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Part II: Fundraising Staff Challenges By Derric Bakker

Overcoming Fundraising Staff Challenges

This is Part II in the two part series on Fundraising Staff Challenges. If you missed Part I, it covers the current realities and challenges most nonprofits experience. Today, the focus is on solutions. Here you will find five ways nonprofit organizations can effectively address the challenges they have in their fundraising departments.

Improve Hiring Practices

Finding and recruiting high-performing fundraisers is both one of the highest priorities AND one of the biggest challenges most organizations face. You would think organizations are putting a tremendous amount of thought, planning, and resources into recruiting fundraising talent. But you’d be wrong. Fewer than one in four of all organizations surveyed by Nonprofit HR in their annual Employment Practices Survey have any formal plans, or even a budget for recruitment. Most just muddle through.

Here at DB&A, we know what it takes to do an executive search right. Recruiting for fundraising jobs is one of the most challenging assignments in executive search. Many search firms avoid it altogether. We specialize in it. When conducting  a search for a fundraising job, we have learned that a candidate’s track record is the best predictor of his/her future performance. We have also learned not to take people at face value (everyone is “top of class” on their resume, after all). Do your due diligence. It’s not that hard, really, if you know who to talk to, what to ask, and how to ask it.

I am amazed at how carelessly some organizations make key hiring decisions. I once consulted with an organization that suffered through a year of woeful performance from their development director before finally firing him due to a serious ethical breach. This was just his latest entry on a resume dotted with short tenures. Four weeks later I was shocked to see on LinkedIn that he had a new, more senior-level job at another organization. I have seen this sort of thing happen more frequently than you can imagine, even at the highest levels.

The best way to solve the problem of turnover is to make sure you are hiring right in the first place. Hiring practices for fundraising positions are too often woefully inadequate. It should not come as a surprise, then, that in the CompassPoint study, nearly a third of CEOs said their fundraisers lacked the skills and experience needed for the job. Nearly one in four state that their fundraisers are not a good fit for their organizational culture. If they had done more due diligence in the first place (BEFORE they hired), they would have saved themselves a lot of grief down the road.

Pay Attention to Fit

Fit matters. In fact, we have found it to be one of the most significant predictors of long-term success. Not everyone is cut out for a career in fundraising. As you can imagine, people who feel that their personal characteristics and abilities are a good fit for fundraising are most likely to remain committed to fundraising as a career. Fundraisers who fit well with the culture, mission, and values of their organization stay in their positions longer. And not all fundraisers are cut from the same cloth. The characteristics that made one person successful in their last job may not be the characteristics needed to succeed in the job opening you have available.

In our executive search practice, we pay closer attention to “fit” than we do to anything else. We routinely use job fit assessments and testing, behavioral interviews, and thorough background checking to determine if a candidate will fit the opportunities our clients have available. Job skills can be learned. But there is simply no substitute for job fit.

Compensate Well

Brent Hafele, Vice President of Client Services at Dickerson, Bakker & Associates identifies four flaws in nonprofit thinking that prevent them from becoming vibrant organizations. One flawed way of thinking is to value thriftiness over stewardship. Thriftiness is about saving money. Many organizations sacrifice their future by being thrifty. Stewardship, on the other hand, is about investing resources wisely. Vibrant organizations understand that they need to invest in their organizations, and above all, they need to invest in their people. By getting the best, not the most, your money can buy, you’re investing in your nonprofit’s future.

In salary surveys, four out of five nonprofit chief executives say that the main reason they struggle to recruit good fundraisers is because they can’t afford to pay competitive salaries. Truth is, they have it wrong. They can’t afford not to.

One of the biggest mistakes a nonprofit can make is to under-invest in fundraising. Most spend as much as they can on desperately needed programs and services. As well intention as they are, they are starving those very programs of future resources by prioritizing spending on programs versus investments in fundraising. A dollar spent on programs can only help you solve a dollar’s worth of problems. A dollar invested in fundraising typically produces between $3 and $10 in future returns. According to a recent study, a dollar invested in major gift fundraising produces, on average, $24 in lifetime value.

If your nonprofit has limited funds, investing money in fundraising is one of the smartest things you can do. Above all, invest in talent. Because when it comes to growing success in fundraising, talent matters most.

Align on Expectations

A recent Nonprofit Times article – “Half of Fundraisers Flee” (July 2013) – highlighted a study showing that 75% of chief development officers and 62% of chief executive officers believe unrealistic expectations are a primary cause of turnover. CDOs by and large think expectations are unreasonably high (34% of fundraisers in Burk’s study, for instance, said that unrealistic fundraising goals were a top reason why they left their last positions), while CEOs think they are coming up short.

Some CEOs have a hard time delineating between goals and expectations. It is good to set ambitious – even audacious – goals. It is even better to provide incentives to help motivate your team to achieve stretch goals. But any CEO who does not manage goals and expectations differently is setting his or her fundraisers up to fail.

There is no magic formula when it comes to setting appropriate fundraising expectations. Every organization is in a different situation. The important thing is for CEOs and CDOs to work together to reach consensus on setting reasonable expectations, and to make sure that there are sufficient resources and a plan in place to accomplish your goals.

Collaborate More

Collaboration is an important ingredient of a healthy, “development-friendly” organizational culture, which helps provide a fertile soil for fundraising to flourish. Talented people want flexibility in how they do their work, to be part of a high-performing team, to do interesting work, and to stay creatively challenged. They want to be treated with respect, to feel valued, and to know they are making a difference.

Too many fundraisers report feeling isolated from the rest of their organization. Fundraising cannot succeed in isolation. The highest-value forms of fundraising are built on relationships. Your relationships with donors should not be dependent on one person. That is not sustainable, nor is it effective.

Relationships between your organization and its donors should have multiple connecting points, beginning with the fundraising staff but extending out to your CEO and other leadership team members, your front-line workers, your Board members, and even out to peer-to-peer relationships between donors. Your fundraisers also need to know how to communicate what you do externally, and need to be able to show donors how their giving is making an impact. They can’t do that without collaboration with others throughout the organization.

Encourage more collaboration between your fundraisers, your executive leadership team, and the rest of your staff, and your fundraisers will not only stay in their jobs longer, they will likely raise more money too.

If you want to succeed in fundraising, it is critical to have people who are appropriately gifted with the right combination of competencies, experience, vision, and drive, and who are well trained, properly equipped, motivated, accountable, and the “right fit” for your mission, culture, and values. Embrace these five principles and you will see a difference — you will make better hires, and your staff will stay in place longer. Over time this will begin to snowball, as talent becomes magnetic over time – with talented people tending to attract more of the same.

Our firm has helped dozens of nonprofits just like yours recruit highly experienced, accomplished and personable professionals for key fundraising and chief executive leadership roles.

Serving the nonprofit sector is not just part of what we do. It´s all we do. We have the marketplace knowledge, understanding, expertise, and access to networks and relationships that are critical to succeed in recruiting top talent. Why not put our team to work for you?


Derric Bakker is the president of Dickerson Bakker and Associates. DBA assists in all areas of fundraising and development, ensuring each client will gain the necessary tools, skills, leadership, and experience needed to develop the resources that will fuel their organization’s growth and sustainability.

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