Fundraising Professionals Are Essential Workers

While developing some public presentations recently, I began considering the role of development professionals in nonprofit organizations today. That worried me.

When I began my career, the average amount of time a development officer stayed at his or her job was approximately 3.5 years. I remember many in the profession felt that was too short a time. Today, however, the average time a nonprofit fundraiser remains on any given job is 16 months. In the article, “Stop the Revolving Door in Nonprofit Development,” Benefactor Group concludes:

“According to a study by author Penelope Burk, the average fundraiser stays at his or her job for 16 months before assuming another position. And replacing these professionals doesn’t come cheaply—averaging 90% to 200% of their salary in direct and indirect costs, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

This loss of talented development staff creates a tremendous burden for nonprofit organizations since fundraising is rooted in strong donor relationships. An absent or inexperienced gift officer can spell trouble for philanthropic support.”

My personal experience is that nonprofit leadership – directors and board members – often lack knowledge about what is involved in nonprofit development. There are, however, many trustworthy support organizations that counsel aspiring fundraisers in best practices and ethical behavior, and numerous excellent books discussing the role of development in nonprofit success.

When I began fundraising during graduate school, the role of a development professional was understood to be a high minded one. Your ultimate goal was to nurture relationships and guide modest annual contributors toward increasing engagement and a long term development life cycle. Your aim was to encourage donors to become active volunteers, advocates and eventually, you wanted to them to become so loyal that they not only continued to give generously, but they placed the nonprofit in their Will and estate plans.

This means “development” takes time.

There are common misperceptions by fellow nonprofit staff members and leadership about what development professionals are actually doing. More than once, I have been hard at work on a multi million dollar fundraising campaign, when someone in the office mistakes my job as “schmoozing” with wealthy donors. They want that experience for themselves. To some degree, jealousy is a common human trait. But nonprofit directors and board members – if properly informed and trained – can become more mindful of jealous reactions and help prevent any “end runs” that may occur on staff.

“Never underestimate the power of jealousy and the power of envy to destroy.

Never underestimate that.”

Oliver Stone, American director (b. 1946)

My work in fundraising by the numbers is approximately 5% “schmoozing” and 95% research, identification, planning and strategy development, writing, documentation, reporting, communicating, organizing meetings small and large, taking meeting notes, managing social media and the like. This type of work takes quiet time, focus, organizational and listening skills.

I have also discovered startup and young nonprofits follow what they believe to be “business” practices, and they want to view development as an activity that is purely about getting money to serve a mission, now. Relationships (including communication) should not matter. If donors want to see the mission succeed, the thought is they should not care about any “emotional” connection to it. Give the money and get out of the way.

My job over the years has involved correcting several of these kinds of situations. That is because securing major gifts requires donor confidence, and donor confidence involves communication (including responding to myriad questions), research, staffing, organizational skills and the like. And yes, it also involves helping them become deeply engaged in the work of your nonprofit. And that can and does involve an emotional connection.

Nonprofit fundraisers are also protective of their donors. If a project’s parameters change, they are on task to communicate changes to the underwriters, whether that be an individual, family, corporation, foundation or a government agency. If there are ethical lapses internally, nonprofit fundraisers should try to correct those in-house. But if those dilemmas cannot be fixed internally, donors may need to be informed and requests for corrections made.

Development professionals also gain knowledge over time, both about the nonprofit’s mission and goals, and about the donors who ultimately sustain the nonprofit and ensure its future. Although they should strive to document everything they know for future reference, why let that knowledge (and the relationships that go with it), walk out the door? It doesn’t make sense. But again, I find the trouble lies in nonprofit leadership and their understanding (or misunderstanding) of the work that development professionals are responsible for doing.

The nonprofit sector needs to find ways to train directors, founders and board members. After many years on the job, I believe no one should be able to form a nonprofit organization in the United States today without being trained about the truly essential function of development professionals as well as other key staff positions that make for successful nonprofit businesses today. That training might also include ethical behavior in the nonprofit context, the importance of having a meaningful GuideStar profile to ensure public transparency, how to file a tax return that adequately reflects the work of the organization, and more.

The development profession does benefit from a number of excellent support associations. During webinars, in-person meetings and conferences they cover such topics. But the fact is, development officers often already know these things. But the directors and other leaders within the organization do not.

My message as April 2021 draws to a close is, fundraising professionals are #EssentialWorkers. Take the time to understand their vital role. Appreciate and nurture them. Fundraising takes time, and so does relationship building. Keep your nonprofit #EssentialWorkers as long as you can, and reap the benefits for years to come.

Images illustrating this post are courtesy of Adobe Spark.

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