Posted , by Kaitlin Robb, consultant. Topic: Donor Retention.

For years, the state of the economy was one of the only things on which nonprofits and donors could focus. As nonprofits begin to feel more confident with the future of philanthropy, they are addressing issues that were pushed to the backburner during the economic downturn. Nonprofits are being forced to take a hard look at their development teams, specifically staff retention. A number of recent studies and articles center on the revolving door of development staff. What causes it? What impact does it have? What do we do about it?

Development professionals work in one of the few industries where supply is greater than demand. According to the report Under Developed: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising from CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, organizations with a vacant director of development position stated it had been open for an average of six months. Development professionals are less likely to face any period of unemployment, and most professionals note that they were approached with a job opportunity during their first three months in a new position. Penelope Burke, in her recently released book Donor Centered Leadership, found that the average development professional under 30 years old only stays in his or her job for 16 months. Even the tenure of a chief development officer (CDO) at the top of the department has shortened to two to three years over the last decade according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Why are they leaving? According to a study conducted by Campbell & Company titled CDO Confidential: What CDOs Want You to Know About Retention, 75% of CDOs cite unrealistic expectations from management as the primary reason behind their departures. The other top reasons for leaving are inadequate resources and limited staffing.

Why should we care? While more than likely it will not impact financial statements, development turnover comes with significant costs. According to Burke’s research, it costs 1.2 times the salary to replace a young fundraiser (under 30 years old) and up to nine times the salary of a high level professional. These costs are incurred from hiring, orienting, training and supervising. More importantly, the revolving door impedes forward progress. It is cyclical. The lack of a culture of investing in staff leads to premature staff departures. The departure restricts the organization’s ability to cultivate donor relationships. Poor donor relations limit fundraising success and planning. Limited fundraising success makes it more difficult to recruit and retain top tier candidates. The cycle continues.

What can we do to stop the revolving door? The Curtis Group knows this is a problem worth addressing, and we see it all too often in our work with nonprofits. It is not something that can be blamed solely on human resources, salary or benefits. There must be a cultural shift. Fundraising needs to be seen as mission-centric. You cannot help the poor, save lives, cure cancer, promote the visual arts, etc. without raising private dollars. The executive director must be committed to and personally invested in fundraising and the development team. The board of directors should value and reward fundraising success. Burke suggests taking a long-term approach by investing in the passion of young colleagues. Rather than looking to an external candidate, promote a younger member of the team for where he or she could go. She recommends that leaders provide flexibility and continued learning opportunities for current employees to maintain their passion. “Leaders should be able to show development professionals a path for their career within the organization,” says Kris W. Kindelsperger, Ed.D., senior executive consultant at Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates (Lagasse, Paul. “I Quit.” Advancing Philanthropy, spring 2013). Development professionals accept a position because they believe in the organization’s mission, and it is up to the leaders to maintain that passion. Kindelsperger suggests that organizations create a “connections framework,” so that staff are connected to the people served, the employees with which they work and the community.

Let’s make a change, recognize hard work, and invest in our people.

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