Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Mar/Apr 2006, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
This article is adapted from an excellent report, “Conservation Fundraising at a Crossroads: Creating Healthy Fundraising Organizations,” published in 2005 by Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC), a capacity-building organization serving environmental nonprofits. Although that report is based on the author’s work with environmental organizations, her analysis and recommendations are right on target for a broad range of organizations with paid fundraising staff.
Imagine this scenario: You joined an organization six months ago as development director. Recently, both the board and executive director have complained that you haven’t raised an amount equal to your own salary yet. Furthermore, the executive director and the program director have decided to launch a new program that will require $100,000 in seed money. You were not consulted
about this decision, but you are expected to raise most of the money.
I know that executive directors, board members, and other staff don’t deliberately try to make the fundraiser’s job harder, but their actions can do just that. If the same scenario plays itself out at this organization over and over again, you can bet that the fundraiser will leave out of sheer frustration.
Consider this: In a recent eight-month workshop series that Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC) conducted for environmental organizations, participants included, among others, 12 full-time fundraisers. By the time the series ended, only six of those
12 remained. In less than nine months, half of those 12 full-time fundraisers had left their organizations; moreover, when they joined the workshop series, most had occupied their positions for only six months or less.
Granted, people move, get pregnant, return to school. But let’s face it, organizations are also driving fundraisers away. What’s going on? I think four primary reasons account for such high turnover. All of these reasons reflect on whether a group regards its fundraising staff person as a professional whose work is integrated into the fabric of the organization.
It takes at least one, and usually two years before a fundraiser hits their stride. To expect someone to generate large sums of money in anything less than a year — unless extraordinary circumstances prevail — is completely unfair. Many new fundraisers are walking into situations where fundraising protocols, systems, and documentation either don’t exist or are so ancient as to be worthless. Simply developing fundraising procedures, establishing relationships with staff and board, and becoming familiar with the organization’s work and fundraising history can take six months to a year.
To expect someone to generate large sums of money in anything less than a year -unless extraordinary circumstances prevail- is completely unfair.
Fundraisers are often denied the strong voice they deserve in an organization. Few decisions that any organization makes don’t involve money. Not every decision requires the feedback of the fundraiser, but certainly the larger decisions do. Yet I am stunned by the number of decisions that are made — hiring new staff, opening satellite offices, launching new programs — without seeking input from the fundraiser. Who better to advise whether money can be raised to support new initiatives? When fundraisers are repeatedly excluded from deliberations that directly affect their work, they can be forgiven for thinking that their opinions don’t matter much. It also reinforces the sense that fundraisers are strictly money-generating machines who have little or no role to play as strategic planners. This can be terribly demoralizing and enfeebling.
Organizations are not always hiring the right people or clearly articulating their expectations of them. Many new fundraising staff are young and enthusiastic but completely unprepared to handle the complexities and stress of the work. Others are a bad cultural fit. Some possess the fundraising skills needed but lack personal warmth, grace, or poise. And some fundraisers are simply hired out of desperation. Organizations need to identify carefully what skills and personal attributes they want candidates to possess and they need to specify clearly what it is they want that person to do. In the absence of one or both of these requirements, we can most likely expect to see an ongoing exodus of fundraisers from our organizations.
A fundraiser’s pay should be roughly equivalent to that of other staff with similar backgrounds. OMB Watch, a Washington-based group that monitors government spending, reported that the weekly earnings of charity employees (excluding private colleges and nonprofit hospitals) began to drop significantly in 2003. Indeed, the report states, “In the year ending June 2004, weekly earnings fell 5.2 percent,” representing a “significant break from recent trends.” Declining salaries means that it will become increasingly difficult for nonprofits to attract and keep strong, capable fundraisers. Look at what fundraisers in your organization are paid and make sure that it is fair, taking into account such things as education, tenure in the field, and previous experience.
Fundraisers need to develop detailed, typewritten explanations, instructions, and references- an operation manual that anyone can easily understand and use.
Think about what an organization spends to advertise for a job and then how much time one, two, or sometimes three staff people spend reviewing resumes, interviewing candidates, checking references, and then mentoring and training the new hire. One national environmental organization recently spent a year and a half searching for and finally hiring a development director. Regional and local groups are frequently finding that they have to extend application deadlines or are hiring an interim fundraiser — someone who isn’t ideal for the job but who can attend to the most pressing fundraising tasks until a suitable candidate is found.
All of this costs organizations too much money. Each time a fundraiser is lost, there are “disruption costs” as well — renewal letters not sent, proposal deadlines missed, and key donor relationships broken.
Turnover cannot be avoided, but the rate at which it is now occurring is costing organizations precious dollars — dollars they can ill afford to surrender every 12 or 24 months. During two recent years of intense fundraising work with 45 client groups, for example, TREC witnessed the departure of 28 full-time fundraisers — a staggering turnover rate of 61 percent. This is simply untenable.
