Why fundraisers leave their jobs: An interview with Abbi Haggerty

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Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared on the Wild Woman Fundraising website and is excerpted with permission. You can read the full interview here.

Mazarine Treyz: This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I am so pleased today to be interviewing Abbi L. Haggerty, PhD who will be speaking at the Virtual Fundraising Career Conference this April. She’s actually going to be speaking about her PhD research. I’m going to let her introduce herself a little bit. Ms. Abbi Haggerty, who are you and what do you do?

Abbi Haggerty: Hi, thank you. I am the director of development for the Partnership for Nonprofit Excellence, which is located in Richmond, Virginia, and we are a nonprofit that’s a resource center for other nonprofits. So we offer professional development for those who are working in the sector. We do volunteer training and management for other nonprofits. We have an online communications platform, and we also do organizational assessments and governance training.

I’ve been in the nonprofit fundraising field for almost 13 years now. I’ve been with the Partnership for about a year and a half. But I’ve also had jobs in development working for a performing arts center, a science museum, and a community college. I'm very excited to be in this profession, and also I’m now sharing it with students at Virginia Commonwealth University. I just started teaching there this semester and also joined the board this month of our local AFP chapter and will be chairing our advocacy committee. So I enjoy being a practitioner in the field as well as sharing knowledge with the community and being an advocate for the fundraising profession.

MT: What did you research for your PhD?

AH: I was really intrigued by the findings of the UnderDeveloped report that was released by Compass Point. For my dissertation topic, I explored the turnover intentions of fundraisers. So I looked at why they’re leaving the positions that they have and why they’re actually leaving the field of fundraising altogether, and what I found was that organizational culture plays the largest role in fundraisers’ decisions to leave their current position. When their values don’t match the organization’s values, they’re more likely to look for another job. For fundraisers who are leaving the field of fundraising, it was a mismatch between their skill sets and the requirements of the job they had. So when fundraisers feel that they’re not able to perform their jobs well, they’re more likely to seek out a different career. I think these findings really speak to the need for us to advocate more for fundraising as a true and respected profession so that we can build better systems for fundraising internally within our organizations, and externally develop and access the training and education opportunities that we need to excel in our careers.

MT: Why did you choose this research topic?

AH: Well, I thought it would help me better understand my profession and some of the challenges it currently faces. Also, turnover in the fundraising field has really received a lot of attention over the past couple of years, and I wanted to explore what factors were related to the turnover that we’re seeing as well as just the perception that people have that turnover is so high in this profession. So my dissertation allowed me to take national data that had been collected from fundraisers and dig deeper into what was driving their intentions to leave their position and leave the field.

MT: I’ve been an advocate about fundraising turnover for a long time, and we’re definitely going to be talking about that at the conference. What are you teaching at the Fundraising Career Conference in 2016?

AH: I am going to be talking about the important role that values and fit play in fundraisers finding a job that’s right for them. So by that, I mean that the fit between a fundraiser’s personal values and the culture of the organization for which they work, because this seems to be one of the best indicators that we have that fundraisers will find a job that they enjoy. Research has consistently found that when the person/organization fit, which is what it’s called, is present, that people stay with an organization longer than when that fit is missing. My research on fundraisers specifically highlighted this fit between values and organizational culture, and during the Fundraising Career Conference, my session will help people identify what they value and how to know whether their values match the organizational culture of a future employer. So the goals of the presentation are to help fundraisers connect with information and tools that will help them find happiness in their fundraising careers by choosing positions in organizations that match and support their personal values.

MT: I often advocate for people when they’re applying for jobs to look at the mission. And try to make a story in your cover letter around how you’re connected to this mission. But what you’re saying is go beyond that. Go deeper. Look at who you are, why you do what you do, and see if it connects to what this nonprofit does.

AH: Exactly. Most nonprofits are doing very good work in the community, work that’s really needed, and I think sometimes we assume because we’re going into a sector that’s full of good work, that we just assume the culture is what we’re going to want to have. But really, organizations operate so different internally that it’s important to take the time to go beyond the mission statement and really get to know how the organization operates.

MT: Amen to that. I remember being at a nonprofit whose mission I really did believe in. It was a social justice organization, helping African Americans in various ways, and I really believed in the mission and I wanted to enjoy working there. But there was a big disconnect between what the values of the CEO were, and my values. So I didn’t last too long there, unfortunately.

