Fundraiser turnover is an epidemic.
And that’s not just our opinion or an attempt to be dramatic. Actual researchers used that label to describe the state of the profession after investigating the disturbingly high turnover rates and low morale among those who work to raise by far the largest share of money at most nonprofits.
Other research found that the average fundraiser stays on a job only 16 months, and that many who leave those jobs never return to the field again. So these aren’t people just hopping from one organization to another. This is industry burnout. And no one wins – fundraisers, donors, or nonprofits.
Why is fundraiser turnover so high? And more importantly, what can your organization do to keep your best fundraisers around? How can you help your newer ones stick around long enough to become your next generation of ‘best’?
Here are four reasons behind the epidemic of fundraiser turnover:
Fundraisers raise money for causes that millions of people care about. That should be a good thing, right? Most people understand the connection between addressing a need and the money to make it happen.
And yet, fundraisers suffer from the perception that their work is both morally and socially tainted.
This reputation arises in part from the notion that their job is to go around begging for money. While some of that may be due to ineffective fundraisers, the majority of the blame for that perception falls elsewhere, as we’ll see in a bit.
Fundraising is also seen as deceptive, intrusive, and sometimes confrontational. People get this perception from advertising they have seen that is not focused on major donors, and in other cases from how they have been treated in the past by people they associate with fundraisers.
One bad experience can mar a person’s opinion for life.
The bigger problem isn’t that these perceptions exist. To some degree, there’s nothing that can be done about them. But what can be done is for organizations to do a better job of re-affirming and uplifting the work of fundraisers, reminding them that what they’re doing – and how they’re doing it – really matters a lot and makes a profoundly positive difference.
Organizations and administrators need to do a better job of supporting their fundraisers. Those that do can push through external negativity. Those who do not suffer from high fundraiser turnover.
Many nonprofit administrators perform outstanding work, and they support and empower their fundraisers and other key personnel. But many others misunderstand what fundraisers really do. We’ll look at a common place this shows up in your communications a bit later.
A fundraiser’s job isn’t actually to raise money. Well, that’s their job from the organization’s perspective. But as Hall of Fame charitable giving researcher Dr. Russell James has described in great detail, the fundraiser’s real job is to help the donor advance their personal hero story through giving transformative gifts.
And when fundraisers are empowered to do that, they raise more money and like their jobs far better.
For some administrators, that’s all they need to see and it’s great. But for others, they see successful fundraisers as a threat, because they don’t want their own role to be reduced in its importance.
If we treat fundraising like an epic story with heroes, villains, guiding sages, and all the other common story archetypes (of which there are 12 – see the 12 fundraising story archetypes), each person in the process has a role.
In a well-told fundraising story, the donor is the hero, and the fundraiser is the sage. In a poorly run organization, the administrator often fulfills the role of the villain. Here’s a look at 7 traits of the Administrator villain.
If your organization is led by people who tend toward those seven traits, you probably also have high fundraiser turnover.
There is little more disheartening in any workplace than having someone else claim credit for your work. Yet, in fundraising this is depressingly common. A fundraiser works very hard and secures a record number of major gifts for the year. Then, they attend a year-end meeting and are forced to listen as the administrator either takes all the credit for it, or spreads the credit around to “everyone” on the team, as if everyone plays an equal role in major gifts fundraising.
And disheartening. If it happens often enough, fundraisers lose motivation and decide to quit.
This departure is even more likely when, if the same fundraiser has a down year in terms of actual money brought in (even though pledged gifts matter as much as delivered ones), the administrator blames the fundraiser for it.
So, they take credit for the success, and then blame the fundraiser for the perceived failures. Yes, this is Dilbert. They often justify the blame by saying the fundraiser isn’t telling the right story – the one the administrator wants them to tell.
This is another cause of the industry’s high fundraiser turnover.
Fundraisers are often pressured to make sure and explain to donors all the ways the organization is so great and wonderful. When they don’t do this, the administrator may stigmatize them, directly or indirectly. Either way, the fundraiser will feel it eventually.
Plus, the fundraiser will feel ongoing apathy from the administrator, and this only increases each day the fundraiser realizes how little their role is understood or valued.
