This is the #1 driver of fundraiser turnover

Good and bad stories

Stories are powerful. They can provide meaning and motivation. They can be a source of personal identity. For fundraising, stories are key. But there is a downside.

Inspirational stories can motivate. But stigmatized stories can cripple. This matters for fundraising because it matters for fundraisers. Few professions suffer more from stigmatized stories than fundraising.

Stigma and synonyms

Story begins with character. Consider the “fundraiser” character. What is this role? What is this title? Fundraiser. What does that mean? Fund means money. Raiser means one who retrieves or gets. So, a fundraiser is a “money getter.”

Not very inspirational, is it? It doesn’t distinguish the profession from other “money getters.” A drug dealer is a money getter. So is a prostitute, a pickpocket, or a time-share telemarketer.

But “fundraiser” actually does imply more. It implies money getting by a specific method. How does a “fund” (money) “raiser” (getter) accomplish this money-getting? By asking. By asking based on need. By asking based on need without offering anything comparable in return.

What’s another word for that? Begging. says to “seek charity” has these synonyms: Solicit charity, beg, hustle, cadge, chisel, freeload, mooch, sponge, and panhandle. (Do you sense any possible stigma in these synonyms?)

Stigma and technical definitions

Let’s get technical. Social psychologists define stigmatized work. This means work has either a social or moral taint. Researchers explain, “Social taint occurs … where the worker appears to have a servile relationship to others (e.g., shoe shiner, customer complaints clerk, butler, maid). Moral taint occurs where the worker is thought to employ methods that are deceptive, intrusive, confrontational, or that otherwise defy norms of civility (e.g., bill collector, tabloid reporter, telemarketer …”[1]

How does this relate to fundraisers? Researchers investigated this by interviewing fundraisers. They found, “the work of fundraisers may be perceived as socially and morally tainted. Specifically, fundraisers may appear subservient to others through their position of being the one to ask others for money (social taint) and may endure societal perceptions that the modes by which they ask for money are morally suspect (moral taint).”[2]

Fundraisers can have both types of job stigma. Fundraiser can be a stigmatized role.[3]

Stigma and retention

Internal feelings of stigma can drive quitting. Research on employee retention confirms this. A belief that one’s job is not viewed positively increases intentions to quit.[4] It also increases actually quitting.

Stigma drives quitting because it impairs feelings of self-worth.[5] This is a special concern for expanding diversity in fundraising.[6] An occupational stigma is difficult for anyone. No one wants to feel they are “appearing subservient” by asking for money. But this can be particularly painful if it reinforces stereotypes.

We have a problem

Why do people start a stigmatized role? In a national survey, 44% of fundraisers reported starting because either

  • They felt they had no other good opportunities, or
  • They thought they were hired to do something else.[7]

How do people respond to a stigmatized role? They don’t want to play it. Even if they start, they don’t play it for long. What is the average time a new fundraiser stays in the job? 16 months.[8] Half of all development directors anticipate leaving in 2 years or less.[9] They aren’t just switching charities. At small organizations, about half of these were planning to leave the field of fundraising entirely.[10]

One national survey asked development directors this: had they already given notice that they were quitting? Nearly a quarter answered either, “Yes,” or “No, but I am actively considering leaving.”[11] Academic researchers label turnover in fundraising as an “epidemic.”[12] Those hiring fundraisers describe turnover as “crippling.”[13]

The protected worker

What’s going on? Other jobs face external stigma. They don’t suffer from these types of retention issues. The difference is story.

Workers in other stigmatized occupations are protected. They’re protected by their internal organizational stories. Researchers describe it this way. These organizations promote “ideological reframing.”[14] They “change an occupation member’s dominant cognition from ‘I am associated with an occupation that others view as tainted’ to ‘I am associated with an occupation that has intrinsic value’.”[15]

These alternative stories promote occupational pride. It works. Researchers find that “abundant qualitative research from a wide variety of occupations indicates that people performing ‘dirty work’ tend to retain relatively high occupational esteem and pride.” [16]

The unprotected fundraiser

But fundraisers are often not protected in this way. Why not? First, fundraisers usually don’t work for fundraising businesses. Even within the charity, there is an “otherness” about fundraisers and their work. Their work is rarely understood. They may be viewed as magicians or jesters. But their work remains a mystery.

