Wait a minute, let’s raise the bar: What makes a great fundraiser?
For the sake of this discussion, we will focus on those in the profession who are on the front lines of making one-on-one solicitations. They’re raising support from the individual philanthropists who account for about 70% of America’s nearly $500 billion annual philanthropic enterprises. No matter the title — development director, development officer, major gift officer, rainmaker, etc., they share skill sets, passion, and grit that culminate in the development of significant sums of private resources.
While not exhaustive, here are some traits I believe make a successful fundraiser:
Before we dig deeper into these characteristics, let’s provide context on the talent drain and shortages facing nonprofits.
According to an Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) study, half of the development directors expect to leave their current jobs in less than two years. As many as 30% are not sure they will remain in the profession.
A simple explanation: Too much aggravation and stress for too little reward. The smaller the nonprofit, the greater the pressure and the less the reward. Don’t forget that the overwhelming majority of America’s 1.5 million nonprofits are smaller. 88% have annual budgets of $500,000 or less. In an environment where the rich get richer — both staff-wise and organization-wise — there is a significant demand for proven development professionals, particularly major gift officers who have shown results in securing leadership gifts of five-, six- and seven-digits. The larger nonprofits can pay handsomely and do land such talented individuals.
Now that we’ve tried to define the DNA of great fundraisers, how do we keep them at our nonprofits longer than 18 to 24 months (an average tenure for the development officer)?
For sure, salaries must be competitive, but the same AFP research indicates that this isn’t just about the money.
(a) Strong two-way communication. Fundraisers know they are heard and recognized for their accomplishments and invited to provide input on areas outside of fundraising.
(b) Work-life balance has evolved into work-life integration since the beginning of the pandemic, with so many of us working remotely from our homes. Fundraisers often have events claiming their evenings and weekends and deserve the flexibility to meet the needs of loved ones that might come up during the traditional work week.
(c) Heart-to-heart discussion on a career path and growth opportunities. Professional development and robust interaction with peers are strongly supported. What are the options to move up? I am far from unbiased, but I fiercely believe that with some management training, development officers are well-suited to take on CEO or Executive Director’s responsibilities.
Losing a good fundraiser doesn’t make any sense. Experts estimate the cost of replacing, training, and transitioning new staff is well above the $100,000 level. Even more severe is the loss of relationship capital. Your top donors enjoy working with people that thoroughly know and appreciate their stories, preferences, and interests. Working with a new staff member can be a disappointment and loosen the emotional bond with the nonprofit.
Search and recruit development officers with a heightened sense of purpose. Work hard to orient them to the organizational culture and make every effort to keep them on board. Do all these steps with spirit, and the return on investment for your cause will be better than ever.
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