Most major gift fundraisers care deeply about the missions of their organizations. But that passion cannot overcome these opposing pressures and stigmas forever.
On average, it lasts for about 16 months.
And research backs this up too. Organizations using what Dr. James calls the ‘press agent’, organization-centric model scored the lowest in job satisfaction, trust, and commitment for fundraisers. Likewise, organizations that collaborated, valued, and empowered their fundraisers scored the highest.
Some administrators will try to use trainings on fundraising tactics and techniques. That can be good, but if the underlying core issue of org-centric fundraising isn’t addressed, no amount of training will fix the problem.
If the fundraiser feels stigmatized, you can’t train your way out of that.
Are you feeling like your organization doesn’t support you but aren’t sure how to bring it up? Or, if you’re an administrator and want to support and empower your fundraisers, how can you tell if you understand their work?
One easy way is to ask yourself what you think a fundraiser does.
That begins with the fundraiser’s job title. What does it say on their communications with donors in their email signature? How do they introduce themselves? Are they told by administrators how to describe their work, or do they have freedom to describe it in ways that will connect best with donors?
In one of his many studies, Dr. James tested the effects of 71 different gift officer job titles on a willingness among donors to give major gifts of assets. Yes, 71. He’s thorough. And the results were quite revealing.
The single worst job title for a major gifts fundraiser was:
Director of Advancement.
The second worst? Chief Advancement Officer.
Other low performing job titles included:
Consider what all these job titles have in common. They use words like ‘advancement,’ ‘development,’ and ‘institutional.’ In other words, they use language that only nonprofit professionals understand.
Donors don’t know what a Director of Advancement does. So when such a person reaches out to them, and that’s their job title, the donor immediately wonders, “Why is this person talking to me?”
In contrast, here are two of the most effective job titles for fundraisers:
The differences are obvious, right? A donor-focused job title communicates interest and concern for the donor. You are guiding and advising them in ways that matter to them. You’re not hiding the fact that you want to raise money – the word ‘donor’ is in the title – but you are positioning yourself in a clear and positive light. Meeting with you will produce outcomes pleasing to the donor.
Another way to unpack this is, how would you describe your work as a fundraiser?
“I help raise money for this organization.” No, you don’t. Here are better descriptions of a fundraiser’s work from Dr. James:
Donors respond to these descriptions, because they are practical, specific, and intriguing. The donor feels served instead of fleeced.
If you’re a fundraiser, what should you do with all this?
Start simple. Go tell your administrator that you want to change your job title to something more donor-centric. Have the title ready in advance, and maybe have a backup in case they shoot down the first one.
Their response will be telling. It will probably spark a conversation. After you’ve explained why this is a better job title and will connect with donors, a non-villain administrator will empower you to go with what seems best. But the other kind of Administrator will respond with all the reasons why your existing title is so important. Most of them will probably have to do with HR, the board, taxes, compliance, or some other completely irrelevant topic.
But that’s an indication that your administrator does not place a high value or have a good understanding of your work.
And if you’re feeling discouraged about your work and you get this response, now you’ll know why.
If you’re an administrator at a nonprofit, go to your major gifts fundraisers and tell them you want to switch up their job titles according to Dr. James’ research. Explain why. Your fundraisers will thank you, and will feel more supported and understood than they did yesterday.
And of course, job titles are just one small piece of all this. Support must go far beyond that. But this provides a fairly simple way to gauge the internal health of your organization’s fundraising team.
Job titles are the beginning. If you go all in and revamp your fundraising practices around Dr. James’ research, your organization will raise far more money than you’re raising now.
The best place to start?
Take our online fundraising eCourse – Donor Story: Epic Fundraising
Your entire team can take the course for almost the same price as just one person. You get 20.5 CFREs. And, it’s based on Dr. James’ research. It will be the single most valuable professional development your team has ever taken. Click the link above to learn more about the course and see what others have said.
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Interesting Post.. so from this perspective we are living in the last century and need to revamp our thinking and how we present opportunities to donors…
Exactly. That’s how I see it, Hillel.