It Takes Two to Drive Success: How Rethinking Nonprofit Leadership Can Solve Your Gift Officer Turnover Problem

As turnover in the nonprofit sector continues to plague so many organizations, and not just with major gift officers, it’s time to face a difficult truth. This is never going to change unless you make big changes to your nonprofit leadership.

Too often, leadership tends to coalesce around one person – usually the founder, the CEO, the president, or the public face of the organization. But this is not the best way to run a company or a nonprofit. If you want to understand and then overcome the problems causing so much turnover at your organization, you may need to rethink your nonprofit’s leadership paradigm.

In short – it takes two to lead.

The two-headed dragon. Eyes in the back of your head. Alter-ego. Yin and yang. Tom and Jerry. We can play around with fun metaphors all day, but the simple truth is that no one person possesses all the abilities it takes to run an organization or business.

You need two: A Visionary and an Integrator.

Before we unpack this, let’s be sure we understand the problem.

Why Is Turnover Plaguing Nonprofits?

There are all sorts of reasons gift officers and other employees leave nonprofit organizations. MarketSmart founder Greg Warner caused a stir on LinkedIn when he posted this simple question:

What drives major gift officers to look for new jobs?

The response included a torrent of comments and reposts and tens of thousands of views.

Gift officers quit for all sorts of reasons, but the predominant reasons have to do with the leadership of the nonprofit.

Leadership instability and turnover are a problem. But beyond that, some leaders tend to govern with heavy hands of accountability for their teams, but don’t hold themselves to the same standards.

Many nonprofit leaders also have limited understanding of donor relations, stewardship, or the other key elements of major gifts fundraising. Gift officers often feel unsupported and that their expertise is not valued or considered when big and small decisions get made.

One way this shows up is in overemphasizing metrics that value speed and activity over relationship building and trust – the bread and butter of major gifts fundraising. See more details about 7 ways bad nonprofit leadership drives away gift officers.

The Costs of Hiring New Gift Officers and Employees

We’re focusing this talk around gift officers and the teams that support them because that’s who our Engagement Fundraising software is designed for. Our system frees up their time, so they can focus more on donors than on processes that can be automated. But what you’re reading applies to your nonprofit’s other employees too. Why?

Because hiring is costly.

If you search online, you’ll find several variations on myopic data that reports only on the actual dollar costs of hiring, which includes paying a recruiter, background checks, and related costs. Estimates average between $4,000 and $5,000 depending on the position and which site you land on.

But those are just the beginning of the costs of hiring. As this much more thorough article from Investopedia unpacks, the costs of hiring also include:

  • Salary plus benefits – which often continue even if the employee leaves
  • Initial onboarding and ongoing training
  • Workplace integration – physical
  • Workplace integration – cultural

Physically, new employees may need a desk, a phone, a business card, their own email and other online and software accounts and logins, HR packages, and all the other internal systems that kick in.

Culturally, the new employee must get to know their new co-workers, build rapport, and become an effective part of the team. All of this takes time. And if the person quits before this has happened, these costs never get recovered.

The same Investopedia article reports on a study from Harvard Business School that found it takes about six months to break even on the costs of a new hire, when you take the full costs into consideration.

Six months!

Some say gift officers only last about 18 months on average. So that means you’re getting about one year of positive productivity – and that’s just for the cost of the employee, let alone the return on their work with donors!

Unless something changes.

And that change needs to begin with how you think about nonprofit leadership and management.

3 Steps to Re-Imagining Your Nonprofit Leadership and Management

Leadership may not be the only factor influencing high turnover rates, but its effects touch so many aspects of the work that it is certainly the dominant one. With that in mind, here’s how you can begin to shift your organization’s leadership structure and approach.

1. Assess and Understand Your Current Leadership

There are many leadership styles such as visionary, commanding, democratic, and servant leadership. All have their strengths and weaknesses. But we’re not talking about leadership styles here. What your nonprofit needs goes much deeper than style or approach.

Rather, this has much more to do with how your leadership thinks. How they function. How they perceive things as “getting done.”

For example, suppose you have a staff meeting, and the leader has set its purpose as a ‘brainstorming’ session. It results in a lively discussion that veers, wanders, and touches on a lot of issues and ideas. Many voices get heard. People speak freely. Some good stuff ends up on the white board. The leader guides the discussion to keep it centered on the main topic. Some disagreement happens, but everyone feels respected in the process. No one dominates or takes over the discussion.

Was that a good meeting?

One type of leader your nonprofit needs—the Visionary—might look at that and call it a lively and healthy discussion.

Another type of leader your nonprofit needs—the Integrator—might walk away feeling like not much got done.

For the Visionary, the meeting was great because everyone got to share, and we were thinking without limits, freely sharing, and using our imaginations to generate some bold and transformative ideas. Some of them may not turn out to work, but we’re looking for those few golden nuggets buried among the pebbles.

For the Integrator, this meeting failed because you can’t just blast out all these ideas without considering the practicality of implementing them and integrating them into the operation. And so when a new idea came out, the Integrator spoke up and suggested a few of the complicating factors that might make that idea difficult or impossible to actually make happen. And when they did this, their comment was acknowledged but swiftly lost in the sea of positivity and momentum. “We’ll get to the details later,” someone might have said. “Let’s focus on the big picture for now,” said someone else. And this just frustrates the Integrator because to them, it feels like a waste of time to discuss ideas that have no chance of happening.

