The Holy Grail of Development

According to Penelope Burk of Cygnus Applied Research the average amount of time a fundraiser stays at his or her job is 16 months. The direct and indirect costs of finding a replacement are $127,650, more than most development directors earn annually. This is pretty depressing (unless you are a development director, as it means that there is a lot of work out there for you).  Worse, while turnover rates for fundraisers have always been high, tenure in a job seems to be losing ground.  When I was an on-the-ground fundraiser the average was 18 months.

Burk posits lots of reasons for this high turnover.  Money, however, tops her list.  I’m not so sure.  If money was the big motivator, most development directors would not work in the nonprofit sector. It’s not that a fair compensation doesn’t count—it does, but it is not the only or even the major reason.  In 2005, Leigh Ribenbark wrote a book (The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave) and noted that about 90% of departing employees leave because they have issues with “Job, manager, culture or work environment.”  Interestingly, Ribenbark also found that an equal percent (90) of managers believed their employees leaving or staying was based solely on salary.

Based on almost 30 years of being, managing, working with and coaching development officers, I would say that most leave in search of the holy grail—the ability to do the job they thought they were hired to do.

For most fundraisers, unless you work in a large organization with a robust development staff, the resources available to you are scant indeed.  Rather than the heady experience of matching excited donors with a cause or program that matters to them, most development directors director themselves only and spend more than 80% of their time on pretty mundane administrative duties.

Hiring committees regularly look for a “people person,” and yet most development directors I know rarely get out from behind their desks.

Worse than being stuck is the disconnect between demands and resources and the expectations for development.  Many development directors find that they are given a lot of non-fundraising responsibilities—and then taken to task for not raising funds.

“It’s frustrating,” one development director who wants to remain anonymous told me.  “The organization is so close to closing its doors, but I have so many other things to do I never get to fundraise.  That’s bad enough.  But I’m not practicing what I know or learning new skills.  If I stay here much longer I won’t be able to market myself as a successful fundraiser.  What am I saying?  Successful?  How about ‘as a fundraiser’ period?”

As you might expect, this development director is on her way out the door.

Keeping fundraising staff—like keeping any staff—starts before they begin.  Hiring the right person is critical.  But even before you start looking for that person, make sure you are clear about what the job will be.  Think about the tasks you want this person to perform, and the outcomes you want at the end of 6 weeks, 6 months, a year.

Fundraising is a very broad term;  development and advancement cover even broader ground.  Don’t look to hire a development director if all you want is someone to write grants or put on two special events per year.  Hire a grant writer or a special events person.  You’ll both be happier.  Ditto if you want this person to spend half time as operations manager.  The two areas of responsibility are not compatible and one or the other will suffer.

Clarity about the job you want done will help you to hire the right person, and the right person may very stay long beyond 16 months.

Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations helping them to increase fundraising capacity.   Find out more at