Director took this as a sign of disloyalty and assumed my wife was being ungrateful for the added responsibilities. You know what happened, but I’ll tell you anyway. My wife found a better job that paid more money elsewhere.

  7. Great article Michael and an important topic for the future of our profession. The unrealistic expectations of institutional leadership (staff and volunteer) are primarily responsible for the ongoing high turnover of professional fundraising staff. Throughout my career I’ve witnessed the never-ending push for increased fundraising goals by leadership with little thought given to investing in analytics that determines if a prospect road map exists to achieve those goals. That map includes leadership’s personal commitments to support increased goals.
    I fear that the problems will not be addressed until such time that our professional organizations (CASE, AHP, AFP) decide that fundraising staff turnover is indeed at a crisis level. Until then, the marketplace provides an available pool of talent motivated to jump from fire to fire which compounds the problem.

    • Michael, thank you for being part of the conversation. I appreciate your insights. I agree that our professional associations can and should do more to address the issue. They can help boards and C-level staff understand that a costly problem exists and can recommend effective steps to resolve it. Decades of hand wringing hasn’t changed anything. It’s time to try something else.

  8. Michael, this is a great article. You are on point about the issues facing staff. I think there are a few issues around this – some of which were mentioned by others above. One issue I have faced is the focus of donors on overhead ratios and and the idea that fundraisers have to spend as little as possible I am not advocating to spend outrageous sums, but Dan Pallotta’s groundbreaking Ted Talk in 2014 and his ideas around investing in the fundraising and marketing departments and forget the overhead ratios, resonated with me. Nonprofits have to operate like a business and put the right people in each role and HELP them be successful. Give them resources to get the job done (marketing, video, print, social media, travel, etc.) so that they can connect with donors in a meaningful way. As fundraisers, we have to work with the CEO and CFO to help them understand the value of INVESTING in fundraising, so that we present our organizations in a professional manner to people who can make a significant difference. CEO’s and CFO’s need to use their position to talk (consistently) about the importance of these investments and the long-term ROI / IMPACT that will be generated as a result. That at least would be a good first step to demonstrate respect for all the work we do.

    • Theresa, thank you for your comment message and analysis. The thing I’m struggling with at this point is, how do we get boards and C-level staff to 1) understand they have a costly problem, and then 2) get them to actually address the problem? You’re quite correct that CEOs and CFOs can make a huge difference. Getting them to do so is the crux of the issue.

  9. YES! I agree totally with all that has been shared here. I especially appreciate Theresa’s comments about overhead and the need for greater investment in fundraising. It is a constant frustration. Change needs to come from the top down but how does the message get to the top — I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing these ideas with my boss! As fundraisers we know what we need but it is challenging to share those needs up the hierarchy.

    I’m looking forward to part 2, Michael!

    • Joanne, thank you for your comment. I understand your reluctance to carry the message to your boss. But, you’ve hit on something important: Who CAN deliver the message to the bosses out there? Who CAN get away with it? Who WILL the bosses actually listen to and respond positively to? It might take me a bit of time, but I hope to pull together some possible answers in the near future.

  10. I just spoke with a non profit today and they’re “finally ready” to “hire a major gifts person” – of course below market rate! My curt response to them was “budget accordingly” – if you (agency) think that hiring one person will solve all of your financial problems and goals – that’s the problem!

    • Travis, thank you for sharing your thoughts. You’ve definitely identified an important issue. Paying below market wages often prevents the organization from finding truly skilled staff. Those that the organization does hire will also be unlikely to stay around long because they’ll get more money elsewhere. Then, factor in unreasonable expectation and you have a perfect recipe for high-turnover.

  11. Thank you, Michael, for articulating the frustration that is being felt amongst many of my colleagues. 19 years in and I am exhausted by the inertia I see at Board and CEO level. It staggers me that so many industry leaders who sit on Boards seem to leave their brains at the door when it comes to their responsibilities to the organisation they serve. There needs to be much better regulation of NFP Boards and CEO/CFOs so that qualified and appropriately educated people are hiring and supporting development professionals.

    • Anna, I’m glad my post resonated with you. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. We’re definitely on the same page. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about the problem of board members leaving their brains at the door. While I’m not sure how we get to where we need to be, I do know that more effective leaders are needed on nonprofit boards and in C-suites.

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