Remote, Hybrid Fundraising Teams Help Nonprofits Hire, Retain Top Talent
To be successful, groups need to encourage interaction among workers and help managers learn how to supervise employees they don’t see everyday.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, remote work has flourished in many organizations. As COVID wanted, some organizations returned to office, while others made permanent remote or hybrid work to provide their employees flexibility. With turnover among fundraisers high, and more than half of fundraisers in our recent survey saying its challenging filling open positions, offering flexibility through hybrid and remote work can help nonprofits both hire and retain fundraisers.
A recent poll of more than 1,741 advancement services and frontline advancement professionals found that 70 percent said the ability to work remote or hybrid was one of top three factors in evaluating a position. Only 6 percent of respondents said this was not important. Additionally, research shows that employees see the ability to have flexible schedules as the
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When Rhonda Clay heads to work in the morning, she grabs a cup of coffee, says goodbye to her husband in the kitchen, and walks up the stairs to her home office. Then she calls down to him, “I made it safe to work!”
The running joke is something Clay, who has spent much of her career in development, enjoys as part of her remote-work routine. She loves the part of her job that involves interacting with donors and sharing the mission of her organization. What she doesn’t love are long commutes and sitting in a noisy office with unscheduled interruptions doing work she could do at her home office, or outside in a park, for that matter.
Clay is one of a growing number of fundraisers who work in a remote or hybrid environment. The pandemic forced many to go remote for the first time, and some nonprofits saw the advantages of giving fundraisers more flexibility. With turnover among fundraisers high — more than half of fundraisers in our recent exclusive survey said it’s challenging to fill open positions — offering the option of hybrid and remote work can help nonprofits both hire and retain fundraisers.
In a recent poll of more than 1,741 advancement services and front-line advancement professionals, 70 percent said the ability to work remote or hybrid was one of their top three criteria for evaluating a position. Only 6 percent said that being able to work from home was unimportant. What’s more, employees see flexible schedules as the equivalent of an 8 percent pay raise, according to recent research — nothing to sneeze at in a competitive job market.
With this in mind, many nonprofit development teams are thinking about transitioning to remote or hybrid. The stakes are high: If fundraising departments don’t get remote and hybrid work right, they risk losing fundraisers to other organizations, major donors will likely feel neglected amid staff turnover, and the organization will lose out on contributions.
The Chronicle spoke with fundraisers at organizations that have already made the switch and other experts. They told us that a successful transition to remote and hybrid work depends on a thoughtful approach to being intentional about the culture of the organization and how best to manage staff in this new environment. When done correctly, remote development teams have the potential to improve fundraiser engagement and retention and better connect with donors.
Organizational Culture Is Critical
Unlike many nonprofit positions, fundraising is a job that is well-suited to remote work. While the transition might seem like a simple policy change, it requires important shifts in the organization’s culture, according to fundraisers who have done it. (Nonprofits are also getting creative to offer greater flexibility and other benefits to employees whose work has to be done in-person.)
Training for managers is critical, says Julie Featherstone, senior associate vice president of advancement operations at the University of Virginia. The university’s development department has opted for a combination of remote and hybrid work.
The employees can’t “mind-read what we want from them,” she says. “The focus of our work in making this remote operation successful [has] been manager training and setting expectations and clear guidelines for our staff.”
UVA’s advancement team has no weekly in-office requirements, but it still has offices on campus for staff members who want to use them. On any given day, she says, 15 to 20 people come in to use the space. Team members are required to come to campus for specific training days during the year.
To make hybrid and remote work, organizations have to understand what they’re measuring. Studies on remote workers’ productivity varies: Some suggest productivity declines, while others suggest productivity increases.
A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that remote workers were more productive than those in the office, however managers evaluated employee performance based on who they saw regularly, not productivity data. Featherstone says that’s not how things should work, especially because fundraising naturally has a variety of data points — from donor visits to dollars raised — that can be used to measure.
“Our business has always been accountability-driven by the fact that we raise money,” Featherstone says. “We engage our alumni, parents, and friends. We have [key performance indicators] around all that we do.”
Another key to successful remote work is creating a cohesive culture by setting aside time and space for staff to get together and talk. The nonprofit iMentor, which pairs mentors with high school students to help them complete college, works on a hybrid schedule that includes two days a week in the office. The organization chose Monday as an all-staff day where everyone is in the office. Because direct-service staff who coordinate mentoring are often on-site at a school later in the week, Mondays allows fundraisers like Katie Longofono a chance to find out what’s happening in the field.
“It’s been helpful to have that in-person time to do drive-by chats and just poke over and ask some questions,” says Longofono, associate director for national development.
While scheduling time together can be helpful for cohesion, too much of a good thing isn’t always helpful. “At the beginning, we were trying to do a lot of really scheduled, scripted engagements for our time together in office, which makes sense because we wanted to make sure it felt like a good use of people’s time and they were getting something out of being in-office,” Longofono says. “We realized we were almost overly scripting it. So we had to pivot.”
Now, the organization arranges fewer scheduled all-staff meetings on days in the office, leaving more time to book ad-hoc meetings needed to collaborate.
Coffee Chats Boost Cohesion
If organizations take a laissez-faire approach to remote work, things could go awry, with fundraisers feeling disconnected from colleagues and the work. That’s why it’s crucial to foster connections in hybrid and remote environments, say the remote-work veterans who spoke to the Chronicle.
It helps the culture of the organization when staff members discuss an array of things — just like they would when co-workers wait for the microwave in the office kitchen. At iMentor, leaders encourage “coffee chats,” where staff ping a colleague for an informal chat during the day — these can happen online on at-home days or in-person if both employees are at the office.
