There is an interesting survey from the Chronicle of Philanthropy that suggests that half of all the 1,000 fundraisers surveyed in the US and Canada expect to leave their jobs in the next two years. More worryingly, 30% say that they recently left or plan to leave the fundraising field altogether in the next two years…
It’s a depressing picture, but the key reasons cited of too much pressure to meet unrealistic fundraising goals, coupled with too little pay, and frustrating organisational cultures are common themes that we hear here in the UK too.
Undoubtedly, it’s always been difficult to recruit and retain good fundraising talent, this is a profession that most people fall into rather than aspire to (myself included). In the UK, fundraising is rarely on the list of aspirational jobs for graduates and there is a lack of awareness of the benefits of such roles in our universities. Yet it still feels that we’re facing a crisis in fundraising talent that is unprecedented. At present, our fundraising agency, Cause4, is flooded with organisations seeking advice on hiring roles that have been difficult to fill, or with CEOs frustrated because their good fundraising hire has left before even seeing out 12 months, or with Chairs of Trustees that want better fundraising results and faster.
Undoubtedly, the charity sector is facing more competition for less available funds. Overall giving levels are depressingly stubborn in the UK, with the needle hardly changing over the last 10 years at about £10bn of household giving, despite many campaigns, initiatives and a government agenda to try and effect change. In this context, charities require their fundraising or, in other words, sales teams to be creative, tenacious and resilient – but perhaps that’s just too much to ask if charities are not prepared to provide the support needed to develop, retain and motivate key fundraising staff.
1) Too much pressure, too little appreciation
The reasons why retaining fundraisers is so problematic are complex and numerous. The survey shows that 84% of fundraisers said that they felt “tremendous pressure to succeed” in their role and 55 % said they “often feel unappreciated” in their work. If you couple these findings with fear of failure, or perhaps being “found out” if reaching targets is not going to plan, then you can easily see why fundraisers get itchy feet.
If we link this to the fact that there are also so many available fundraising roles in the charity sector, it’s very easy for fundraisers to job hop. Employers are often so desperate to fill fundraising roles that the levels of due diligence or care in understanding an individual’s career trajectory goes out of the window. For example, employers can be aware that the fundraiser they are about to hire has only stayed six months in their last three jobs, but they still go on to hire them. We can feed this culture of job hopping or try to understand it and provide more time and support for the staff that we currently employ. These short stays in fundraising teams do nothing for the sector, the reputation of fundraisers, or the crucial relationships with donors – we urgently need to break the cycle.
2) Feelings of isolation
The survey also shows that a significant number of fundraising professionals feel isolated and still struggle to get the help they need from their charity’s leaders, with many cited as unreasonably impatient for results: 36% of fundraisers said that they were dissatisfied with the support they got from their Boards, and 29% said that they were dissatisfied with the help received from the CEO.
But before we seek to fire the fundraiser for not getting results, we need to understand that building relationships with wealthy donors takes time. We also know that the most resilient fundraising charities involve the whole team in fundraising, from ‘front of house’ staff to Board.
When I worked in-house as a fundraiser it was often challenging, but I was lucky on the whole to have good support from both CEO and Board. I made myself accountable, but I also made the organisation accountable for targets – it was never just my problem, but a challenge I made sure was shared organisation-wide. This approach takes care, we need to build awareness of what the fundraisers’ job is, but also of the culture we need to develop for effective fundraising organisation-wide.
We see success in initiatives like the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Culture Change programme – not only because the training approach takes on organisations that are at a pivotal moment of change, but also because the programme requires the whole staff and Board to be part of the process. It’s only when you have an organisation looking its ‘whole’ self in the eye that you can effectively build fundraising practice.
3) Culture, culture, culture
Fundraisers often underestimate just what is needed to get people within the organisation on side. These roles require great political skills, influencing and persuading and that’s just within their organisation before we even think about funders and donors.
We need to do a better job of preparing fundraisers to navigate internal politics, to educate teams about fundraising and the roles they need to play. As I work with colleagues to plan senior leadership training in fundraising, our future plans require them to come with both CEO and Chair of Trustees. This is because we believe that it’s hopeless to upskill fundraising talent if their skills can’t be utilised due to poor support and culture internally.
4) Bemoaning an entire generation
And finally, we need to think carefully about the roles we are creating. The current graduates that I see that have the talent to become the Fundraising Directors of the future, are operating with very different expectations about how they want to work. The research is abundant about the employment requirements of millennials (those born in the early 1980s through to the mid-1990s). They just don’t want to work the 60 or 70 hours a week plus, that is the norm for a donor-driven Development Director. They want mission-driven work and work life balance. We can bemoan the snowflake generation, or fundamentally address the key issue that the jobs themselves are going to need to change.
As leaders of charities we have a responsibility to take charge of this crisis in fundraising talent. Organisations need to be thinking about how roles need to be structured to support fundraisers in the workplace, but also to think about how their own cultures and behaviours need to change and adapt. If we don’t, we’re facing a brain drain in charity fundraising talent that will prove impossible to replace.
Written by Michelle Wright, founder and CEO of Cause4