Fight of the Fund-Raisers! Part One

A development director, new on the job, finds three envelopes in her desk drawer, left by her predecessor.  The envelopes read, “open at the end of year one, year two, and year three”, respectively. At the end of year one she opens the first envelope as instructed. Inside, the message reads, “Blame the Economy.” As the second year concludes, she opens the next envelope and it reads, “Blame the Marketing Department.” After three years she opens the final envelope, which contains the message. “Prepare Three Envelopes.”

For many development directors, this hits close to home, as recently reported in The Chronicle of Philanthropy's article, “Half of Fundraisers in Top Job Want To Quit”.

The truth is that more fund-raisers than ever before want out of their current job – or out of the business altogether.  The average stay in a fundraising position is now 18-24 months.  The reasons are varied but usually boil down to one sentiment – fundraising has become a “no win” situation. With this mindset, reaching goals is irrelevant because the Chief Development Officer (CDO) is resigned to the idea that, “even a win isn’t a win”.  So they dream of moving on, either looking for a greener philanthropic pasture or leaving the profession completely. 

As a company that partners with arts organizations across the country, RSC is a regular witness to CDO turnover, as we are often engaged as “interim staff” during these all-too-frequent transitions. Sadly, the issues leading up to “fundraiser flight” have been in force for at least a decade with no signs of them being effectively addressed.

This is an industry-wide phenomenon – and one the arts have a particularly tough time competing in because of the competition for talent.  Every non-profit needs a top-notch fundraising staff, but, as we know, some organizations (and industries) can simply out pay others. Yet, salaries for CDO’s have increased steadily over the past decade in nearly all industries, including the arts, so shouldn’t money solve the “retention” problem? Well, no, because salary isn’t the real problem. 

When it comes to fundraising in the arts, hiring the right “fit”, setting the right expectations, and engaging an entire team are most often overlooked in lieu of the desire to fill the open slot quickly.  Beyond wanting “someone who can ask for money”, many organizations don’t know what type of development director they need, and therefore don’t know how to engage and keep them productive.  When this happens, there are some familiar results:

  • Leadership in the institution (staff and volunteer) relinquishes (foists) all fundraising responsibilities to the new CDO. Once the hire is made, the new CDO is often expected to be the chief fundraiser, strategist, letter writer, relationship builder and event planner, just to name a few. You may see a busy fund-raiser, but they’ll burn out very quickly in this scenario.
  • Fundraising goals are in flux to bridge other organizational shortcomings. The CDO is not a bank or an ATM machine. If an organization has budget overages or income shortfalls, the worst mistake it can make is to rely on fundraising to close the gap in the final moments of a fiscal year.  Using philanthropy as an institutional line of credit is nearly always a losing proposition.
  • Believing that hiring a CDO is the final step of investment. Securing the right staff leadership is the first step towards success, not the last.  Your CDO may have to build a staff.  Or hire a consultant. Or engage a vendor to expand the base of support.  Or invest in any number of things that creates an environment for successful fundraising.  Hiring a pilot without a plane, fuel, runway and flight plan won’t take you very far – and a great person who is not properly resourced won’t last long.

So, how does an organization really stop the revolving door of development directors, and how do they get a quality team member who will stay, produce and flourish for a long time?  RSC will give some thoughts on that in our next blog article.

In the meantime, you can contact RSC by clicking here to learn more about our services to arts and cultural organizations and how we can help you achieve Fundraising GrowthNow!

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