This is worse when fundraisers report to non-fundraising managers. These managers completely miss the need for alternative stories. Why? Because they don’t need “ideological reframing.” They aren’t in stigmatized occupations.[17]

Administrator story conflict

But the problem goes deeper. It’s not just that these administrators don’t promote alternative stories. It’s that they can’t. They can’t because doing so would challenge their own hero stories.

In these stories, the charity administrators are the heroes. They battle the villains of poverty, disease, or ignorance. Donations arise simply because of their heroism.

But this isn’t how effective major gifts fundraising works. Instead, the fundraiser helps the donor to define and accomplish the donor’s philanthropic goals. The “guiding sage” fundraiser advances the donor’s hero story.

This role works in fundraising. But it conflicts with the administrator-hero story. It frames administrators as merely the paid servants of the heroic donor. It puts the donor in control. Administrators become just minions. They scamper about to accomplish the donor-hero’s plans. This role is quite a downgrade for the administrators. It’s no surprise they don’t embrace this story.

Fundraiser story conflict

In the donor-hero story, the fundraiser has a valuable, essential, and archetypal role to play. But this story conflicts with the administrator-hero story. In that story, the fundraiser is just a money getter. The work itself has no intrinsic value.

And it gets worse. In that story, donors give simply because the organization deserves it.[18] Did the fundraiser succeed? It’s only because the administrators have already earned those gifts. They’ve earned them with their heroic work. Did the fundraiser fail? It can’t be the message. The administrator-hero story still feels compelling – at least to them. That leaves only one explanation. The fundraiser is doing a poor job of sharing the administrator-hero story.

Charity managers live the administrator-hero story. But in that story, fundraising is, at best, an unfortunate necessity. That internal story doesn’t overcome external stigma. It reinforces stigma.

The “tolerated” fundraiser

Other occupations face external stigma. But these workers are protected by supportive internal stories. They are protected by “ideological reframing.” Fundraisers often aren’t. They can face external stigma and internal antipathy. This can put fundraisers in a uniquely difficult role.

Professor Beth Breeze explains, “Of course, charity leaders are aware of the vital role that fundraising plays because they can see the evidence on their balance sheet, and because recruiting good fundraisers is one of their main managerial headaches. But there remains a disconnect between understanding the importance of the role and valuing the people filling that role. There is a widespread sense that fundraisers are tolerated because of the pressing need for the funds they can bring in, rather than a genuine appreciation of their skills and wider contribution.” [19]

What is the status of fundraising in the administrator-hero story? It’s tolerated. It’s distasteful, but, alas, necessary.[20] (We’ve got to get the money somehow.) Fundraising must be endured, at least until an alternative arises.

The “tolerated” fundraiser in research

This administrator attitude is not just talk. It’s how many nonprofits are actually managed.

For years, researchers noticed that after a nonprofit received a big grant, donations would drop. The grant “crowded out” donations. The original explanation was this. Donors gave less because the work was already being funded by the grant.

Then an analysis of over 8000 charities across 17 years changed the answer. The researchers explained, “Crowding out is due primarily to reduced fundraising.”[21]

Administrators celebrated the big grant … by cutting fundraising. In many cases, this “crowding out” was over 100%. They cut fundraising so much, they ended up with less money than if they had never received the grant.

Other research finds growth in nonprofit commercial revenues also leads to cuts in fundraising.[22] In both cases, the behavior is the same. Remove the urgent necessity, and the first response is to kill fundraising.

For many administrators, the ultimate fundraising goal is this: Raise enough money so we can stop raising money.[23] Their perfect world is a world without fundraising. It’s a world without fundraisers.

