Why a Good Nonprofit Fundraiser is hard to Keep: Support, Culture, Infrastructure – Part II

Can't get no...

Can’t get no…

Fundraisers report that money is the number one reason they leave their jobs [See Part I of this two-part series here]. While I do believe too many fundraisers are underpaid relative to their skill sets and performance, I’ve a hunch it’s not the real chief culprit for fundraiser dissatisfaction. What is?

Fundraisers also report that lack of help from chief executives, boards, and other staff members is a big reason for their dissatisfaction (The Chronicle, January 17, 2013). Likewise, the fact that many nonprofit leaders don’t understand what it takes to be an effective development leader (The Chronicle, March 18, 2012) creates significant frustration.  Too often development directors are shoved in a corner and told: “go raise money.”  Sorry, this doesn’t work.

Effective development is a team sport. Without real access to other team members — staff and leaders who are setting strategic direction for the organization — fundraisers are crippled in their ability to communicate effectively with prospective donors. This makes them feel marginalized at best; stupid at worst. Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve had board members ask me about issues of which they assumed I was aware (of course they assumed; I worked full time at a senior level for the organization whereas they attended a monthly meeting). I just had to nod and pretend to understand. I don’t enjoy pretending.

Effective development requires supportive infrastructure. Too often organizations create a single position without investing in support staff, systems and a culture of philanthropy required to sustain fundraising success. Without these pre-conditions no one individual can be effective. It’s a waste of resources and becomes a vicious cycle [See Stop the Nonprofit Fundraising Treadmill: 3 Reasons I Want to Get Off].

Effective development requires relegating the one-person development shop to the dust bin. Unless EVERYONE participates in resource development it won’t happen, at least not to the extent that you need it to. The more folks involved, the more friends you’ll have. Your donor doesn’t care which department the person they’re talking to is in.  They have one experience of your organization. And the best development director in the land cannot overcome shoddy customer service. Or lack of understanding that we’re all in this together.

Effective development requires a culture of philanthropy. A customer service and donor-centered approach that must be embraced by the entire organization. Otherwise, short-term transactional fundraising is conducted. Long-term transformational relationship building does not happen. People give to people. People who are there.

Effective development requires a relationship-focused approach that puts friendraising before fundraising. What happens when you get too busy, overwhelmed and stressed? I’ll bet you have little time for your friends. A development professional who has no time to make friends will do your organization little good.

Effective development requires an investment in people. Investing will increase your capacity to produce. Penny pinching will not. Nonprofits tend to be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to spending money to make money.  Plus, they too often have dysfunctional work environments that turn their employees into slaves.

Effective development requires operating more effectively so as not to leave money on the table. It’s not about giving fundraisers the cushy life. It’s about giving them the support, respect and satisfaction that will motivate them to work optimally.

Effective development requires letting staff play to their strengths. No one is good at everything. If you ask folks to multi-task ad nauseum (talk to donors, submit grant proposals, write press releases, run events, build your website, run mail merges, order supplies and take on “other tasks as assigned”) you’ll get a diluted mess. It’s not practical, and years of strength-based leadership research show that it simply doesn’t work over the long term.

If you relieve staff of tasks that they hate, you’ll get enhanced productivity [See Big Changes Help Hospital Attract More Big Gifts Much Faster]. This is a similar approach to the one taken by Gallup Strengths Finder, which has been used in businesses worldwide for some time.  The premise is that playing to people’s strengths is infinitely more productive than playing to their weaknesses.  It’s too common for organizations to have annual evaluations that pick out the ONE thing someone does not do well; then spend the majority of the conversation developing a plan to help them improve.  The reverse makes much more sense.  Have folks do more of what they’re naturally good at; less of what they’re not good at.

Folks who don’t work in nonprofits think nonprofit work is easy. It’s not. Nonprofit employees work hard.  The good ones have strong business skills (which they could easily apply to the for profit sector should they choose to do so). They also have families and expenses and deserve some time to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

I love the suggestion that having a more balanced life makes fundraisers better conversationalists and more interesting to donors. [see Penelope Burk’s comment in the Chronicle of Philanthropy]. What an excellent point! All work and no play makes “Dollar Divas” and “Money Machers” dull girls and boys. [See 7 Practical Ways to Play at Work, Feel Better and Achieve More and Why You May Be Dull at Work: What You Can Do to Change].

