Why Fundraisers Leave

For the past two years, I and my colleagues at Cygnus have been conducting research on a fascinating and frustrating issue — the rate of staff turnover in the fundraising industry.  1100 professional fundraisers at all levels of their careers have participated in a three-part study on the underlying causes of premature job change and whether and how tenure can be extended.  We are currently adding to that research with studies that ask CEOs, Board members and donors for their views on the subject.

Contribute Your Story

Through this post, I am reaching out to subscribers for a unique contribution to this project.  I’m looking for stories on two themes:

  • memorable experiences in fundraising that influenced you to stay longer in a job…or leave sooner
  • stories about the best boss you ever had — what made him/her an exceptional leader and the impact that he/she had on you and your career

Our research data is compelling; but anecdotal experiences help readers grasp the issues on another level.  Please see the Story Submission Guidelines and Submission Form by following this link.

I’ll have much more to say about staff mobility in fundraising over the next few months as we get closer to publishing the results in mid-2010.  But, for now, here is some information from our research that you might find interesting.


Is the Rate of Staff Turnover in Fundraising a Problem?

Extending a valued fundraiser’s term for even one more year has huge implications on revenue, fundraising cost and donor confidence.  So, it’s not surprising that 87% of top Development execs agree that the rate of staff turnover in fundraising is a problem.  It’s not that fundraising is an unappealing career choice, though (thank goodness.)  In fact, 75% of people who enter the field, regardless of their original motivation, plan to stay in fundraising indefinitely or evolve into positions in which fundraising experience is a decided advantage (like becoming a not-for-profit CEO, for example.)  Where the problem lies is in job-to-job tenure.  For example, fundraisers in front-line, non-management positions say that it takes them ten to twelve months to get fully up to speed in a new position.  However, with the average tenure in these positions well under two years, not-for-profits are justified in questioning whether they are getting good value for money.

While tenure lengthens as seniority rises, the supply/demand ratio in our business is a nightmare for employers…but a boon for search firms and job banks, it seems.  Senior Development professionals say they are approached for another position, on average, in about ninety days after starting a new job.


Why Fundraisers Leave

39% of professional fundraisers were planning to leave their jobs at the time they responded to our survey.  While the desire to change jobs was often motivated by more than one factor, these are the top four reasons why respondents were seeking another career opportunity:

  • 48% – to obtain a higher salary elsewhere
  • 39% – because they felt they had achieved all they set out to accomplish in their current positions
  • 31% – to get away from the “old-school culture” of fundraising
  • 15% – to reduce commuting time / to work closer to home

The “old-school culture” of fundraising encompasses a number of issues identified by survey respondents, such as:

  • lack of appreciation for the time it takes to cultivate donors and raise increasingly profitable gifts, often expressed by Boards or CEOs as, “We have to have the money now.”
  • viewing fundraising expense as unfortunate cost rather than essential investment (fundraisers themselves sometimes perpetuate this view, by the way)
  • seeing paid fundraising staff as replacing, rather than enhancing or supplementing fundraising by leadership volunteers

I look forward to telling you more about this intriguing research over the next few months.  In the meantime, I hope you will contribute a story.

Happy holidays from someone who is bucking the trend.  I have been in the same job for 19.5 years.



Showing 12 comments
  • Joanne Beaton

    I was wondering whether you have a blog on the pros of attaining the CFRE designation and how helpful it has been to those of us in the profession.

    We are planning an educational session on attaining the CFRE designation at the London Regional Fundraising Executives January Breakfast meeting and it would be wonderful to have an inspirational type of quote from you. Thanks for your consideration of this request!

  • Larry O'Neal

    I promised 5 years when i joined 7 years ago. Reasons 2 and 3 apply.

  • Kate Monteleone

    I suspect that you have made it 19.5 years in the same job because you are no longer a front-line fundraiser.

    All best…hope you are well.

    • Kristine Christlieb Canavan

      Amen to that!

  • Jim Heckman

    I find it interesting that philosophical differences and poor leadership do not appear among the top causes of turnover, unless the “old school culture” can be considered along these lines. Perhaps this is encouraging.

  • Tara Sudbury

    I love the art and science behind every successful not for profit organization, and I made significant contributions in those I worked for through sheer hard work, enthusiasm and thoughtful decision making. However my departure from the industry – though I would love to return- stemmed from the frustration in not being supported with personalized development to enhance, or build on the aptitudes I demonstrated or the interests within the industry that I wanted to pursue. Typecasting is a problem in the not for profit, so too is the reality, in my experience, of Directors of Development. My experience is that they are often so loaded down with their own “stuff” that they are doing very little directing and then when targets are not met or interdepartmental issues spring up the solution is often to restructure – yet again! Most Front Line would be happy to stay with an organization if they felt they were being invested in, were learning and had an opportunity to progress when certain defined milestones had been achieved. Our industry focuses on the development in terms of donor development and much too little on staff development. Untapped talent on the front line is abundant and facilitating staff to generate best practices is overlooked in favor of a consultant/expert coming in. That’s too bad, my best experience came through an opportunity to facilitate the best ideas from within the organization and providing the support to the team to allow them to see their ideas through to fruition. Alot of development happened at that organization – staff development and the impact of course was felt in donor development. We just need to equalize the time we spend in “development”. People don’t leave company’s they leave Managers. Let’s change the way we develop our teams and give our front line an opportunity to create some new best practices! I’ would return to the industry and move in my furniture if I thought such a development opportunity existed for a Director of Development!

  • Wendy

    I’m really pleased that someone is looking into this. I think the field needs to take a good,long, honest look at itself in terms of management, ethics and an alarming lack of equity in pay for women vs men.

  • Ivana Pelnar-Zaiko

    thanks for deepening your study beyond its original scope–looking forward to the results!

    My best boss ever, back in the eighties, was Bob Sweeney, who had not been fully appreciated by our senior leadership and left for the University of Virginia, where he has matched your longevity. There is a very successful story that should be told and examined!

    Best wishes for 2010,

  • poorly managed

    Bad managers whose egos tell them that they are great when they are actually not. This is why I have left 2 jobs in the last 3 years.

    If you are a manager who has not had any offical training around dealing with your reports, then how do you know if you are doing it properly?

  • Pamela Grow

    Where to start? How about the Executive Director who requested that I “weed out” the already small donor database to maintain its “free” status? How about having to pay for my own books and training? How about regional nonprofit organizations advertising positions that are clearly “development director” jobs with all the accompanying responsibilities – but calling them “development associates” at pay scales of $12 an hour? What about dealing with boards who are convinced that planning a “signature event” is the ticket to sustainable funding? These reasons and more are why I went into consulting and building my own business. I’m so glad that you’re researching this topic – building relationships and consistency are the backbone of any sound development plan. Without consistency donor-centered fundraising is impossible.

  • Priscilla Grim

    The best supervisor I have worked for is an MBA. I think that her actual training in management and corporate experience is apparent in her ability to motivate and inspire loyalty in her staff. Unfortunately of all the shops I have worked in, this is not the norm. Poorly trained managers are the norm, and it is reflected in how they treat their staff. I don’t know if this stems from their own insecurity as managers, but development managers are most often the shining example to prove that simply being good at your job does not mean you can manage people effectively.

    • rupert

      The last sentence ‘simply being good at your job does not mean you can manage people effectively’ I add ‘effectively is often based on the Company motive to EARN MORE MONEY’. Had long experience in that situation and left Company early.

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