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To Retain Fundraisers, Respect Their Skills and Focus on Their Connection to Cause, Report Says

By  Rasheeda Childress | The Chronicle of Philanthropy

DECEMBER 8, 2022

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If the last couple of years have shown nonprofits anything, it’s that hiring and retaining fundraisers is challenging. A new report from the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy and Revolutionise International aims to shed light on what motivates fundraisers and what nonprofits can do to help keep them at their organization.

Fundraisers are incredibly motivated by the cause, said Adrian Sargeant, co-director of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, a British-based nonprofit.

“They feel a passion for that cause. They feel like they really want to make a difference,” he said. “We need to recognize that that’s a key motivation for this group of people and give them that exposure and that connection with the cause so that they can feel part of a unique team that’s making that magic happen.”

What Makes Fundraisers Tick” reports on a survey of 2,674 British and U.S. fundraisers. The report, which had many findings similar to those in the Chronicle’s recent survey of fundraiser satisfaction, found that passion was a key metric for fundraisers, with 55 percent saying they took their current position because of their passionate belief in the mission. Ninety-two percent of respondents felt they were making a difference to the cause.

“What Makes Fundraisers Tick” offered a list of factors that motivate or demotivate fundraisers. Motivating factors included: feeling as though they are making a difference to the cause, being given autonomy in their area of work, feeling valued for the work they do, and feeling trusted by senior management and the board.

“Make sure your fundraisers are treated with professional respect,” Sargeant said. “Fundraising is a process. So that entails listening to their voice and involving them in decision making. But it also involves giving them access to professional development activities.”

While pay was on the list of motivating factors, it was near the bottom, which suggests holding onto staff is possible, even if pay is average. “One of the things that we didn’t find was a particular driver for fundraisers was salary,” Sargeant said. “It’s all about that passion and emotional attachment to the cause.”

Turnover Drivers

Factors that demotivate fundraisers include feeling that their work is undervalued, not feeling supported by senior management or the board, feeling their voice has not been heard as a professional, lack of autonomy, and unrealistic expectations of senior management by and the board.

“One of the things that drives turnover at the lower-size organization is, frankly, unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved,” Sargeant said. “They think that by appointing a director of development that suddenly, magically, overnight everything is going to be great. They don’t give that director time to get established, build relationships, and develop the income stream.”

The report found that 46 percent of respondents planned to leave their current job in the next two years and 10 percent planned to leave fundraising altogether, which Sargeant called a “terrible pattern of performance, and it speaks to how fundraisers are treated — or not treated — within the organization.”

One surprising concern that showed up in the survey was that 26.5 percent of respondents said they had experienced harassment or discrimination.

“That’s pretty horrendous,” Sargeant said. “If we’re going to retain talent, we need to be doing all we can to change the culture into one that is not tolerant of these forms of harassment and discrimination.”

Fundraisers surveyed noted their harassment and discrimination came from both senior managers and donors. Sargeant suggests being very clear that the organization won’t accept this behavior.

“You need people to feel confident and supported to put their hands up and say, ‘I’ve had this experience,’” he says. “And then you need managers to take that seriously, to believe the individual, and then ultimately to take some action. Even if that’s going to hurt the fundraising income of the organization in the short term. And even if it means that we have to part company with a donor because their behaviors are unacceptable.”

Put Data to Use

Sargeant noted that many of the motivating and demotivating factors were related to how connected fundraisers felt to their organization and mission. That means nonprofit leaders hoping to hire and retain fundraisers should focus on fostering connectivity.

“Fundraisers really need to feel like they’re connected to the cause,” he said. “They need to feel that they can make a difference to it, but they also need to feel connected to the board and senior managers so that they can interact appropriately with them, and those folks can help the fundraiser to do their job.”

Sargeant also recommended turning the tables to use tactics applied to donors on fundraisers themselves — find out what staff need and use that information to craft a better workplace.

“I’ve spent 30 years, my entire career, convincing nonprofits to survey donors so that they can identify donor motives and preferences and become a bit more responsive,” he says. “I think we should be taking the same logic and surveying our fundraisers.”

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