Of course, all organizations experience some turnover — even well-suited fundraisers move on to other jobs, other challenges. But here is a rather peculiar phenomenon: Fundraisers learn skills, acquire knowledge, collect hundreds of tips and techniques, yet fail to impart them to their successors. It’s true that people often leave organizations on short notice, but that’s no excuse for failing to make the transition period easier for all concerned.
Transferring knowledge from one peer to another ought to be a mandatory and clearly understood job responsibility. Training others constitutes one of the best things a person can do for the organization for which they work. So it’s imperative that fundraisers document what they do. I don’t mean hastily written notes in illegible writing. Fundraisers need to develop detailed, typewritten explanations, instructions, and references — an operations manual that anyone can easily understand and use. Starting at square one each time a new fundraiser is hired costs the organization far too much money and is a frivolous waste of time and effort.
The departing fundraiser needs to make sure that someone in the organization knows exactly where important information is stored, both electronically and physically — the crucial fundraising plan and calendar, training manuals, prior fundraising letters, vendor contact names, proposal deadlines, previous fundraising plans, pledge forms, stock transfer information, and so forth.
Organizations would be wise to develop specific “departure” protocols and to implement them each time a fundraiser leaves. When a fundraiser gives notice, they should be asked to stay long enough to spend two weeks to a month training the new hire. In circumstances where it takes several months to hire a suitable candidate, it’s worth asking the departing employee if they’d be willing to provide some crossover time — by phone, e-mail or in person — when the new staff member comes on board. Of course, they should be paid for any time they spend doing this.
Mentoring others in an organization — paid staff, board members, or volunteers — is an extremely valuable practice for both the fundraiser and the organization and a good use of time. The fact that someone other than the fundraiser knows how to do even the most rudimentary fundraising tasks will be especially key during transition periods, when outgoing staff have left but incoming staff have not yet arrived. It means, for instance, that the organization isn’t left scrambling to meet important proposal deadlines or that routine tasks such as renewal and special appeal letters remain on schedule.
If someone were to ask me what one thing I would like to see change in grassroots fundraising, my answer would be this: that all of us treat fundraising as a profession and fundraisers as professionals. Although I’d be hard pressed to think of a single individual who deliberately chose fundraising as a career, it is indeed just that — a career. It’s hard work, frustrating and scary — remember the first time you asked someone for money in person?
But it is also tremendously rewarding and inspiring. Fundraisers get to meet all kinds of people who share their passion and commitment for their work. We build personal relationships with generous donors — people who stand with us when we celebrate our successes and lament our losses.
Typically, fundraisers are the people who bear the weight of keeping an organization financially afloat, sometimes perpetually trying to avoid cash-flow shortages while simultaneously struggling to earn the respect they so well deserve. They often feel alienated from the rest of the organization because their work is seen as tedious, distasteful, and completely divorced from program priorities. Organizations that fail to appropriate dollars for fundraising or neglect to consult fundraisers when contemplating costly undertakings reinforce the message that fundraisers aren’t equals and fundraising isn’t commendable work.
Treating fundraisers as the professionals they are will create a much stronger leadership team, resulting in sharper work and better fundraising for your organization.
special appeal letters remain on schedule. While it may seem that there simply is no time to
invest in training someone else, consider this: It takes no more than half an hour to give someone enough information and basic instructions on how to write a renewal letter. It will take that person about an hour and a half to write that letter. If you have 1,000 members and 20 percent of them (the industry norm) respond to this renewal request with a $30 gift, you’ve just earned $6,000 — even if your fundraiser has left the organization. I know of few organizations that can honestly say they couldn’t use or wouldn’t notice the absence of $6,000.
So, before deciding that it’s just not feasible for the current fundraiser to spend the time teaching, and others to spend the time learning, how to do one or more specific fundraising tasks, think about how much revenue might be lost if no one knows how to do that task.
Here’s a hopeful observation: newer conservation groups — those that were incorporated in the last decade or so — often differ from their older brethren in one very significant way — the value and necessity of fundraising have been encoded in the organization’s DNA. Staff and board members of these groups attend fundraising trainings and quite willingly solicit gifts and ask people to join their organizations. They aren’t fearful about asking for money and they consider the task an integral part of their ongoing work.
I believe these organizations are far more aware of just how tough it is to raise money — many of them started soliciting individual gifts in late 2000 and after, when the stock market began to spiral downward, when the nation was mourning and attempting to cope with the tragedy of September 11, and when the decline in government funding made competition for individual dollars much more fierce.
I also think these younger groups have had the benefit of growing up in an era when board standards, board accountability, board trainings, and board roles and responsibilities are far better understood and accepted.
Older groups can, I believe, address what may seem like intractable problems with a similar vision for a better way of working with fundraising staff and a commitment to making the organizational and cultural shifts necessary to pursue a different path.