Again – who’s right?

Both, as long as they understand their roles and work together to achieve results.

Does your nonprofit only have one of these two types currently leading your organization? If so, you might have a big problem.

While it is not commonly known, in order to achieve serious success, you need two: a Visionary and an Integrator. Think Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield (Ben & Jerry’s ice cream), Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak (Apple), and Warren Buffet & Charlie Munger (Berkshire Hathaway).

Here’s an assessment that will help you determine which way you tend to lean as a leader – toward the Visionary side or the Integrator side. Though, from the above description, you probably already know.

2. Use a Visionary-Integrator Leadership Model

Your re-imagined nonprofit leadership approach should involve both types of leaders, not one or the other. Why? Because both types of leaders are essential to a top-performing organization.

Consider some of the strengths of a Visionary:

  • Loves big ideas – the “big picture”
  • Excels in forging big partnerships and relationships
  • Embodies the culture of the company
  • Charismatic – operates on emotion, hope, and momentum
  • Passionate about discovery, innovation, and ‘new’

Sounds like a great person, right? And they are. Most people love being around visionary leaders. They feel challenged, inspired, valued, and an important part of the team.

But most visionaries are terrible at the details. They are usually disorganized. They struggle with collaborating. They don’t communicate very well when it comes to clarity, details, and consistency.

What about Integrators? Here are some of their strengths:

  • Operates on results and logic
  • Realism over idealism
  • Strong project management skills
  • Cares about the bottom line – keeping the trains on time
  • Emotionally stable and diplomatic – not driven by ego
  • Problem solvers
  • Eats details for breakfast

You wouldn’t want to run an organization without this person, right? No, and you shouldn’t. This person is essential.

But most integrators struggle with decisiveness. They can get lost in the ‘weeds,’ and lose sight of the overall goal and vision. They struggle to see the need for change, and don’t like to mess something up without good reason. The old saying ”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was coined by an Integrator. We don’t know which one, because most Integrators get lost in the shadows of the Visionaries. And because they aren’t driven by ego, they don’t mind this as long as the trains show up on time.

Has the epiphany hit yet?

Which type of leader do you need?

Again, you need BOTH!

Your organization should consider moving away from a ‘one ring to rule them all’ approach and consider leadership as a… two-headed dragon. All those metaphors again. Here’s another one that might put it into clearer perspective:

Vision is a presidential candidate speaking to big crowds.
Integration is the bill going to congress.
You need both.

This article from a hiring consultancy firm expands on the visionary-integrator leadership model and also talks about how to hire for them. This approach to leadership isn’t about getting all the details right in a job description so people can align their resumes. This is about asking the right questions in an interview that will reveal which of these two types of leaders you’re talking to.

Whichever one you have already – you need to hire the other one.

That means they might not get along at first or see eye to eye. That’s a GOOD sign.

IMPORTANT: This is the true source of many complaints about nonprofit leadership. The root problem often isn’t incompetence. It’s about having an incomplete set of strengths. And no one possesses all of them. Hire for both, and your entire organization will flourish.

3. Optimize Staffing and Culture

Once you have found a Visionary and an Integrator who can work well together and are committed for the long term , you can begin to rework your staffing and internal culture.

As many nonprofits are discovering, it’s not always best to just hire more people. It’s about hiring better people and treating them very well so they stick around.

Fewer gift officers can actually bring in more money if they feel supported and empowered by leadership, paid appropriately, and given the proper tools to multiply their efficiency, such as MarketSmart’s Engagement Fundraising software.

The reason this works is because the longer a gift officer stays, the better they become at understanding your mission and how to connect with donors and prospects. And, they will forge deeper and long lasting relationships with donors that span years and perhaps decades. This kind of relationship produces huge rewards over time, especially when it comes to legacy giving.

You want to hire a diverse staff that reflects the diversity of your two-pronged leadership approach.
As the same hiring article puts it:

“Diversity isn’t just about gender, ethnicity, or background. It also means that your leaders exhibit a range of decision-making styles and problem-solving abilities.”

This is the diversity that matters most, because it produces an internal culture where the team feels like the organization is moving forward and doing great things, AND actually making them happen on a systems level too. When systems are working well, when employees feel empowered and valued, and when the organization has momentum, that’s when great things happen.

And that’s what makes your best performers want to stick around.

The Takeaway

This is obviously a big topic, but hopefully you feel like you’ve gotten a bit of vision and integration in this article for how to reduce turnover.

Vision: The vision is less turnover, more effective gift officers, happier and engaged employees, and growing donations.

Integration: The process for making that happen is a dual leadership approach that leverages the strengths of two essential types of leaders. You can identify what exists with your current leadership, hire for what’s missing, and let them work together to transform your organization.

Notice how the ‘integrator’ paragraph is longer than the ‘vision’ one? That’s why you need both types of leaders. Vision inspires. Implementation is messy.

Visionaries fire the gun to start the marathon. Integrators help you cross the finish line.


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