Stop the Revolving Door in Nonprofit Development

In the nonprofit sector, it’s no secret that some development positions turn over too frequently. In fact, development director roles are often referred to as a “revolving doors”—with employees cycling in and out of organizations at an alarming frequency.

According to a study by author Penelope Burk, the average fundraiser stays at his or her job for 16 months before assuming another position. And replacing these professionals doesn’t come cheaply—averaging around $127,650 in direct and indirect costs.

This loss of talented development staff creates a tremendous burden for nonprofit organizations, since fundraising is rooted in strong donor relationships. An absent or inexperienced gift officer can spell trouble for philanthropic support.

Professional Challenges

You don’t have to be an HR expert to know that high turnover rates stem from employee dissatisfaction and that satisfied staff members stick around, even through the tough times. But what does that really mean? We’ve found that development professionals tend to experience the following challenges.

  • Clear, Realistic Expectations

The nonprofit sector can be demanding, especially when an organization’s mission is on the line. When expectations and fundraising goals are set unrealistically high, they may significantly damage morale among development staff. In a recent study by Campbell & Company, 75% of CDOs and 62% of CEOs considered unrealistic expectations to be the chief reason for high development director turnover.

Development professionals are often expected to work long hours and possess a perfect balance of personality traits—analytic and creative, assertive and warm, extroverted while insightful. It’s a challenging role.

  • Sufficient Compensation

And many of today’s development professionals don’t feel adequately compensated for the late nights, steep goals, and tight deadlines that come with their position. In a survey of 1,100 fundraising professionals, 48% said they left their last position to “seek a higher salary elsewhere.”

  • Inclusion

While fundraising and development should be a collective undertaking, many development professionals find themselves disconnected from the rest of their organization’s operations. This sense of isolation can distance these staff members from the broader mission of your nonprofit.

Ideally, development should be a team endeavor. Board members and staff at any level should be aware of and engaged in fundraising efforts. Similarly, development staff should have some input in the plans for and use of the funds they worked so hard to raise. In the best nonprofits, collaboration is the key to success.

Benefits of Retention

The best nonprofits also work hard to keep good development professionals. There are significant benefits to cultivating continuity in your fundraising staff.

  • Good For Business

Because development is relationship-based, each new development director must spend time establishing relationships with donors and stakeholders. When development officers cultivate and steward relationships over the long term, both the donors and the organization benefit from an intensified engagement and the comfort of a familiar guide.

  • Cost Effective

With the retention of development staff, the organization does not spend resources on a search or miss opportunities while a vacancy exists. The loss of a development professional may also mean the remaining staff members must step in until an appropriate replacement is secured, thus slowing cultivation and solicitations and spreading development efforts thin. With a stable development team, fundraising efforts need not be scaled back or postponed. And resources can be invested in retention and professional development of a dynamic fundraising team.

  • Time Well Spent

Hiring and training is time-consuming and challenging. A recent study found that more than half (53%) of nonprofit executives felt their most recent hiring efforts attracted an insufficient number of experienced development professionals. Therefore, they had to repeat the process. By retaining the members of your development staff, you can invest time more productively—in the mission of the organization, the well-being of your donors, and the long-term sustainability of your organization.

Stopping the Cycle

The first step in attracting and maintaining talented staff is to understand the problem of turnover. The next is taking specific, practical steps.

  • Find a Good Fit

To begin, you’ll want to hire qualified candidates who are a strong fit with your organization’s culture and values. This will look different for every organization, but it may involve budgeting for a more experienced candidate, enlisting the support of a third-party consulting firm, or devoting more time and resources to recruiting efforts.

  • Ensure Sufficient Support

Once you identify the perfect candidate, you’ll want to make every effort to support him or her. From fair pay to ample opportunities for professional growth, your development staff should feel valued and well integrated into the fabric of your organization.

  • Work Together

Above all, focus on building a “culture of philanthropy” within your nonprofit—in other words, include your staff, volunteers, and board in fundraising and development efforts. A recent study found that while 89% of development directors serve on management teams, a majority reported “little” or “moderate” influence on the engagement of staff in fund development or on annual budgeting. Development is a crucial part of facilitating your organization’s mission. As such, it should be embraced as a collective effort toward your organization’s maximum impact.

No matter the size, scope, or mission of your nonprofit, your development staff is crucial in sustaining your operations for today and your impact for tomorrow. By investing in these professionals—and ensuring their longevity in your organization—your nonprofit will have both the funding and the focus to achieve its goals.