It was like it was a deep dark secret that no one wanted to talk about. Finally, we found a staffer at a nonprofit who emphasized that everything he/she said had to be highly anonymous. This person admitted, “I like our development director and feel they do a good job but with the size of the fundraising staff and the profile of our organization, they should be doing better than they are — by a factor of ten.”

In her book Donor-Centered Leadership, Penelope Burk puts it this way: “You hope that the new fundraiser will be a good fit, full of innovation and an extraordinarily hard worker. You hope she will breathe new energy into the entire development team, floating all ships higher as the saying goes. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes things go terribly wrong. Sometimes the new hire doesn’t pass her probation; sometimes he turns out to be great at selling himself but not so good at selling your cause to donors. Sometimes you have to start all over again.”

What do nonprofit and charitable organizations do when their fundraisers fail?

Failure is an option

The reality is that a large number of nonprofit leaders are not terribly happy with their fundraising team— CompassPoint’s 2013 survey showed that nearly one in three executives are dissatisfied with the performance of their current development directors, with executives at smaller nonprofits being the least satisfied. Overall, 25% of organizations reported that their previous development director had been fired for poor performance in fund development (31%), general poor performance (31%), and misfit with organizational culture (22%).

There is a high turnover rates among fundraisers — Cygnus Applied Research’s studies show that the average length of stay in recent fundraising positions ranged from 1.6 years for people under 30 to 6.5 years for people over 61. This both reflects organizational complaints about fundraisers as well as fundraisers’ own dissatisfaction with the organizations they work for. It is also evidence of the reality that, when it comes to fundraising today, there is far more demand than supply. This means, as Phil Gerard, president of fundraising recruitment firm Gerard Consulting says, “Even incompetent fundraisers don’t have trouble finding a job.”

It isn’t something people like to talk about. Paul Nazareth, vice president of community engagement with CanadaHelps, says, “Leaders only talk with other leaders about this.” Rory Green, associate director of development at Simon Fraser University agrees. “As an industry, we are afraid of admitting failure – which is a shame because we learn best from talking about our failures. Also, if you want to innovate, you have to admit you will try things that sometimes won’t work.”

The problem is that cleaning up after a less-than-stellar fundraiser can be a big problem for nonprofits. As Siobhan Aspinall, fundraising consultant and director of major gifts for Canuck Place Children’s Hospice says, “A fundraiser can have a huge negative impact on relationships with donors. This can result in awkward conversations and can take a lot of time to clean up the mess left behind.”

What makes a great fundraiser?

Nazareth says, “I often hear ‘we hired a fundraiser, gave them three weeks, they didn’t get us Bill Gates’ money — so how can they be a good fundraiser?’” He’s not entirely kidding. Especially when hiring a fundraiser for the first time, organizations hope and sometimes expect that their new employee will bring in lots of money — and quickly.

This can be a challenging, if not nearly impossible, expectation as often it takes eighteen months to two years of developing relationships before a fundraiser is able to produce meaningful financial results.

Further, sheer dollars and cents are not always the best measurement of a great development team, says Burk. “Gross revenue is not a reliable indicator of success or even of fundraising progress. Development operations disproportionately weighted in mass marketing programs and fundraising events can experience a rise in gross revenue while net return stays the same or, worse, falls.”

Burk suggests a better gauge of success “is the rising average gift value among all donors across all giving strategies, along with improvement in average tenure.”

According to Burk, a great fundraiser is also more than just a spreadsheet. “Great fundraisers possess that je ne sais quoi – that special something that cannot be taught in a classroom and which defies assessment through examination.”

Green agrees. “A study of successful major gift fundraisers at American universities found two key shared traits: curiosity and adaptability. When I interview someone for a development role, I’m interested in what they ask, how genuinely interested they are in getting to know me. I also look at their track record of closing gift donations at any level and their ability to grow their portfolio.”

Are there fundraising rock stars out there — and where can I find one?