Clay, the major-gifts fundraiser, has done the same thing at previous remote fundraising jobs.
“The coffee meetings that I established were just for camaraderie, that watercooler talk,” says Clay, who now works as the director of major gifts at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, noting she scheduled half-hour virtual coffee meetings weekly to chat with others. “We didn’t necessarily use the entire 30 minutes. We didn’t necessarily talk about business. We talked about family, kids, whatever, just to keep us together.”
Over time, remote work can change a nonprofit’s culture by making it more egalitarian.
Over time, remote work can change organizational culture by making it more egalitarian, says Venus Devnani, executive vice president of American Jewish World Service. If staff aren’t meeting in-person all the time, there’s less hierarchical thinking, and people are often more candid.
“Zoom has had an equalizing effect,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who I am in the organization, where I sit, what level I am, I am the same-sized box as the next person.”
For organizations that are fully remote, bringing everyone together once or twice a year can help with team cohesion. At UVA, about a quarter of the 275-person advancement team lives outside the Charlottesville metro area. Everyone comes together on campus twice a year. The benefits are two-fold. The gatherings help the team stay connected, and non-locals become more familiar with the grounds so they can better communicate with alumni and supporters who remember the campus fondly.
“It provides that foundational interaction,” says Cindy Fredrick, senior associate vice president in UVA’s office of engagement. “We do interpersonal work, we do program development, program goals.”
Devnani’s organization does something similar, bringing the staff together annually. “We have a really incredible program to help us be in community with each other and really focus on the mission,” she says.
Remote Fundraisers Still Make In-Person Connections
One of the biggest fears when organizations go remote is that personal connections and sense of community will be lost. But fundraising is based on relationships: Eliminating in-person contact would be catastrophic.
“We don’t want there to be any impact for donors,” Devnani says. “We want donors to experience more-balanced employees who are stewarding them and have greater flexibility and happiness and fulfillment in life.”
Remote and hybrid fundraisers all say they still meet with donors in person and attend events. It’s just the time that they’re not making in-person connections, they’re not having to come into the office to do that work.
Clay, with the Lutheran Ministries, covers donors in multiple states and travels to see them on a regular basis. She notes that in the age of Zoom, donors have multiple ways they want to stay in touch with the nonprofits they support.
“My donors tend to be older; they still like the face-to-face,” she says. “But I do have some younger donors who don’t want to see me. They want a Teams [videoconferencing] meeting. So, make sure you’re doing your asks in a way that resonates with your donor.”
Having remote staff has changed the way the University of Virginia stewards donors — in a good way.
The university has 275,000 alumni around the world, and they can’t all get back to Charlottesville regularly, says Fredrick, in the alumni engagement office. “Remote work has allowed us to think about our constituents in a different way,” she says. “It has been a way for us to be much more inclusive in programming.”
Being a good, engaged alumnus no longer requires coming back to campus. Having advancement staff around the country allows for small get-togethers of interested alumni where they live. “Our best work,” Fredrick says, “is when we go and meet the constituents where they are instead of forcing them to come where we are.”
Recruitment and Retention are Key Benefits
Employees who work hybrid or remote often love it. In polls, the top benefits are often the lack of a commute, the need to buy fewer work clothes, and savings on other daily expenses associated with going into the office. Recent research found that remote workers saved as much as $31 per day.
Remote work opens up a larger pool of potential employees. Just be ready for more résumés.
“People like having the ability to work remotely, and for nonprofit employers that can do that, it actually opens up a much larger pool of potential staff members,” says Rick Cohen, chief operating officer at the National Council on Nonprofits. “They don’t have to be the best person who lives within a 10-mile radius. They can have employees from across the country.”
When done well, remote and hybrid work reduce turnover and make hiring easier.
“We’ve seen candidates choose to go to more organizations that are remote or hybrid first versus those that aren’t,” says Tracye Weeks, managing director for strategy and advisory at Nonprofit HR. “We’ve seen candidates not take salaries that are higher based on the options for remote work and work from anywhere. So, it has had a positive impact on retention in nonprofits.”
One case in point is Clay, who recently spent less than two years working as a fundraiser at an organization that didn’t allow remote work. Clay took that job because she needed a paycheck, but she was always on the lookout for fully remote work — and left when she found a position that was a good fit.
For UVA, the results on retention and hiring have been significant. “Turnover was a huge problem,” Featherstone says. “We were running, at some point, vacancy rates as high as 30 percent.” Now, after moving to a remote/hybrid schedule, they have 10 percent turnover.
Findings from staff surveys tell the story, Featherstone says. This summer, the survey asked staff whether being able to work remotely factored into their decision to work there. Fifty-one percent said “it is essential to my ongoing employment,” and an additional 36 percent said it was “important.” That’s nearly 90 percent of development employees who said the ability to work remote is important or essential to staying at UVA.
One disadvantage of remote jobs is it makes the hiring process take longer because more candidates apply.
“We’re getting three to four times the number of applicants for one position,” Fredrick says. “So we have to spend more time being thoughtful. How do we review résumés? What are we looking for?”
The good news is that they have many qualified applicants to choose from, and the university has been able to diversify its staff. Once hired, fundraisers are staying.
“We are retaining top talent,” Fredrick says. “In the past, if someone needed to move for whatever reason, we would lose good talent. And now that’s not a consideration.”
Long tenure and deep relationships are the foundation of development success, Fredrick says. “That is going to be able to help us fundraise more,” she says. “It’s going to help us engage more because we’re going to have longer-term relationships with our constituents.”
Clarification (Nov. 20, 2023, 8:55 a.m.): This article has been updated to clarify that the University of Virginia advancement team requires staff to come to the office at specific times for training.