Everyone Contributes

  • Retaining fundraising staff is challenging.
  • Turnover is costly.
  • Everyone needs to contribute to fundraising.
  • A team effort helps keep staff around.


By Heather Dimitt-Fletcher

One of the biggest discrepancies in expectations between nonprofit boards and executive directors is in fundraising. Fundraising frustrations are cited as one of the top reasons executive directors leave their organizations, either voluntarily or at the request of the board. Furthermore, expectation differences are also a top reason development staff leave. When the average tenure of an executive director is three to six years and the tenure of the top development staff member is sixteen to eighteen months, having everyone aligned when it comes to fundraising expectations is crucial if nonprofits are going to retain talent.

In fact, 91% of nonprofits report that turnover of fundraising staff is one of the biggest challenges to their organization’s success. Once a staff member has left, 53% of nonprofits find it a serious challenge to find qualified candidates for fundraising jobs. It’s not unusual for the top fund development role to remain vacant for months, years or even permanently. According to a 2019 Harris Poll study conducted for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Association of Fundraising Professionals, more than half of fund development staff surveyed indicate plans to leave their job within the next two years. Among those same respondents, 30 percent are planning to leave the fundraising profession altogether by 2021.

Turnover is much costlier than most people recognize. A study by the Center for American Progress found that the costs associated with the turnover of an employee can easily amount to 100% of their salary cost. When you factor in additional costs such as lost productivity and the time/expenses associated with hiring and onboarding a replacement, the real cost can approach three times the salary for the position.

As we dig into the fundraising challenges our clients face, too often we see fund development treated as a solo act, where the responsibility falls onto the executive director to bring in a majority of the agency’s income, or a duet, where the executive director and one other staff member are expected to bring in a majority of the agency’s income. Occasionally, we might see a small ensemble of one or two staff and maybe one to three board members involved in fundraising. The reality is this isn’t sustainable. At its core fund development hinges on relationship building. An expectation that one or even a handful of people can cultivate and nurture new relationships while maintaining all previous relationships for the ever-growing income needs of an organization is unrealistic. In reality, fund development should be a full choir performance.

Board members must take an active role in fund development. One of the primary responsibilities every board member should undertake is acting as an advocate for the nonprofit. This means spreading the message and impact of the organization throughout their network continuously. It means carefully considering their contacts and identifying people who may be able to give through a general appeal campaign and identifying at least one or two individuals each year who were receptive to hearing about the organization in previous conversations and have the capacity to give at a higher level and making a direct ask of those people. (The exact level at which a gift is considered part of a general appeal versus one that is higher level will be unique to your organization.) Board members should assist in acknowledging donors, whether that’s by handwriting personal thank you notes, making phone calls or some other type of donor stewardship. Keeping development staff up to date of key changes in donors lives such as a marriage, birth of a child, etc. is another valuable way board members can help the agency maintain an active relationship with donors. Last but definitely not least, board members should also always plan to make a personal gift to the organization. Savvy funders and donors may ask what percentage of board members give.

Programming staff play a key role in this choir too. They have an obligation to ensure the funds are used as allocated but also to collect impact stories and to report data frequently. Stories and data are valuable tools in securing and stewarding donors, foundations, corporate sponsors and other funders. Additionally, program staff can actively educate people within their networks about the work of the organization and encourage them to consider giving.

Administrative or operational staff can contribute to the harmony by ensuring fiscal reports are completed in a timely manner, setting up fiscal reports that allow for clear tracking of different fund development efforts, and helping send out thank you letters in a timely manner, especially during a campaign period such as the annual appeal when many donations may be coming in at once. As it’s not unknown for donors or funding representatives to stop by an agency without scheduling an appointment with the Executive Director or fund development staff, it can be impactful for an administrative staff member to have key talking points such as the average cost per unit of service (for example the cost of one night of shelter with a meal for a homeless individual or the average cost of restoration of a painting for an art museum), any trends with those being served or special challenges the agency is facing, or even be able to speak to the overhead cost of the organization. Similar to programming staff, administrative staff can also engage their friends and families with stories of the agency’s impact and encourage their contacts to donate.

If your agency could benefit from a fund development plan that incorporates whole organization strategies, we are here to help you create one that is efficient and effective.