Clearly there are fundraising rock stars — those with a proven track record of being able to raise funds well — but it’s not always as simple as hiring someone with this coveted background. Part of the challenge is that often smaller organizations hire such people and leave the fundraising up to them entirely or expect instant results. “People think fundraisers are magic bullets,” says Nazareth, “but sadly there are no magic bullets.” Further, “in that kind of climate,” Aspinall says, “good fundraisers often move on.” This creates a vicious cycle where often only larger organizations understand the realistic cycle of fundraising and have the support required for fundraisers to succeed, so only the larger organizations are able to attract and retain big talent.

Too often, Gerard says, “Board members say, ‘We need to raise $5M – look at the university, they’re raising $40M – all we need to do is recruit someone from there, pay them great salary, give them a great title and they will do same magic for us.’ The problem is that it doesn’t work that way.”

Burk believes that the best fundraisers are often not imported talent anyhow — but talented existing employees who are developed from within an organization. “Promoting from within…is substantially superior in several important ways, all of which minimize risk while saving money.” She also notes that there is no guarantee that a negative culture will not re-emerge after a “house cleaning” of existing staff unless underlying issues are dealt with. “A development operation in distress may very well need a superman from the outside to reverse a negative culture, but it should only need him once.”

Is a rockstar in organization A going to be amazing at organization B?

“I have met only one fundraiser who said, ‘I don’t care who or what I fundraise for: I’m a salesperson, I sell everything,’” says Gerard. “There are those who can perform well no matter what organization they work for, but those people are rare. I don’t think a great fundraiser will be great in every environment.”

Our anonymous contributor says, “The issue with rockstar fundraisers is that not every organization should take the same approach to fundraising. It’s hard for someone who is parachuted into an organization to understand why and how the organization might appeal to donors.”

Some of it also comes down to fit with management style and environment, says Gerard, who has seen the same fundraisers fail in one organization only to blossom in another, or vice versa. “Candidates need to evaluate the style of their manager, the resources and hierarchical structure of the organization and expectations for their role, and see if this works for them.”

To Green, fit means not letting passion for the cause trump practical concerns. “If you truly care about the cause, you don’t do the cause any favours by taking a job and leaving it in a year.” Burk agrees, saying, “Love of mission can override practical concerns when a job seeker is looking for a job. Brand can blind either candidates or employers.”

Maybe it’s not you but me

If a fundraiser fails to live up to expectation, often there is an issue with an inability to reach assigned goals, but Burk notes that there are “two sides to every story” and that development directors planning to leave their organizations (28% of fundraisers in the Cygnus study were planning to leave the industry) often blame deficiencies in management for hastening their departure.

Too often fundraising fails reflect as much a failure on the part of the organization as the individual in question. Answering the following questions can determine whether your organization is setting fundraisers up for success or failure:

  • Is your board of directors heaving a sigh of relief that finally someone will take over all the fundraising? A fundraiser will be successful only when the board sees them as a strategy “for expanding and enhancing their essential roles in fundraising, rather than a way to avoid or minimize their involvement.”
  • Have you provided your fundraiser with a clear job description and realistic performance expectations?
  • Do you think that fundraising should work autonomously? “Development needs to be integrated with staff and board and be supported and work collaboratively,” says Green.
  • Do you have policies, procedures, a donor database, and annual plan in place? A great fundraiser may come into your organization ready to hit the road, but be unable to actually do their work until these are established.
  • Do you offer competitive salary, benefits and/or non-monetary compensation like flexible work? Do you invest in the necessary hardware, software and resources to support your fundraising?
  • Are you up front about where your charity is in terms of debt, donors, etc? Green notes, “Someone will want to take on your challenge but you won’t find the right person if you misrepresent your situation.”
  • Are your fundraising goals based on real numbers? The CompassPoint survey found that nearly one-third of development directors reported that they had been assigned unrealistic performance goals.
  • Do you encourage training for fundraisers or do you leave them to sink or swim? “Different types of fundraising takes different skills,” says Nazareth, who also notes that many organizations and fundraisers alike expect fundraisers to “fake it till they make it” rather than ensuring that they are supported and trained.
  • Do you expect your fundraiser to be at their desks? Too often fundraisers are hamstrung by leadership that assumes that “if they aren’t in the office, they’re out golfing, when in reality, being in meetings prevents them from doing their most essential work: meeting with donors,” says Nazareth.
  • Are you offering mentorship, supervision and guidance to your fundraisers or are you just “checking in” occasionally? At one position, Nazareth says, his only direct report was in the form of an annual review — in a far more successful role, his boss “leaned in and provided hands-on guidance.” He adds, “I know many fundraisers across Canada and they leave or stay because of leadership.”
  • Have you hired on contract? Green says there are better ways to hire than to do a test run of a new hire—“If you randomly choose six months and half a million, that’s the wrong way to go about it”— while Burk believes that a “time-limited contract risks a fundraiser’s premature resignation.”