Philanthropy is a passionate business.  By beating down our fundraisers until they are too tired and frustrated to see clearly, we knock all the heart and soul out of them.  This is not good for people, or business.

What do you think?

If you’re the employer, how do you attract and keep good staff? If you’re the employee, what motivates you to stay put?

Photo: Flickr Alex Proimos

Opt In Image
Get Clairification via email and receive free fundraising and nonprofit marketing coaching you can use!

As an added BONUS, you’ll get my popular “Donor Thank Calls E-Book + Script” for free.

About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. Claire: This post like most you write is spot on! That’s because you “walk the talk.” One has to work in the fundraising vineyards (me, among many others) to appreciate the frustrations — and satisfactions too. The concern is that too few of the people (E.D.’s/CEO’s and Board members) who need to be shaken from complacent thinking are getting this message but instead continuing to dig deeper holes. The bright spots (you, the CompassPoint/Haas report, Dan Pallotta, etc.) are shining lights on these depths. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for the kind words David. I’ll endeavor to keep it up. :-)
      P.S. When I worked in the trenches, often the reason I’d bring in a consultant for a presentation was precisely for the reason you mention: to shake folks out of their complacent thinking. They wouldn’t listen to me when I worked there. But they’d listen to an outsider. Of course, you have to have a reason for bringing in the consultant. Sometimes I’d just ask my boss to have lunch with me and someone else to talk about how other organizations were doing something (e.g. marketing communications; volunteer management; development department structure; board development, etc.). It’s always good to get a reality check to see if you’re in the mainstream of what’s current — especially if you have a boss and/or board that likes to think of themselves as on the cutting edge. 😉
      claire Axelrad recently posted…Why a Good Nonprofit Fundraiser is hard to Keep: Support, Culture, Infrastructure – Part IIMy Profile

  2. Another excellent post, Claire, and, I think, a much more accurate analysis of why fundraisers leave than money. I would only add that one of the key problems with being “silo-ed” is that we may well get asked to raise money for programs or services which are un-fundable–at least in the short-term–or which would need to be significantly redefined and re-positioned to be so. But how many times have we been told that as “the development person” you have nothing to say about programming? And though you might think it would be different if you are also wearing the organization’s marketing hat, it frequently isn’t. Faced with a situation like this, it isn’t surprising that many fundraisers decide to move on. Being set up to fail—especially when it could have been avoided if you had been involved at the decision making stage—isn’t very rewarding.
    Chana recently posted…25th Anniversary Celebration InvitationMy Profile

    • So true, and an important perspective Chana. Being given the important voice at the table that is part and parcel of being effective as a passionate advocate for the cause is a key element of autonomy, respect and ultimate job satisfaction. You can’t sell what you don’t believe in [or worse, what you don’t even know about!]. And if you don’t really understand the why and wherefore (because you weren’t at the table when the program was being conceived) it’s a lot more difficult to be persuasive. I’ve found that sometimes a way to get around this is to offer to write case statements for all the key programs. In doing this, you absolutely must meet with the key program people. And you can ask them critical questions like: “What’s in this for the donor? How might they see the benefit?” In so doing, you show your value to folks. Hopefully, they then begin to bring you into their planning and decision-making meetings.[of course, it doesn’t always work; worth a try however].

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Direct, thoughtful, and spot on! Thanks, Claire.

  4. Great points made here – being valued, feeling like the whole organisation is pulling in the same direction and having the opportunity to shape/raise money for things that are actually fundable – all essential! There are never enough good fundraisers to go around so why would they stay in jobs where they can’t make a difference?

  5. Good for you, Claire, for addressing this issue and suggesting remedies. As a freelance writer who has worked exclusively with nonprofits for decades, I’ve witnessed many talented development executives feel frustrated, and sometimes angry, by unreasonable constraints. Let’s hope that management gets the message. A lot more depends on it than fundraisers’ job satisfaction.

    • From your lips to the ears of the entire social benefit sector. So much fundraiser turnover is a screaming symptom of a real problem. We need donor-investors to be able to build lasting relationships with us. They need to trust and like us. This is quite a challenge when we confront them with a revolving door of development staff. It’s not just the fundraisers we’re failing to support. It’s the donors as well. Thanks so much for your comment Matthew. Good to hear from you!


  1. […] the turnover rate for your fundraisers is concerning you, check out Why a Good Nonprofit Fundraiser is Hard to Keep: Support, Culture, Infrastructure by Claire […]

Speak Your Mind


CommentLuv badge