Mission isn’t enough

Can’t we fix turnover by commitment to the cause? Not really. The organization’s mission is important. It’s important for fundraisers, administrators, and donors. The mission often motivates fundraisers to take the job in the first place. But the mission doesn’t keep fundraisers in the job.

In a national survey, most fundraisers were, “passionate about my organization’s mission and field of work.”[24] That’s great. But statistically it didn’t matter. After considering other typical job-related factors, greater passion about the mission did not predict plans to stay in the job.[25] Nor did it predict willingness to stay in the field of fundraising.[26]

Mission is ends, not means

Why isn’t a good mission enough? It’s not enough because it says nothing about the work of fundraising. The “mission” justification is nice. But it applies the same to any money-getting activity. The story is this. We need money. So, go get some.

This is not useful reframing of stigmatized work. Why not? Because it says nothing about the work itself. Researchers on job stigma explain the problem this way: “Given that ends are less immediate and proximal than means, it is often difficult for the ends of work to remain continuously salient.” [27]

A good mission justifies the ends. It says why money is useful. But it says nothing about the means. It says nothing about the work itself. It says nothing about the intrinsic value of the work. The mission is not effective as “ideological reframing” of the work itself. The work is still only about the money.

What’s the remedy?

The prognosis seems bad. The industry has a deadly symptom: Fundraiser turnover. The first step toward a treatment is identifying the underlying problem.

On the surface, the problem is stigma. Below the surface, the problem is story. Powerful, deep-seated, archetypal story. The solution? Also, story. Powerful, deep-seated, archetypal story. In the next article, we return to that corrective story.


[1] Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). “How can you do it?”: Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434. p. 415.

[2] Meisenbach, R. J., Rick, J. M., & Brandhorst, J. K. (2019). Managing occupational identity threats and job turnover: How former and current fundraisers manage moments of stigmatized identities. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 29(3), 383-399. p. 385.

[3] “fundraising is still often viewed as a form of high-pressure salesmanship or even begging (Breeze and Scaife, 2015, p 571), ‘rather squalid’ (Allford, 1993, p 105) and ‘an odious activity’ (Bloland and Tempel, 2004, p 16), while fundraisers are viewed as ‘hucksters’ (Kelly, 1998, p 105), ‘pushy and somewhat sleazy’ Joyaux, 2011, pp 94-5) or even ‘the white collar equivalent of cleaning toilets’ (Pink, 2012, p 2).” Breeze, B. (2017). The new fundraisers: Who organizes charitable giving in contemporary society? Policy Press. p. 21. Citing to

Allford, M. (1993). Charity appeals: The complete guide to success. J.M. Dent & Sons.

Bloland, H. G., & Tempel, E. R. (2004). Measuring professionalism. New Directions for Philanthropic Fundraising, 43, p. 5-20.

Breeze, B. and Scaife, W. (2015). Encouraging generosity: The practice and organization of fund-raising across nations. In P. Wiepking and F. Handy (Eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Global Philanthropy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Joyaux, S. P. (2011). Strategic fund development: Building profitable relationships that last (3rd ed.). Wiley.

Kelly, K. S. (1998). Effective fundraising management. Routledge.

Pink, D. H. (2012.) To sell is human. Canongate.

Such stigma is a problem even for the most eminent fundraisers. Naomi Levine is credited with overseeing the fundraising that brought NYU from near bankruptcy to the nation’s first billion dollar campaign. In a profile of her career, The Chronicle of Philanthropy related

“When Naomi Levine was making weekly visits in the 1980s to see her mother at a retirement home in the Bronx, she could count on getting a special request just before they encountered the other residents. “Now, look, Naomi,” her mother would say, “if the ladies want to know what you do, say you are a lawyer, not a fund raiser.”

