News and analysis
January 13, 2013

Half of Fundraisers in the Top Job Would Like to Quit

Dissatisfaction Among Fundraisers Blamed on CEO’s

One in four nonprofit leaders is so disappointed in fundraising at his or her organization that the last person in the job was fired, according to a new national study to be released this week. And milder frustration is rampant: One in three executives is at best lukewarm about the person now holding the top development job.

But chief fundraisers have their own complaints about CEO’s, boards, and the support their organizations have given them. As a result, many of them are looking to leave their jobs—or possibly leave fundraising altogether, the survey found.

The study, one of the biggest national surveys of its kind, gathered data from more than 2,700 development directors and charity heads who work at organizations of different sizes and missions. Among the key findings:

• Half of the chief fundraisers plan to leave their jobs within two years or less. Forty percent are thinking about leaving fundraising entirely.

• More than half of the executive directors reported that they can’t find well-qualified people to run their fundraising staffs.

• At many nonprofits, the position of development director has been vacant for months—or even years.

While nonprofit leaders have long regarded the “revolving door” phenomenon among development directors as a staffing problem, the survey points to something more troublesome, says Marla Cornelius, a senior project director at Compass Point Nonprofit Services and co-author of the study, conducted with the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

“Too many organizations lack a culture of philanthropy, which means that development directors don’t have the conditions they need to succeed,” she says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Charity Leaders Faulted

The blame for such high levels of dissatisfaction among fundraisers must be pinned squarely on charity leaders, says Robbe Healey, a member of the board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals who served as a research adviser for the study.

“The reason that organizations have a hard time keeping competent development staff is that too many nonprofit leaders don’t understand fund-raising,” says Ms. Healey, vice president of philanthropy at Simpson Senior Services, a nonprofit retirement community. “A skilled and experienced development director is not going to hook their reputation to your lack of readiness.”

A Quality Shortage

But talented fundraisers, the survey indicates, can take a long time for organizations to find. At organizations reporting the lack of a development director, the spot had been vacant for a median of six months.

Mary Denton, executive director of Sunny Hills Services, a child-welfare organization in San Anselmo, Calif., says she spent four months last year searching for a development director.

No candidates seemed to have experience in all of the fundraising activities that Sunny Hills requires, including special events, grant seeking, and attracting major donors. “It’s a challenging spot to fill,” says Ms. Denton.

She ultimately found someone whom she describes as ideal—but it happened only by chance. Janet Wilkes, who started in the position last May, had been taking a break from her fundraising career when she discovered Ms. Denton’s group while searching for a golf course by the same name. Ms. Wilkes sent in her résumé on a lark—and got the job.

Such a happy ending may be unusual, though. One in four executives told the survey that his or her development director lacked key fundraising skills.

Part of a Team

Such high levels of dissatisfaction with fundraisers may stem at least in part from a perception problem among charity leaders.

“If the entirety of your fundraising operation comes down to a single individual, there is no way you’re going to be satisfied with his or her performance,” says Ms. Cornelius.

Pilar Gonzales, director of philanthropic partnerships at the International Development Exchange, says that too many CEO’s expect fundraisers to embody contradictory traits.

“They want someone bold and assertive enough to be good at asking for money, but also able to sit quietly for hours to write a grant,” says Ms. Gonzales. “Those are actually different kinds of fundraisers.”

The organizations identified in the study as “high performing” are far more likely to define fundraising not as a solo position for which a single individual is responsible but as a team enterprise involving the entire organization. (The study defines high performers as charities that rate their overall fundraising program as very effective, and have created a broad and loyal pool of donors.)

“When you look at the difference between organizations that are successful at fundraising and those that are failing, institutional embrace is really the key difference,” says Ms. Healey.

Over the past 10 years, the fundraising department at the Perkins School for the Blind has crossed from one side of the divide to the other.

What was once a small, relatively isolated unit is now seen as key to the charity’s overall mission.

“Perkins has come to regard philanthropy as essential,” says Kathleen Sheehan, executive director of the Perkins Trust, which just completed a seven-year, $130-million fundraising campaign. “We feel valued as a department, which means that our development staff feel more rewarded professionally.”

All Aboard

Charities that succeed at fundraising differ from those that struggle in one key way, according to William Sturtevant, a senior fundraiser at the University of Illinois Foundation: Their leaders are deeply involved in raising money.

“It isn’t just the executives who need to be engaged in fundraising, but the board members too. That’s profoundly important,” says Mr. Sturtevant, who also works as a consultant to other charities.

But while CEO’s in the survey would seem to share his view that boards play an important role in fundraising, many think their boards are not doing enough to help raise money..

Seventy-five percent of the executive directors said their trustees were insufficiently involved in raising money for their charities. Thirty-six percent said their boards had no fundraising committees, and 17 percent of CEO’s said their boards had no involvement in fundraising at all.

“If someone joins a board and philanthropy isn’t seen as part of his or her role, that’s a very difficult thing to change,” says Heather Malin, director of institutional advancement at the Cancer Research Institute. And even boards with active fundraising committees may not share a deep commitment to helping the charity raise money.

“Too often boards associate development with desperation and with having to give money themselves,” says Ms. Malin.

Changing Culture

Charity leaders, the study concluded, need to take steps to improve the conditions that have led them to hire too many underqualified fundraisers who deliver disappointing performance and then either bolt or are pushed out the door.

“When you start to address the areas that need help—support for fund-raising, board engagement—you not only create the conditions for success, but you make your organization a much more attractive place to work,” says Ms. Cornelius.

Among the study’s calls for action:

• Elevate the fundraising profession by promoting it as a rewarding career, and one that plays a central role in helping charities create social change.

• Strengthen and diversify the talent pool, especially by recruiting more minorities and young people.

• Train board members more thoroughly, emphasizing partnerships with the charity’s executives as well as nuts-and-bolts fundraising skills.

• Spread accountability for fundraising throughout the organization.

• Encourage grant makers to help charities build their fund-raising leadership, such as by offering guidance when a development director leaves.

Linda Wood, senior director of leadership and grant making at the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, says her group sees helping charities cultivate stronger fundraising talent as part of its mission to effect social change.

“We hope the study will jump-start a national conversation about how we all can help organizations be more successful getting the funding they need to reach their goals,” says Ms. Wood.

Ms. Malin, of the Cancer Research Institute, believes changes like those proposed in the study can’t come soon enough.

“Whether a development director succeeds or fails often comes down to decisions that are made by the leadership of an organization,” she says. “But when you set up development to be successful, you set up the whole organization to succeed.”

The report, “Under Developed: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising,” is available free on the CompassPoint Web site.