No Executive Director wants to hear this, but staff turnover is inevitable and their fund development staff likely won’t necessarily stay with their organization long-term. An Executive Director should be preparing for their Development Director’s exit, as they will most likely leave in a few short years. While an Executive Director wants someone to work with their organization for 5+ years, in reality, most will not. That’s a long time to commit to an organization because individual circumstances change. What if the philanthropic sector approached turnover of development staff much the same way that private sector industries prepare for turnover within their sales teams?
As every Executive Director has undoubtedly experienced, this turnover can be catastrophic, if not simply trying at best, for a nonprofit organization. Unlike in for-profit business, nonprofit organizations may grind to a halt when trying to fill gaps in senior leadership. Our sector doesn’t spend enough time developing a system to mitigate this unavoidable problem. This doesn’t have to be the norm. Spending a small number of hours planning for the inevitable will save organizations the headaches of less-than-smooth transitions.
Here are some tips for getting ahead of development staff turnover:
1. Don’t be afraid of hiring temporary staff.
Nonprofit organizations are afraid of relationships being developed with short-term staff because they fear they’ll lose those donors when temporary staff leave. However, your development staffer should be a conduit between your organization and donors. Development staffers are there to introduce the organization to donors, to close on contributions, and they should be quick to engage their colleagues with donors. There are companies filling this need. Such companies are uniquely positioned to be a stopgap solution for organizations in transitions. You’ll benefit from their experience while you look for a development staffer who is the right fit for your team long term.
2. Worry less about new donors
Every organization is interested in prospecting new donors. However, don’t forget about your existing donors, especially during this time of transition. The cost of losing existing donors most often exceeds the cost of retaining existing or lapsing donors. Foster your current relationship. Train them up as ambassadors. Inspire them to tell their friends. Create a contagion. There are so many organizational reasons for this; but for one, the fervor of voluntary ambassadors instills resilience in an organization.
3. Develop automated system for donor relations
Don’t forget about your donor management system. The most competitive systems can be used while traveling, from a mobile phone or other remote device. This is important because Development Staff are often traveling, meeting with donors. Donor management systems can set reminders, notate next steps, and help make sure donor relations aren’t falling through the cracks. This can provide a feedback loop for other teams in the organization, as well as monitor a fund development staffer’s progress. This also ensures your fundraisers leave a legacy behind when they transition away from your organization, and avoids keeping donor contacts solely in their InBox, notebooks, or worse…in their head.
4. Focus on selling impact
Your fund development staff should be a conduit. They should introduce the donor to the on-the-ground impact of the organization as well as to your program staff. A relationship solely between a development staff member and your donors is most often insufficient. This is particularly true with major gift contributors.
Whatever strategy an Executive Director takes, the important thing is that he or she has taken the time to address their strategy before staff turnover becomes a problem. This is especially true for organizations that run lean. The presence and absence of key staff persons is most noticed in smaller, more emergent organizations. Knowing what policies you may enact during times of transition will help cut that time and keep you focused on your mission.
Founder of Triad Resource Group, Lauren Dillon is a dynamic professional who has been serving faith-based and social enterprise groups in their fundraising efforts for over nine years. Dillon seeks to meet the specific fundraising needs of innovative organizations seeking to increase fundraising efficiencies. Her former roles as employee, consultant, and volunteer board member to nonprofits equips her with intimate understanding of the many challenges to donor development.