October 15, 2018

The Top 10 Reasons Good Fundraisers Leave Organizations They Care About

By Jonathan McIntosh, Nonprofit Recruiter


“I would take a pay cut.” Her statement felt almost like a confession. “Jonathan, if I could work under healthy leadership, I would be willing to take a cut in pay.”

I was on the phone with another fantastic fundraiser who was all but done with her current situation and wanted out. She loved the organization she served and believed deeply in its mission. She was making more money than she ever had in her life and was enjoying a lot of success with donors. So, why was she so desperate to get out?

As a nonprofit recruiter, I get to speak with hundreds (okay, maybe dozens) of fundraisers every month and many of those conversations have common threads. I want to highlight what I hear are the top reasons besides compensation that good fundraisers leave the organizations they care deeply about.

  1. “My EVP/ Executive Director/ Board doesn’t value, or ‘get’ fundraising.”

While many nonprofit leaders give lip service to the idea that donors are the lifeblood of an organization, some internally feel “icky” about asking people for money, and that comes out in their leadership. Many don’t understand that fundraising is the responsibility of every high-ranking leader and Board member in the organization. Some are even afraid of or secretly resent wealthy individuals.

Fix: if you are in leadership in a nonprofit organization (whether in Development or not), you owe it to yourself and the organization to educate yourself about fundraising. There are many great books out there. Share your favorites in the comments below.

  1. “My boss wants me at my desk all the time.”

Nonprofit leaders who fail to understand fundraising tend to think wrongly that being at your desk = working hard. Healthy leaders know that fundraising work is people work. Stop thinking archaically about work outputs and start measuring donor conversations and donor visits instead of hours in the office.

Fix: do what you can to encourage your development staff to get out of the office and meet with donors (and make sure they have the discretionary budget to do so.)

  1. “I don’t feel valued or recognized for my contributions.”

Unfortunately, I hear a lot of stories about a supervisor taking credit for the dollars that a fundraiser on their team busted their butt to get in the door. Did you come in at the end to make the close? That’s fine, but recognize who had been cultivating that donor for months or even years up to that point.

Fix: good fundraisers (like good salespeople) are internally motivated and can often be competitive. They love to win. Figure out a way to incentivize them and recognize them appropriately for their hard work.

  1. “They only want the senior leader or figurehead to make asks.”

Of course, the most visible or known leader in any organization is going to be the org’s chief asset in fundraising, but young leaders want a shot at making asks too. “They hired me because I’m good with donors,” one fundraiser lamented. “Why won’t they let me do my job?”

Fix: set your best donor-facing fundraisers free to do what they do best. Seasoned leaders need to take donor visits with younger leaders and move from “I do, you watch,” to “you do, and I celebrate.”

  1. “There’s no clear trajectory for advancement here.”

Good development professionals are not just concerned about the organizations they serve or their annual goals. They should also have a healthy concern for their overall career trajectory. I speak to many who feel like they only serve as a fundraising monkey and are shut out of larger conversations about the organization’s health, strategy, and goals. To use the line from Hamilton, they want to be “in the room where it happens.”

Fix: sit down with your direct reports and ask them about their own career goals. If there is a development leader on your staff who has demonstrated loyalty and acumen, reward that by looking for ways to give them opportunities for more input and responsibility.

  1. “My supervisor or Board has unrealistic expectations for year one.”

Experienced development professionals know that good fundraising is relational, not transactional. And simply put, relationships take time to cultivate. We intentionally use a gardening word for what good fundraisers do. To cultivate is to patiently prepare the land so that it yields a crop in due time. Fruit takes time. Relationships take time. And to put it bluntly, big money takes time.

Fix: especially if a gift officer is building (or rebuilding) a portfolio, adjust your expectations for what can be accomplished in the first year. Measure and incentivize based on metrics other than dollars accrued, like number of donor visits, and the content/quality of those conversations.

  1. “My supervisor keeps changing goals and expectations on me.”

An ever-changing goal is a sign of erratic leadership and frankly, that’s scary to a fundraiser. I often see leaders make reactionary goals. It’s tempting when times are tough and the money seems lean to up the goals for the development staff in the fourth quarter.

And while good fundraisers often love stretch goals and can rise to a challenge, if the goal line is always shifting based on which Board member the supervisor met with most recently, that’s a sign of unhealthy leadership and leads to confusion and fear in the development staff.

Fix: set goals and stick to them for the season/quarter/fiscal year, regardless of what an outspoken Board member or other outside influencer may say.

  1. “We lack basic support systems for fundraising.”

This may seem like a small issue, but I have talked to fundraisers ready to throw in the towel because the structures around them seem to be working against the development staff instead of with them, and they’ve lost hope that things can change.

What kind of support structures? When the database is in shambles and donor records are out-of-date or inaccurate, or the marketing and promotional materials are not there, or worse, are an embarrassment to the image of the organization, it seriously makes good fundraisers think of taking their talents elsewhere.

Fix: at review time seriously ask your development staff what they need in order to do their jobs better. Listen and then take the time (and money!) to make the corrections you can.

  1. “Bureaucratically, our office culture is too rigid.”

I’ve talked to many a good fundraiser who is simply exhausted. They would love more time with their donors or more time mentoring and guiding the staff under them, but feel like too much of their time is taken up with overlong and poorly managed meetings or filling out one more report to send up the food chain.

Fix: are you wearing your development staff out with non-mission critical tasks that ultimately suck their time and energy away from donors or their own staff? Comb through your schedule of internal meetings and reporting structures to see what unnecessary meetings and redundant tasks can be pruned.

  1. “I feel uneasy about how donor dollars are being spent.”

Fundraisers have shared with me two versions of this problem. The first is an apparent extravagance of spending on unnecessary accoutrements that make the lives of only the executive leadership more comfortable.

The second version is more problematic: organizations taking donor dollars for one purpose and using them for another. And I’m not talking here about redirecting unrestricted funds to address a more pressing need. I’m talking about when an organization’s leaders lie to donors about where their dollars are going or take a gift designated for one purpose and use it for another.

This is unethical and undermines the credibility of our entire sector. And unfortunately, it happens. When good fundraisers see this in an organization, they are right to want to get out, and get out quickly.

Fix: sadly, I don’t know a fix for unethical leadership – besides a train wreck – but by then it’s often too late.

What about you? What’s your story? Have you seen an organization turn their culture around and thus grow their fundraising capacity? Or, if you’ve ever left an organization you cared about, why did you do it?

Jonathan can be reached at http://linkedin.com/in/jonathan-mcintosh or [email protected].