OPINION: How can we stop the mass exodus of fundraisers?

As increasing numbers of fundraisers start to leave their jobs, Karen Paul says urgent action is needed to stop the brain drain from the profession.

Karen Paul

We are facing in imminent mass exodus in the fundraising profession. While turnover has always been an issue in fundraising, the average tenure of fundraisers has been steadily shrinking over the last few years. Prior to the pandemic, many surveys showed the average turnover rate for fundraisers had declined to 16 months

With multiple surveys showing an expected increase in staff turnover, you’ve got to wonder if the fundraising profession is now moving into an age of hyper-turnover. 

Nonprofit HR’s recent 2021 Nonprofit Talent Retention Practices Survey revealed that 42 percent of nonprofits across the United States expected staff turnover to increase in 2021. ­And the Association of Fundraising Professional’s 2021 Compensation and Benefits Report showed nearly 25 percent of surveyed fundraisers expected to leave their jobs in the next year. 

Sixty-two percent of participating nonprofits described themselves as mature organizations. Given that these organizations have established budgets, internal policies and standard organizational practices in place, they should be best positioned with strategies to retain staff members. So you might think that those two-fifths of nonprofit organizations that Nonprofit HR’s survey revealed were anticipating increased staff turnover would be developing retention strategies to help stem the rate of turnover and the costs associated with replacing fundraiser positions. Those costs can range between 90 to 200 percent of an employee’s annual salary, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.  

However, it does not appear that nonprofits are investing resources to help slow the cycle. Eighty per cent of participating organizations say they do not have a retention strategy in place, despite tracking employment metrics such as turnover and tenure.

Moreover, most nonprofit organizations are only using exit strategies to find out if any issues at their organization. Exit interviews are often highly problematic and inaccurate because many staff members who want to maintain their connections with the organization after leaving are reluctant to fully share the reasons they are leaving, or unwilling to share if they don’t believe the organization is committed to change. 

“By ignoring the issues that fundraisers have identified as reasons for leaving or relying primarily on exit interviews to facilitate important discussions about turnover, many nonprofit organizations are helping to accelerate turnover and a lack of diversity in the fundraising profession.”

Because of a lack of tracking turnover and poor discussions about the true nature of what is causing employees to leave their organization, nonprofits are making critical assumptions that may be fueling the turnover cycle. 

Many organizations automatically assume that turnover is related to compensation and are implementing strategies to only address this one specific issue:

  • 76 per cent of participating nonprofits say financial compensation is their primary retention tool
  • 80 per cent of say benefits are their primary retention tool
  • Multiple nonprofits wrote additional comments saying that they utilized increased bonuses, hiring bonuses, and cost of living raises as incentives. 

The problem with these strategies is that employers are packaging what many employees consider basic benefits of employment as value-added incentives. In addition, this approach ignores many of the findings from AFP’s 2021 Compensation and Benefits Report, which shows many of the reasons fundraisers have said they are leaving: 

  • Opportunities for career advancement (61 percent)
  • Frustrating work environment (39 percent)
  • Lack of support (30 percent)
  • Micro-aggressions based on age, gender, disability or other characteristics (11 per cent)

Nonprofit HR’s survey uncovers another concerning trend related to non-white staff members: 61 percent of organizations say that renewed calls for racial justice did not impact their retention strategies. 

This result may provide additional insight into a finding from AFP’s 2021 Compensation and Benefits Report in which 18 percent of fundraisers who identified as Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian, or multi-racial anticipated leaving fundraising altogether.

By ignoring the issues that fundraisers have identified as reasons for leaving or relying primarily on exit interviews to facilitate important discussions about turnover, many nonprofit organizations are helping to accelerate turnover and a lack of diversity in the fundraising profession. 

What can we do to slow this mass exodus down? I’d like to invite you to participate in a new LinkedIn discussion group – Building Strong Development and Fundraising Teams – which will start hosting discussions on fundraising turnover, starting Dec. 1, 2021. Together, we will explore these issues, share your experiences in the fundraising profession and how we can work together to make a greater impact toward improving our profession. To join and participate, visit https://www.linkedin.com/groups/12587852.

Karen Paul is development director at Religion News Service in Washington DC and a member of Rogare’s Critical Fundraising Network.

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