AH: I know. It’s not good for you. It’s not good for the organization, and really if we would just take a little bit more time upfront to get to know the people we’ll be working with and spend some time in that environment, it might give us some more clues about what that culture is.

MT: Some of our listeners may have read the Donor Centered Leadership book by Penelope Burk and Cygnus Research or the UnderDeveloped report. How does your research complement this existing research?

AH: That’s a great question. All of this research has tried to provide a better understanding of the challenges that are currently facing the fundraising profession, and really to identify practical steps that we all can take to address these challenges. I know Burk’s research on turnover highlights some of the common internal management issues like unrealistic fundraising goals, impatience for raising money, not having access to the resources and funding you need for a successful fundraising program. And in the UnderDeveloped report, we learned about organizations lacking what they refer to as a culture of philanthropy, and how, when people throughout the organization are committed to fundraising, it’s really central to the mission of the organization. In my research, I was able to take the data that was collected for the UnderDeveloped report and use regression analysis, a fancy statistical term, to see which variables were actually significant in driving turnover intentions. So that’s how I came to realize that organizational culture is such a critical factor.

MT: Abbi, did you have any new or surprising findings in your research?

AH: I did. I think some of the most surprising findings were actually the factors that did not show up as significant. So for example, we were talking about an organization’s mission a little bit earlier. Passion about an organization’s mission was not significant in driving turnover intentions. Also salary wasn’t, nor was the relationship that fundraisers have with their executive directors. But that’s not to say that those are not important factors. It was just in this particular research, it was the fit between values and culture that was the leading factor. But I think I would love to see some additional research in this area to further test these variables and really to get a complete understanding of turnover intentions. So I think the more we can build on each other’s research and share our findings and talk about it, the more we’ll really understand this issue.

MT: When you talk about values, what do values mean to you?

AH: To me, I would say values embody how you live your life and what other people perceive is important to you. So the values you hold tend to govern how you treat other people, how you make important decisions about your future, and really how you show up in the world. Your values are embedded deep within you and I think play a really important role in your satisfaction, whether that’s with life in general, your relationships, or your job.

We actually did an exercise at work in one of our staff meetings where we had to share a story with another person of something that had happened in our career recently that we were really proud of, and based on that story, the person we were telling it to had to say back to us what they thought our key values were that were highlighted in that story. It was really interesting to see what someone else thought your values were based on what you were proud of and what you chose to share. That was kind of a fun exercise to have people reflect your values back to you.

MT: Why do you think it’s so important to find your values? What’s the goal of that?

AH: I think it’s what you were saying earlier, that when you’re able to identify your values and articulate what they mean to you, you’re better able to make decisions about the things in life that will make you happy. You’re also in a better position to share these values with others, such as in an interview for a new position. So that you can ensure that your values align with the culture in which you are placing yourself, and with colleagues with whom you’ll be working.

MT: How could you determine an organization’s values before you take the job? Are you going to be sharing questions to ask, or how do you do that?

AH: I think fundraisers should make sure that they’ve carefully examined their values first, and then they can compare them to things like the job description for which they’re interviewing, the structure of the organization, policies, procedures, the physical presence. All of these things will give you some clues into the culture that you might be entering. The culture depends on the people who are working there, and so meeting as many of your potential new colleagues as possible in their day-to-day environment is critical, and with nonprofits this also means maybe an opportunity to meet with board members and volunteers and financial supporters. I think that can really tell you a lot about the culture of an organization. We know that fundraisers who feel that they’re not matched up with the culture, they might feel isolated in their roles, they’re more likely to leave. It’s really critical in this profession to understand culture during the interview process. So just ask to talk to as many people involved in the organization as you can and find out how things get done, and don’t make assumptions about it. In the presentation we'll walk through some key questions to ask and people to talk to, and some things that might give you a clue as to the culture.

MT: I think for those job seekers who have the luxury of being able to choose, the luxury of time, they could really learn a lot from you about red flags and also the things that really will make them happy in a job. So thank you so much for offering this. How can people get in touch with you?

AH: They can use my college email leinwandan@vcu.edu.

Click here to register now for the Fundraising Career Conference 2016. It’s virtual, every session is recorded, and you will have access to all of the recordings after the conference is over!

Mazarine Treyz is the author of "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide." Her popular blog has 50,000 monthly readers. Read more at wildwomanfundraising.com. Join her at the 2016 Fundraising Career Conference.


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