How to ensure fundraisers succeed

Before you hire: Aspinall strongly recommends small organizations hire a consultant as a cost-effective way to determine exactly what kind of fundraiser you need to recruit.

Hiring process: Many fundraisers can be smooth talkers and it can be challenging to know which ones are, as Burk says, “particularly adept at selling themselves but far less capable once on the job.” Given that the fundraising cycle can take a long time, it is vital that hiring managers do their best to weed out the smoke-and-mirrors types. Gerard says, “When I’m interviewing someone, I’m always looking for very clear numbers when it comes to a person’s accomplishments. Fundraising candidates should be able to quantify their successes — rather than only telling great stories.” In her book, Burk lists a number of specific interview questions that can help “expose underperformers and showcase those who excel.”

Be realistic about what your organization has to offer a candidate. Gerard once presented a promising candidate (who only lacked major gifts experience) to a client. The organization eventually decided to pass on this candidate only because they recognized that they did not have the resources or time to help that candidate be successful.

“Fundraisers must be interesting enough for donors to want to interact with them,” Burk notes, and further suggests conducting interviews in a setting like a living room, to see whether candidates are able to be active listeners and stimulating conversationalists. She recommends documenting first impressions of the candidate and asking others in your organization their first impressions, noting that having staff interview finalists helps determine a collegial fit.

Green advises to carefully evaluate a candidate’s achievements. “If a candidate has been somewhere for under a year and claims to have raised a significant amount of money, be skeptical, knowing that a major gift cycle takes twelve to eighteen months.” Listen between the lines of what references say and, where appropriate, talk with mutual acquaintances about their experiences with prospective candidates.

After you hire: According to Gerard, it is important to use measurable indicators to evaluate the activities of the fundraiser — e.g. how many touchpoints have you had with donors, how many meetings, where is each donor in the process, etc. Evaulation is important, and as Aspinall says, “Fundraisers want to be scrutinized, not left flailing.” Gerard adds, “I would be concerned about people who don’t like this kind of measurement and reporting. Accountability is important for both sides — it shows an organization what a fundraiser who hasn’t brought in $1M in their first year has been doing and whether success will likely follow. For a fundraiser, it prevents discouragement.”

Breaking up is hard to do: The reality is that no one stays anywhere forever. “A satisfactory tenure is a length of time at the end of which both employer and employee agree that their organization has been well served,” says Burk. Too often, however, regardless of who initiates the breakup, it happens either too quickly or too late.

Gerard observes that, too often, fundraisers get impatient and think perhaps they will have better success at another organization, that it will be easier to fundraise elsewhere, without realizing that by quitting after a year, they will have lost that year’s work and are starting from scratch at another organization. Leaders also can prematurely end a fundraiser’s contract if they don’t understand the the fundraising cycle and the length of time required for a fundraiser to be successful.

More common, however, organizations think it’s hard to let an underperforming fundraiser go. “If it truly isn’t a fit,” says Green, “it’s in everyone’s best interests to let them go and find a place where they will be a good fit.”

While finding great fundraisers and helping them to succeed will strengthen your organization, remember too that,as Burk says, “Even when best practices are deployed, employers are still bound to hire staff from time to time who underperform and/or are not well suited for the job…Reflect on what went awry and learn from it and share your new knowledge with others.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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