Sommerfeld, M. (2002, August 8). The secrets of her success. The Chronicle of Philanthropy,

Ken Burnett shares,

“I used to respond confidently to the customary question, ‘And what do you do?’ with, ‘I am a fundraiser. I raise money for charity.’ In my naivete I expected to be met by enthusiastic acclaim, admiration, and expressions of interest. But instead people reacted as if I’d just announced myself to be a badger gasser or apprentice on a North Sea sludge dumper.”

Burnett, K. (2002). Relationship fundraising: A donor-based approach to the business of raising money (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass. p. 13-14

[4] Pinel, E. C., & Paulin, N. (2005). Stigma consciousness at work. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27(4), 345-352.

[5] Id.

[6] Pettey, J. G., & Wagner, L. (2007). Introduction: Union gives strength—diversity and fundraising. International Journal of Educational Advancement, 7(3), 171-175.

[7] Burk, P. (2013). Donor-centered leadership. Cygnus applied research. p. 5

[8] Flandez, R. (2012, April 2). The cost of high turnover in fundraising jobs. The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

[9] Haggerty, A. (2015). Turnover intentions of nonprofit fundraising professionals: The roles of perceived fit, exchange relationships, and job satisfaction. [Ph.D. Dissertation]. Virginia Commonwealth University. p. 80.

[10] Bell, J. & Cornelius, M. (2013). Underdeveloped: A national study of challenges facing nonprofit fundraising. CompassPoint. p. 7

[11] Id. Question text from Haggerty, A. (2015). Turnover intentions of nonprofit fundraising professionals: The roles of perceived fit, exchange relationships, and job satisfaction. [Ph.D. Dissertation]. Virginia Commonwealth University.

[12] Iarrobino, J. D. (2006). Turnover in the advancement profession. International Journal of Educational Advancement, 6(2), 141-169.

[13] Burk, P. (2013). Donor-centered leadership. Cygnus applied research. p. 15

[14] Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). “How can you do it?”: Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434. p. 413

[15] Ashforth, B. E., Kreiner, G. E., Clark, M. A., & Fugate, M. (2007). Normalizing dirty work: Managerial tactics for countering occupational taint. Academy of Management Journal, 50(1), 149-174. p. 159

[16] Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). “How can you do it?”: Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434. p. 413.

[17] “Support for charities remains high, but large sections of the public feel no contradiction in simultaneously feeling sympathy for charitable causes and antipathy towards those who raise the funds for those causes.” Breeze, B. (2017). The new fundraisers: Who organizes charitable giving in contemporary society? Policy Press. p. 19.

[18] Drucker, P. (1990). Managing the nonprofit organization. HarperCollins. p. 56.

[19] Breeze, B. (2017). The new fundraisers: Who organizes charitable giving in contemporary society? Policy Press. p. 23.

[20] This precisely fits the typical description of stigmatized work as “dirty work is seen as necessary but tainted”. Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). “How can you do it?”: Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434. p. 429.

[21] Andreoni, J., & Payne, A. A. (2011). Is crowding out due entirely to fundraising? Evidence from a panel of charities. Journal of Public Economics, 95(5-6), 334-343. p. 334.

[22] The study found “An increase in 1 dollar of commercial revenues leads to a decrease in .14 dollar of donations.” A significant part of this was “attributable to nonprofit organizations’ reducing fundraising activities.” Hung, C. (2021). Decomposing the effect of commercialization on nonprofit donations. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 32, 448-459.

[23] As Penelope Burk explains, “Every not-for-profit is fundraising so that it can stop fundraising.” Burk, P. (2013). Donor-centered leadership. Cygnus applied research. p. 11

[24] Haggerty, A. (2015). Turnover intentions of nonprofit fundraising professionals: The roles of perceived fit, exchange relationships, and job satisfaction. [Ph.D. Dissertation]. Virginia Commonwealth University. p. 54.

[25] Id. Tables 8 & 9

[26] Id. Table 10

[27] Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). “How can you do it?”: Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434. p. 422.


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Mick Koster
Mick Koster
1 year ago

Well said, Russell.

The cumulative effect of self-inflicted wounds.

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