Just What Exactly Do We Do About the Workforce Crisis?

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
— Michael Corleone (Godfather III)

As a young girl, I never thought “when I grow up, I want to be a fundraiser.” I distinctly remember wanting to be a teacher, then a doctor, an advertising professional (I had dreams of writing commercials!), and a photojournalist.  Fundraising certainly was not in that list.  In fact, it wasn’t even a recognized profession then.  My story is not unique.  Most people I’ve met in this field never intentionally decided to become a fundraiser.  We all “fell” into this profession in some way or another.  For me, it all started when I was a rising senior at Barnard College and I needed a summer job. I wasn’t inspired by a call to action for a higher purpose. I just needed a job.  I called the Columbia Alumni Affairs office and what followed was an incredible learning experience staffing the Director of Alumni Affairs and Development over that summer and the following academic year. I did prospect research, worked on Columbia’s campaign case statement, wrote correspondence, attended alumni events and got a “behind the scenes” look at how to build relationships with alumni.  That part-time job propelled me to join Harvard’s Development team after graduation (until I “figured out what I really wanted to do”). Now, twenty-five years later, here I am, still a fundraiser.

My professional story is no fairytale, however.  I’ve tried to leave this profession several times usually because the dysfunction and internal politics of organizations where I’ve worked made me question whether this was all worth it.  Just like Michael Corleone who finds it difficult to separate his identity with his past, for me, I think the reason I’ve stayed in this career is because I am continued to be moved by the greater importance of being a fundraiser.  So, in those moments when I explored other job opportunities outside of fundraising, my personal mission convinced me to remain committed to the bigger impact of fundraising.

Unfortunately, not everyone is driven by a higher purpose. High turnover in our field is nothing new.  You need only look to Compass Point Nonprofit Services and the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund’s report UnderDeveloped and Bentz Whaley Flessner’s Points of Practice report on major gift officer recruitment and retention to see stark evidence of the workforce problem today. What’s driving more than half of top fundraisers to leave their jobs in two years or less (and 40% thinking of leaving the profession entirely)? More than half of Executive Directors/CEOs not feeling they can find talented Development staff? Long vacancies of Development positions when staff do move on? Why is the demand for fundraisers far exceeding the workforce capacity?  We’ve got a crisis that, in a way, we’ve created ourselves. 

1.    Too many organizations don’t embrace a shared culture that fosters philanthropy. If fundraising is considered a dirty word in an organization, then the fundraiser(s) will spend more time trying to gain internal buy-in and validation and defending themselves than actually building external relationships with donors:

  • Is the Development leader/team part of strategic organizational decisions—especially around planning and projections? Hopefully discussions around budgets and visions are based on revenue trends and real potential for growth and are not numbers pulled from the sky.  Goals not based on an organization’s reality set fundraisers up for failure from the very start.
  • Who within the organization is doing the fundraising? Helping to engage and steward donors?  If the CEO and Board leadership are not an integral part of key donor relationships and all the fundraising rests on the Development person or team, no wonder there’s high burnout and misunderstanding of the time and effort it actually takes to create effective donor relationships. 
  • Are there clear funding needs?  Does your organization have a strategic plan that is big, bold, and inspiring? If it doesn’t, you can’t expect prospective donors to feel compelled to support you.
  • How do you view your donors?  Are they walking checkbooks or co-investors?  Hopefully it’s the latter and that perspective will drive the way you tell your story of why you do your work and why you need them to create a greater impact. 

2.    People aren’t just working for the cause. Compensation is also a factor. Small to mid-size organizations feel this attrition of and competition for fundraising talent most especially because they face the threat of larger, better financially resourced organizations who can pay more attractive salaries to talented fundraising professionals.  Organizations of all sizes walk the fine line of figuring out how to incorporate competitive salaries while also being transparent in their “overhead v. program” costs.  Dan Pallotta speaks extensively about this in his TED talk and says that non-profits need to look at their human resources as an equally critical expense as their programs for long-term sustainability.  Organizations simply can’t do their good work without funding.  Where does the funding come from?  The fundraising staff whose prime responsibility is to help grow more and larger investments from their donors.  Compensation needs to also include professional development to show that you care about the skills-building of your team. You want them to stay around and apply what they learned, too!

3.    We don’t always encourage and mentor professionals to pursue this career for the long-haul.  I’ve watched this field grow and become more “professional” through academic programs in fundraising and nonprofit management, training certification, and a plethora of webinars and other workshops offered online and through professional fundraising organizations around the country. I have had the good fortune to work with some incredibly talented colleagues a few of whom were and are real mentors to me. I remain forever indebted to them for teaching and believing in me.  But there have certainly been colleagues who were “Dementors.[1]”  What are we doing to flood our workforce pipeline with eager and talented staff?  As importantly, are we ensuring that the fundraising professionals who have chosen to do this work have the training, coaching, and support they need to become leaders in this profession over the long-term?

When we stop to think about the importance of philanthropy, it’s no understatement to say that connecting organizations doing great work with donors changes lives, transforms communities, and makes our world a better place.  For me, that’s what keeps pulling me back in to this work.  We just need to ensure that we are creating the right internal and external environments that encourages people to want to stay with it.

P.S. Do you think fundraising is a profession or just a job?  This is a topic I and fellow members of the Rogare Advisory Panel are having.  Feel free to join the conversation.

[1] Shout out to my former Harvard colleague (and NOT Dementor), Thom Lockerby now at Andover, who made this reference in his presentation at the recent CASE District 1 conference.