Too Much Turnover

How can we counter the 'dismal and disruptive' pattern of fund raisers' changing jobs after two or three years?

Brian Taylor

August 19, 2013

Approaching my sixth anniversary as director of development at a state university, I recently took time to assess the turnover on my watch: Nine fund raisers have departed voluntarily from my office, and a 10th involuntarily.

The nine left for a variety of reasons, including better positions elsewhere in fund raising, other nondevelopment jobs on the campus, and personal revelations (like that they had minimal desire to raise funds). The point is, those 10 hires did leave, one at a time, and I have been in a perpetual hiring mode.

In April 2012, The Chronicle of Philanthropy published an article on fund-raiser turnover and the associated costs. It reported that the average duration a fund raiser spends in a job is 16 months, and that the direct and indirect costs of hiring a replacement total $127,650.

That study, like others published recently by consulting agencies, was on nonprofit fund raising in general, not just in academe. Comprehensive studies focused on turnover in campus development offices are harder to come by, but the typical retention rate for a fund raiser in higher education is said to be two to three years. That is dismal and disruptive in a profession that is essentially built on relationships, and in which most fund raisers do not begin to achieve their potential until more than two years on the job.

Maybe employee flow is a little less liquid at large, prestigious universities, where "small" gifts run into the six-digit range. That is not the case at my small university. Nor is it the case for most of the people I network with at development conferences. It seems that most of us are in the same rocking boat, which each year leaves a steady trail of gift-officer flotsam and jetsam.

As of just a few months ago, all of the fund raisers in my office are people I have hired. That means it is my team, under my guidance, with my strategy. It also means that I fully own the retention challenges, as never before.

Quality and quantity. Similar to athletics coaches (you are either winning games or not), being a fund raiser is one of the most objectively measurable jobs on a campus. You are either raising money or not. Metrics are often much more subjective in other corners of higher education, and yet those folks who live with less objective measures seem to enjoy asking the accountability question of development personnel: How much money did you raise this month?

The hard truth is that quantity does matter in our profession. Raising money in volume is what we do. At the same time, quality is often sacrificed as we incessantly embrace quantity. The problem with neglecting quality is that systemic issues can easily be overlooked during the constant hiring frenzy as we scramble to get bodies in place and check off the number of donor visits. Issues like vision, staff development, marketing collateral, reporting mechanisms, and campuswide communications tend to be poorly managed as we endeavor to get feet on the street. Ignoring those things, however, lessens the chance of a fund raiser's success, which increases turnover, which forces managers to spin in a tactical cycle of hiring and training instead of focusing on the strategic aspects of the business.

Studies on turnover in the fund-raising field generally mention familiar reasons: unrealistic expectations, limited resources, poor culture of philanthropy, inadequate compensation plans, and absence of career path and succession planning. We have to pay consistent attention to those matters, too, if we are going to retain fund raisers.

Diamonds from the private sector. Few organizations are as fraternal as higher education. Job descriptions for low-level positions frequently require (or strongly prefer) graduate degrees, multiple years of fund-raising experience, and previous experience in higher education. Candidates who fall outside those parameters are viewed as unqualified.

Ironically, those very expectations help promote high turnover rates in fund raising. Within a 90-minute drive from my home are five universities and three community colleges, so another job with a little higher pay isn't very far away. And university foundations rarely seem concerned about hiring fund raisers who have only been at their current college for two or three years.

We need to take more chances on nonstandard hires from the private sector. Sure, higher education is a world all of its own with hierarchy, lingo, and lines of authority differing from the private sector. But understanding all of that does not have to be a requirement. I would trade insider knowledge about university life for a private-sector candidate who has good people skills, understands time and territory management, recognizes that weekly reporting is a standard requirement, and is a disciplined self-starter. Some things can be taught; others cannot.

Admittedly, we will have to sift through some ore to find the diamonds, but they are out there—people who are passionate about gratifying employment, have a heart for their alma maters, and whose selling skills and experiences outshine those of many professional fund raisers. But hiring managers, be warned: If your organization has sacrificed quality for the urgency of quantity, former private-sector employees will see that flaw faster than anybody else.

Money and tools matter. There is something remarkably paradoxical about a charitable organization that expects its fund raisers to bring in the big bucks yet skimps on salaries. The clear message is: We care about philanthropy, but not that much.

