Managing Young Fundraisers


Sigh…another critical expose of Generation Y in the workplace.

In a recent radio interview, an HR consultant was speaking dismissively about young workers’ supposed sense of entitlement, their reluctance to work overtime, and their need for constant praise. My frustration mounted as I listened to him pile on one criticism after another, but this complaint was particularly irritating: “In job interviews, Gen Ys seem to be more interested in asking about the position they will be promoted into rather than the one they are actually applying for.”

Wait a minute! Aren’t young people who explore future opportunities sending two very positive messages – that they want to be successful well beyond the requirements of the job in question and that they are interested in staying in the company or organization as they build their careers?

Rapid turnover of young workers is a troubling fact and it is just as pervasive in the fundraising industry as it is in any other occupation. In research studies conducted by my firm with 1500 professional fundraisers, respondents under the age of 30 stayed a mere sixteen months in their most recent position. By their own admission, these same young Development staff felt they needed ten to twelve months of orientation, training and close supervision before feeling confident enough to manage their responsibilities independently. This means that not-for-profit employers are getting only four to six months of fully productive time from young fundraisers before they leave – not very attractive by any investment/return measure.

Why Young Fundraisers Change Jobs Frequently

But why they are leaving is the more important issue. 41% of fundraisers under the age of 30 whom we surveyed left their last job for a position with more senior responsibilities; and 38% left to work for a not-for-profit with more opportunities for career advancement. It is interesting to note as well that fundraisers under thirty years of age were considerably less likely to leave a job for higher pay elsewhere than were their older counterparts.

Young people enter the workforce today having earned one or two university degrees, being technologically advanced, and completely at ease in a world that moves incredibly fast. Young workers master the limited requirements of their entry-level positions quickly and soon approach their bosses for more variety in their work and greater responsibility. But, their enthusiasm is sometimes dampened by managers who, ironically, have too much to do themselves and too little time in which to do it. As a result, the benefits of retaining eager, motivated and now experienced young staff members are sacrificed because of the time it takes to orient, train and supervise them in their new jobs and hire their replacements.

A Clash of Generational Values

Exacerbating the problem are the criteria some managers use to make decisions about whether and when their employees are ready for more senior positions. “That’s not how things worked when I started in Development” threads its way through our research with management-level fundraisers. But no employer can alter the beliefs and behaviors of their young staff members by insisting that they think and act “like I used to when I was your age”. This serves only to distance managers from reports, leading to substandard performance and premature resignation.

The Case for Accelerating Young Fundraisers’ Career Moves

Generational sensibilities aside, there are other practical reasons why managers need their young workers to move up the seniority ladder at an accelerated pace. First, donors are changing the ways in which they give and fundraising is adapting to keep pace with those changes. In the last five years, participation in typical direct marketing programs by donors has declined 21.5%[1] as more donors choose to support fewer causes with higher level gifts. While this means a reduction in the number of entry-level jobs at the bottom of the fundraising pyramid over time, opportunities are expanding inside Major and Planned Gifts programs. As a result, young workers need to gain the skills and experience required for relationship fundraising much earlier in their careers.

The second reason pertains to management-level fundraisers themselves.  Only 43% of all Development Professionals we surveyed said they plan to stay in fundraising for the balance of their careers. Among them, one in two will retire within the next five to ten years. In order to resource our industry with enough qualified and experienced professionals to meet the demand, senior practitioners need to applaud, not discourage, their young fundraisers’ desire to climb the ladder quickly.

Help Young Workers Become Tomorrow’s Leaders

Managers are right, however, to wonder whether their young fundraisers are as ready for the future as they think they are. No, they don’t know anywhere near what their bosses know; and, yes, it’s so easy for young workers to be confident about their abilities when they’ve never been tested in a crisis. Still, managers cannot criticize young workers for having been brought up in an overly protective environment, and then keep them in a similarly protected state on the job. The fundraising industry needs to throw its young professionals into the fray so that they can fall down early, pick themselves back up, and become the next generation of Development leaders as soon as possible.

This article was first published in AFP’s e-wire on March 27, 2012.

Research data in this blog is from Penelope Burk’s forthcoming book, “Donor-Centered Leadership” to be published later this year. “Donor-Centered Leadership” focuses on building and sustaining a high performance fundraising team and is the result of four years of research with professional fundraisers, CEOs, Board members and donors.

 To be notified when “Donor-Centered Leadership” is available for sale, go to:


[1] Target Analytics, Blackbaud, Index of National Fundraising Performance, 2011

Showing 4 comments
  • Kate Vrijmoet

    Best one yet Penelope! Thank you so much for your blog posts!

  • Andrea

    As a 30 year-old with only two years of non-profit experience, I consider myself part of the generation you are writing about. This post rang very true for me and hits on points I have found frustrating in my Development career. Thanks for standing up for my generation and for your astute observations!

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