By Sarah K. Nathan, Ph.D., and Heather A. O’Connor
As former fundraisers and “pracademics,” we care deeply about supporting the fundraising profession though evidence-based practices. We are also educators energized by young people choosing philanthropy as their careers. So when recent reports on fundraisers’ job satisfaction sounded a familiar alarm about high turnover rates, we were listening. We also began gathering additional data and evidence.
You may have heard that the survey, conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), found half of fundraisers are planning to leave their jobs within the next two years, and 3 in 10 plan to leave the field altogether. But, while those findings make for attention-grabbing headlines, they don’t tell the whole story. We’d like to share a different perspective that questions the narrative of a profession in peril.
A common way to study employee turnover is to ask about one’s intention to change jobs in the future at one point in time. Another approach is to ask individuals about their job histories to calculate their tenure in each position. Using this method, one author, alongside Dr. Eugene Tempel, studied 1,826 fundraisers’ actual fundraisers’ tenure. We found that, overall, fundraisers tend to spend an average of 4.5 years in each fundraising job, while those with more than 10 years of experience stay an average of 5.5 years per job.
When compared to a similar survey completed 20 years prior, we found that today’s fundraising workforce is larger, more diverse, younger, and better educated than the previous generation. Notably, fundraiser tenure in the profession has increased since the 1996 study: total number of years working in fundraising, as well as the average years per fundraising job, have increased within individuals who have 10 or more years of experience and for those that earn the highest levels of compensation.
Now, place those statistics within the national labor market in which the average time in a job is 4.2 years. Fundraisers’ 4.5 average per job is actually a little better! We acknowledge that four to five years may seem too short a tenure for the manager with little time to recruit and train fundraising staff, however, we have to understand it as normal market behavior and find ways to better help our fundraisers thrive.
Henry Rosso described fundraising as “the servant of philanthropy,” a means of achieving organizational mission, rather than an end in itself. Fundraisers play a crucial role in engaging donors and communicating the organization’s case for support, but they do so on behalf of the organization. When fundraisers meet with donors, Rosso explained, they should “set (them)selves aside and let the case walk in.”
Since a donor’s primary relationship is with the organization, rather than the fundraiser herself, the exit of a fundraiser should have little impact on the number of or engagement level of donors…provided the organization has systems in place to capture the fundraiser’s knowledge of and communication with the donor. These systems should include reports on every conversation with the donor, a detailed history of the donor’s gifts to the organization, the donor’s philanthropic interests and preferences for engagement with the organization, and notes on planned solicitations, if applicable.
In addition to ensuring that gift tracking and reporting systems are in place and used effectively, organizations can take steps to help their existing fundraisers feel more supported in their roles. One way to do this is to provide time and budgetary resources for fundraisers to take advantage of professional opportunities to learn and grow. Such opportunities don’t have to break the annual budget: regular mentoring doesn’t have to cost much more than a cup of coffee; you can find informal associations of nonprofit professionals in many small to mid-sized towns that don’t boast a significant membership fee; and community foundations are positioned to convene local fundraisers, and may even allow you to use their meeting space without charge.
While not all organizations experience frequent turnover in development staff, such job changes are characteristic of the employment market, and the nonprofit realm is no different. The alarmist narrative does little but foster inertia in a field that needs to evolve to meet donors’ and employees’ expectations. While losing a fundraiser may be a disappointment for managers and colleagues, organizations can prepare themselves for the occasion, make it as least disruptive as possible, and even embrace it as an opportunity to improve systems and welcome fresh perspectives.
Want to learn more about the profession? Listen to these podcasts from The Fund Raising School:
Sarah K. Nathan, Ph.D., is associate director of The Fund Raising School. She supports faculty and curriculum development while engaging in research about the fundraising profession.
Heather A. O’Connor is a Ph.D. candidate at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.