February 8, 2017

Six Ways to Retain Your Talented Fundraising Staff

Why is it that development professionals change jobs every few years? In our profession, we’ve come to expect high turnover, with new hires staying only an average of 16 months at a time.

The bottom line is that turnover costs organizations money and more. Losing staff can put a serious dent in your fundraising. Not only does being short-staffed decrease fundraising capacity, but conducting a search and then training new hires also takes valuable time from leadership as they are diverted to this other work. It takes time to rebuild the relationships with donors that your former staff member developed. And since the best time to negotiate for pay for many organizations is at the start of the job, it may cost more to attract the person you want.

Adding these costs up, fundraising researcher and expert Penelope Burk puts the direct and indirect costs for replacing fundraising staff at 117% of their annual salary. This can really impact an organization’s bottom line, and to accept this as an industry standard loses nonprofits millions of dollars every year.

Here are six ways your organization can address staffing instability:

1. Share values, goals, and connection to the mission.

At nonprofits, the work we do is directly impacting the lives of the people we serve. That’s what draws so many of us to nonprofit work. But for some of us, we can get so bogged down with the day-to-day that we forget what makes our work so important.

It is the role of leadership to be champions for the organization’s mission and create a culture that encourages both donors and staff to be passionate about the direction of the organization. If the fundraising staff is excited about their work, they’ll not only be more inclined to stay long term but also better able to present a strong case to donors.

2. Develop positive relationships in the workplace.

In the past, we’ve often been told to keep our personal and professional lives separate. But when we spend most of our waking hours at work, workplace relationships become an essential part of our lives.  Organizations should prioritize building real, meaningful relationships between staff members.

As leaders, we help create this environment by being authentic and sharing our personal side to encourage our staff to feel more comfortable doing the same. By being observant and interested in what our colleagues share with us, it shows them that we care. Not only do relationships make work more enjoyable, they also help us produce better work. Relationships help your team be more open to collaboration and respond better to criticism. It’s also important for leadership to be humble – we should admit when we don’t know the answer and admit when we’ve made mistakes. When leadership accepts accountability, it helps prevent building a toxic workplace culture of blame shifting.

3. Create an environment that is open to new ideas and disagreement.

One of the strongest factors leading to job satisfaction is that a staff member feels that his or her input is valuable and is heard within the organization. This requires that an organization’s leadership be open to the new ideas that their staff brings.

New ideas will often bring about disagreements. Organizations shouldn’t fear disagreement – any time groups of people work together they are bound to disagree.  In fact, healthy dissent can improve old and tired ways of doing things, weed out bad ideas, and make new ideas stronger. This is especially true for developing a major gifts strategy. If organizations foster a culture of mutual respect that keeps conflict professional, not personal or emotional, then they’ll be able to do exciting and innovative work.

4. Take the time to mentor and promote professional development with your staff.

One common reason for moving on from a role is that people no longer feel challenged. If we’ve built a trusting relationship with our staff, it puts us in a better place to help them grow in their abilities. It’s important to both critique staff to help them improve, and also to allow them to take on new projects. By helping staff to strengthen and expand their skill set you’ll keep the work challenging and interesting.

It’s also important to prioritize professional development with your staff. Set aside some time and/or money each year for training, conferences, and webinars. Strengthening skills and staying on top of the latest techniques in fundraising will both be rewarding for staff and the long-term growth of your institution.

5. Plan regular raises for staff.

Talking about money is uncomfortable for most people. As fundraisers, we do it every day. But even though it should be easier for us, we often make some basic mistakes that drive talent away.

When hiring new staff, the salary budget should be flexible and should never be considered static. Nonprofits should plan for a new hire’s salary to grow significantly over time. The longer a staff member is at an organization, the more value they have to an institution in years of experience, firsthand knowledge of the organization, and relationships with donors. It’s a good idea for organizations to do research every few years to be sure they’re staying competitive and planning raises accordingly.

It may seem as though you don’t have the budget to give significant raises, but that view is shortsighted. In actuality, the cost is much less to offer pay increases and better benefits than it is to hire someone new when your staff are recruited away.  Sit down with your institution’s HR officer early on to discuss this issue.

6. Promote and hire from within.

It can be difficult for staff members to see their future at an organization if they don’t feel that they’re advancing over time. That’s why it’s important for leaders to recognize their staff’s achievements, improvements, and growth through promotions and title changes.

When senior staff does move on, consider that sometimes the best person to replace them is someone who already works there. By considering current staff and giving them the opportunity to grow into a more senior role, you’re showing them that you believe in their talent and you’re challenging them to do their best work.


These strategies aren’t always easy to incorporate in an organization. But if, like many nonprofits, you have trouble hanging on to your most talented people, it’s time to consider what your organization could be doing to break this cycle.

Written by

Heidi Waltner-Pepper

Heidi is Senior Vice President at TWB Fundraising.


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