In the business realm, people in sales are generally among the highest-paid in the company. Why? Because revenue is the lifeblood of a profitable business; without it even the best products and services do not matter much. Salespeople are the bloodhounds and bulldogs of the organization; they sniff out leads, seek customers, and exercise tenacity in closing a transaction. They possess exceptional people skills, an aptitude for great communication internally and externally, personal pride, and a passion for accomplishing organizational goals.

Not everybody in higher education likes to admit or understand it, but fund raisers are a crucial sales-and-marketing component of an institution. If we want the best results, we need to hire the best people we can and give them salaries commensurate with their expectations.

Another important area that promotes job satisfaction and retention is technology. No doubt the fund-raising business can be executed on the back of cocktail napkins and with spreadsheets, but why should it be? The availability and price of technology makes it much easier than ever before to outfit our fund raisers with the Web tools they need to be successful. How we equip them says something about how much we value them. Not that every fund raiser needs a MacBook Air, but if we are committed to quality in an organization, then an iPad, connected to credible contact-management software, is powerful equipment in the hands of both the fund raiser and the supervisor.

If we want better contact reporting, we must be prepared to make it easy and efficient. If we want better accountability in daily activities, we need to be willing to spend the money on the tools that are data-driven and automated.

Carrots and sticks. A human-resources senior manager once taught me a great maxim for recruiting and retention: Pay people well from the beginning, and then spend the rest of your time finding ways to make their jobs satisfying, fun, and not focused on money. If you do that, they will not only be motivated to accomplish their individual goals but will also pitch in to improve the organization and stick around.

The notion of carrots (rewards) and sticks (accountability) can be foreign to institutions of higher education and their foundations. Show me the development shop that executes consistent and comprehensive performance reviews, and I will suggest that it is a rarity. Even in tight financial times, when raises are few and slight, a comprehensive performance evaluation can be highly motivating. When a supervisor takes the time to thoroughly evaluate and plan together with a fund raiser, it is a signal that the supervisor cares, understands what it takes to succeed, and is willing to help that employee be successful.

It is a natural thing for a fund raiser to desire and enjoy the recognition that comes with success. We should expect it. Remember, fund raisers are salespeople who have enough ego to face the "no" answers, be diligent enough to find the "yes" answers, and be focused enough to bring gifts to closure. We want our fund raisers to have enough personal pride and confidence to let ego drive them. Therefore, we need to work faithfully to voice public appreciation of their work.

Among other things that I do when a development officer negotiates a gift is ring a cowbell that I keep in my office. It is loud and obnoxious, and I follow the ringing with a full-throated shout-out to the successful fund raiser, announcing the amount of the gift. It's not just a public recognition of the gift officer's success, but a statement to the rest of the office that money matters. And it affirms that we are having success as a team.

My university foundation does not (yet) have an incentive plan for our fund raisers. That will eventually happen, and it needs to happen for all charitable organizations to enhance job satisfaction and fund-raiser retention. I have talked with a few progressive leaders who have already adopted year-end bonus programs for fund raisers. A pool system is generally used, so conflicts of interest are avoided, and fund raisers are not being paid on the basis of a portion of each gift. Rather, based on their accomplishments, they share (carrot) or don't share (stick) rewards from the incentive pool, proportionally based on performance metrics.

To some that system sounds difficult—and it can be to set up—but it is a motivational tool that demonstrates quality in the organization. The best plans require a development officer to be on the job for the duration of the incentive period to qualify for year-end bonuses, thus mitigating (or at least slowing down) turnover.

More than lip service. Many of the reasons fund raisers leave for new opportunities can be summed up under the culture of campus philanthropy. Conference sessions on that topic are among the best-attended at conferences. The reasons are stated in various ways, but they are usually described as a lack of vision for philanthropy, poor commitment to fund-raising goals, inadequate walking-of-the-walk by institutional leaders, and a general feeling that fund-raising just doesn't matter that much.

For the committed fund-raising professional, our work is our chosen career, defining who we are and what is important to us. Nothing is more discouraging to a fund raiser than toiling under the expectations of quantity in an institutional culture that demonstrates only a nominal commitment to quality. That is merely a formula for two-to-three years' tenure, and out.

Tim Szymanowski is director of development at Eastern Washington University. Previously he worked in sales and marketing in the private sector, including executive-management roles in the telecom industry.