The Three R's

February 27, 2009

I recently had the opportunity to hire three gift officers for my 10-member development team. They joined us to replace others who had moved on. I use the word "opportunity" because I really enjoy the interviewing process, and I ended up with some terrific hires. Now, I know what some readers may be thinking: "Three out of 10 positions were vacant at the same time?" Followed quickly by: "This guy must be a real taskmaster, or just a pain to work with." Before my colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University can nod their heads in affirmation, let me explain.

As a manager of a fund-raising team, I've come to realize that turnover is natural, but with regard to gift officers it seems to have become an emerging trend in our profession. And that's where the three "R's" — recruitment, retention, and replacement — come into play. Because those topics seem to be on everyone's mind lately, I'll use my recent experiences to shine some light on what I feel to be the good, the bad, and the ugly of each.

Let's start with the difficult one, retention.

When my gift officers started falling like a house of cards, I immediately took stock: Was I not offering the type of guidance and support they needed? Were those people not recognizing the opportunities that existed within our team and at our institution? I quickly discovered that neither was the case. All three were at a point in their careers when they were ready to move up, and move on. Two came to me with exciting opportunities to advance their careers within our university, and one had the unique opportunity to lead a new endeavor for an institution in Britain. How was I going to beat a paid year in London, followed by having the entire United States as your travel territory?

So I took pride in announcing each of their new positions: director of development at one of our university's prestigious schools, senior associate director in one of the finest departments of medicine in the country, and senior development manager at a British institution.

Still, at the time of their departures, most of them had not been with us for more than three years. So I was back to wondering: Was it something we did? Or something we didn't do to keep them?

We did what you're supposed to do: We celebrated their successes, praised their relationship building, did our best to train them as gift officers for our institution, and offered professional development. But in the end, I needed to realize that all three are hard-charging, go-getter types who want to move their careers ahead quickly. It was exactly those personality traits that made the three so irresistible in the hiring process, and one of the main reasons I wanted them on my team.

How, then, do we retain people with those traits for more than three years? Some answers are obvious: high salaries, bonuses, stock incentives. But this is not Wall Street of the late 1990s; it's the not-for-profit world of higher education during an economic downturn.

Which is why I've been openly working on retention in other ways with my high-achieving, veteran team members, and they seem to appreciate it. We map out options for them to move to the next level within our organization. I look for added responsibilities to give them, which allow for career and personal growth as well as exposure to our institution's leaders. And, as long as the budget allows it, there is the opportunity to participate in outside professional development each year. Heck, we even sent three people to a conference last year that just so happened to be on a tropical island. I also try to keep in mind that nothing says you are appreciated more than the occasional box of doughnuts in the morning and team cocktail hour after work.

In a nutshell, I am working to avoid what most recent surveys claim as the top reasons why people voluntarily leave their jobs: a poor relationship with their manager, not feeling valued or appreciated, and a lack of challenges and opportunities. Some turnover is good; I expect and want my employees to succeed and build their careers. However, if they are successful high performers, I want them to grow and advance within our organization, and preferably on my team.

I like to keep in mind something I read in the March 2008 issue of Currents, the monthly magazine of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. An article on how to keep good employees quoted Craig Taylor, vice president for client services at TalentKeepers Inc., a human-resources consulting firm: "People tend to join organizations for things, but they tend to stay for people — for connections and engagement." He added, "When people are faced with a stay-or-leave decision, they weigh relationships more heavily than any other factor. Relationships are much harder to replace than a paycheck. Managers can be like Velcro." I'm hoping that all of the personal attention I try to give to my team members creates that "Velcro" effect he described.

Why is it so important to retain your best team members? Because replacing them can be expensive and time consuming. I can attest to that, having gone through the process of filling those three gift-officer positions and several others in the past.

I don't know what the recruitment process is like at many other institutions, but at mine, we like to interview people to achieve the "best fit," and that takes time. Recently it took my time, my assistant's time, and the time of each of my colleagues whom I involved in the process. Many interviews, some travel, a lot of lunches, and many cups of coffee later, I found my new team members. I already mentioned that I like interviewing candidates, and it's true. However, it can't be denied that the process took the exact resources that could have been put toward raising money for scholarships and other important needs at our university.

While I was interviewing candidates for the three positions, I spent less time on the road with donors. I can't prove that that hindered our relationships with them, but I know it slowed some of our philanthropic discussions. And that could have cost us support.

If you are a manager, think of all the time you've spent interviewing and training new hires in the past year. In many situations, wouldn't it have been more productive to have spent that time building relationships with the employees already on board?

Then there are the costs of successful recruitment. That takes us back to the lunches, the travel, and even those many cups of coffee. It requires money to replace our fund raisers, and we seem to have no problem spending it.

Why, then, do I hear complaints from some friends who are managing fund-raising offices at other institutions that they can't ever seem to get the resources (i.e., money) to recognize their top performers? Let's try hard not to get to the point where it appears that we value recruiting new people more than we value our highest-performing employees.

Now we come to recruitment, and I've saved the best for last. Why? Because this "R" is where I feel many of us have made great strides, although we still need help. I'm always hearing that it's so difficult to find qualified fund raisers. But are we looking in the right places, and for the right experiences?

Let's consider the three new gift officers I've hired. You may be surprised to discover that none of them came from a traditional development background. We hired one with extensive experience in university admissions, another from a company unrelated to fund raising (who had transferable skills working directly with clients), and even a swimming coach (who admittedly had raised money on the side from parents for the program). They each have decidedly different backgrounds, but they all have had success in the areas we look for when hiring in fund raising. We merely needed to convey their skills to our human-resources office, after they impressed the group of colleagues I had assembled to help interview them.

When we first advertised for the positions, I chose to look for articulate, motivated, honest, hard-working people who have an interest in helping donors meet their philanthropic goals through supporting our institution. Oh, and the candidates also needed to have a good sense of humor. I'm trying to keep good team camaraderie, remember?

I figured that if I hired people with those qualities and needed to teach them some fund-raising skills, we could be successful. What I came to discover is that many occupations, such as admissions, sales, and finance, to name a few, provide transferable skills for what at least appears to be the beginning of a successful fund-raising career. My choice to hire them was reinforced again last night, as I left the office with a colleague who said, "You hired a great group of gift officers recently — they will surely represent the institution well."

My advice: Be on the lookout for nontraditional candidates whenever you are searching for your team's "best fit." I've decided to leave the thought-provoking topics of building résumés and and applying for fund-raising positions for other columns. The three "R's" have given us plenty to ponder. I do hope that some of these thoughts will help you the next time you are involved in recruitment, retention, or replacement.

I also hope that your hiring plans don't include any of my gift officers.

Jeffrey A. Schoenherr is director of the regional and international major-gifts program at the Johns Hopkins Institutions. He will write regularly for The Chronicle about career issues in university fund raising and development.