4 Keys to Retaining Fundraising Talent in a Hot Job Market

We’re in the midst of a moment of dramatic change across American life as people in all industries are quitting their jobs at record numbers.

That’s creating significant problems for many employers, including many nonprofit institutions’ fundraising teams. The Great Resignation phenomenon only intensifies an already-challenging situation as many fundraising teams struggled to maintain staff even before the pandemic. For example, a 2019 survey found half of all fundraisers expected to leave their jobs within the next two years.

There’s a real cost to that turnover. Our industry is built around relationships, which makes talent retention—particularly among frontline fundraisers—incredibly important because it creates a sense of continuity with donors. It also helps foster a positive workplace culture.

As two fundraising leaders who have extensive experience managing teams—and who both recently left our fundraising jobs during the Great Resignation—we’ve accumulated lessons from both our successes and struggles to retain staff. Here’s where to start.

1. Be a mentor from day one

Both of us have always tried to start mentorship or coaching conversations on the day that we add new members to our team. We start by discussing their future growth plans, which can be as simple as asking them what type of role they would like to have in the next three to five years. That enables us to prepare them for that goal regardless of whether they can achieve that objective at our institution or if they’ll have to go elsewhere to reach that goal.

For example, I (Jarel) had a development coordinator who wanted to move into corporation and foundation work. I was able to give them stretch projects that incorporated some of the types of work they’d oversee in that type of position. Our organization had a smaller fundraising event six months out, and I let them take the lead on securing sponsors for the event. I talked through a project plan with them and built in checkpoints along the way to ensure that they were successful (and that I wouldn’t have to answer to why our sponsors weren’t where they needed to be).

We know all too well the importance of mentorship—and how the lack of mentorship can hinder your career path. For example, early on in my career I (Colin) was seeking guidance from my boss when I mentioned a job opportunity that I was interested in. While I was hoping for his perspective, he made me persona non grata after I mentioned the possibility of leaving the organization. That’s an experience that I hope my teams never experience. Instead, I want to provide my team the mentorship and coaching that I was looking for by helping them develop their skills and build their experience.

For more experienced team members, I ask the question, “How I can prepare you to take over for me?” They might even answer, I don’t want to do your job, which can be illuminating and help frame future discussions and growth plans.

2. Be transparent (and understanding)

This starts in the interview process, where it is incredibly important to set expectations. For example, if the person I’m interviewing only wants to work remotely and my university has a hybrid model where they need to be in the office three days a week, I (Jarel) need to make that clear as soon as possible.

Transparency carries through in our conversations throughout the team member’s tenure so that they know I’m not keeping vital information from them.

This focus has been particularly important during the pandemic when team members have been going through any number of external challenges. I (Colin) have sought to be as vulnerable and transparent as possible with my team by sharing when I was experiencing challenges as well. For example, when my air conditioning died during the first COVID wave, I frankly acknowledged the situation and how I had to deal with workers coming in and out of my apartment during my Zoom calls.

That helped me demonstrate that I understood that everyone was facing their own unique challenges and whatever people were going through was OK—even if it meant that you had to wear a T-shirt or had to be off camera for a meeting. Given the challenges that we’ve all faced throughout the past two years, it has been important to emphasize to our teams that we understand that these are not normal times, and we are here to help.

3. Check in regularly

Regular, candid conversations help ensure that you don’t learn of issues that could have been addressed during an employee’s exit interview. We believe keeping that time sacred—as best as you can—can demonstrate to your team that you value the check-ins.

These check-ins can take many forms. I (Jarel) had a relatively young team in a previous job and so I found it helpful to develop a document to guide our conversations. The first part asked them to rate how they felt about their week on a one to five scale. I’d use their answers to open our conversation. Sometimes, if someone put themselves down as five, but in person I could see they were not a five. I could explore what was going (that nonverbal communication was definitely harder to read when we shifted to remote work).

The second part of the document asked if anything happened this week that enhanced our working relationship or hurt it? The document helped me identify my own missteps. For example, one time I called on a team member to address everyone during an all-staff meeting. I hadn’t realized that she had felt put on the spot. By providing a forum to discuss it, we were able to talk though how I could have prepared her to speak during the meeting. That conversation stemmed from my investment in these meetings. They helped make her more comfortable sharing in an open and honest way.

4. Help them grow and acquire new skills

Most team members want to grow and challenge themselves. That’s why we find opportunities to give them stretch projects.

That said, it’s important to ensure that we set them up for success by scheduling regular check-ins to keep in line with expectations.

At the same time, I (Colin) typically pre-discuss with my supervisor to note that there’s some risk in letting this team member handle this project. But noting that we’re trying to grow our team’s skills and if we get an outcome different from our expectation, we can still consider that a win and learning opportunity.

Those stretch projects help give them the tools they need to progress in their career, which is an obvious objective for many members of our teams. We generally think of promotions in terms of three-year cycles. The first year you learn the job, the second year you do the job, the third year you innovate. Once you get to the innovation phase, you can talk about the next step. We’ve found that it’s helpful to make the steps necessary to advance as clear as possible so that they understand what’s expected of them.

When vacancies do arise, we evaluate the position’s job description before we rehire for it. We ask questions such as does this position need to be filled? Does it need to be rethought? Is there anything in this job’s portfolio that someone else might want to try or add to their portfolio or that might fit better somewhere else? Then we look internally to see if anyone might be interested. That helps keep people feel engaged in a meaningful way.

It’s also important to think about/support/advance the best fundraisers without requiring them to manage people. After all, when I (Colin) think about frontline fundraisers, I like to think about the specific value they bring to the organization and how that can be amplified without needing to add a people management component. There are several ways to do so. Here are a few examples:

  • Move the fundraiser into a territory with more high-value donors
  • Add an international segment to their portfolio if your organization has a need
  • Include them on senior leadership assignments when your organization’s top leaders need a staff member assigned
  • Add a board liaison assignment

These approaches engage this fundraiser and leverage their full capacity without encumbering them with people management but give them new tasks that help them grow their skill sets and comfort level as a fundraiser and representative for your organization.
These practices are particularly important in this current moment. But their objective—to build a healthier, happier, more productive workplace—is important all the time.

Institutions that find ways to ensure their teams are fulfilled are more likely to counteract our broader industrywide trends by retaining their teams. That should provide the added benefit of helping deepen relationships—with donors and other members of the team. 

If you need assistance with your fundraising strategy amid the current moment, contact Colin Hennessy at CHennessy@grenzglier.com or Jarel Loveless at JLoveless@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Jarel Loveless

Vice President

Jarel Loveless, Vice President, offers expertise in corporate fundraising strategy, major gifts, donor stewardship, and board development and management. As the Chief Development Officer for Annie Malone Children Family and Services, Jarel oversaw a fundraising team that was responsible for securing a $2.8 million gift – the largest in the…