James Murphy, Ph.D. CFRE

Strategic Partner

About James

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is why our profession has such a high rate of turnover of professional fundraisers. I often hear that the average tenure in a job for a major gift officer is 18 months. A partial answer might be that as demand for good fundraisers has bourgeoned in the past 20 years, competition, better salaries, and more challenging assignments have all played a role in luring us away to new positions after two or three years.

But the impact on organizations of such turnover rates can be severe. In a business based on cultivating and sustaining relationships with donors, frequent turnover may give donors pause.  Internally, the credibility of the advancement operation may suffer as well. One of the most painful stories I have heard is of a major gifts officer at a large hospital foundation whose job it was to manage grateful patient referrals from clinicians. When she introduced herself for her first meeting with a particularly esteemed surgeon who had been a source of patient referrals in the past, the physician produced three business cards, showed them to the development officer, and said, “These are the cards of your predecessors; you’re the fourth development officer I’ve met in three years.” Building and maintaining credibility in these circumstances can be extremely challenging. There are, no doubt, many examples of donors who have felt the same way as the surgeon.

Encouraging signs indicate that things are changing. Overall, the field of advancement is professionalizing and recognized standards such as the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) accreditation are becoming almost essential to a productive and rewarding career. Awareness of professional standards and credentials is far more widespread among institutional leaders than ever before. Another important development is that talent managers are becoming more active in seeking to understand the core competencies of outstanding development officers and how advancement teams operate.

Indeed, talent management is a hot topic in advancement. In larger organizations, talent management professionals may be embedded in the advancement team reporting to the vice president of advancement or the hospital foundation CEO. Those who directly manage major gift officers should also have a solid grounding in the skills needed to recognize, nurture, and coach talent, and work alongside talent managers.

While there is no magic formula to attract and retain the best fundraisers, there are five key areas where I believe HR professionals and development managers can build knowledge and understanding of the advancement profession, guide organizational practice, and build a strong culture of philanthropy.

1. Build a donor-centric foundation.

The role of the major gift officer is to raise money for the institution, and essential to this function is taking a donor-centric approach to fundraising. “Donor-centric” is not just a professional buzzword; in fact, it is the foundation for building a successful culture of philanthropy where donor relationships have moved beyond the transactional to the truly transformational. Implementing this across the organization, however, requires time and skill and engages everyone, from the top down. Part of a culture of philanthropy is that everyone has a firm grasp of their role in the donor relationship process.

2. Provide well-defined professional development opportunities.

Regular conferences of professional fundraising associations are valuable venues for fundraisers to network with peers, update knowledge, and compare professional notes. However, rigorous, research-driven training that builds the capacity of a major gift officer—especially those new to the profession or position—to engage the organization’s most important donors and prospects must be available. Look for a training firm that will truly partner with your organization by customizing training to your organization’s unique needs.

3. Pay attention to your high performers and potential high performers.

A strategic training plan for high performing and high-potential development professionals can help take those individuals to the next level of performance, improving, enhancing, and refining their skills. In addition, an investment in your major gift officers’ skills will go a long way in retaining them. I believe we all strive to continually improve and enhance our hard and soft skills through a variety of activities, and a well-designed talent management program will include a range of opportunities to take skills to the next level.

4. Use training to transform great fundraisers into great managers.

Often successful major gift fundraisers are promoted to management because they have been successful at raising money and engaging donors. But managing requires a different set of skills. Great major gift fundraisers may or may not be equally great at managing. However, they are often adept at recognizing talent. With proper training, those individuals can be equipped to guide the development of promising fundraisers.

5. Put a well-developed onboarding program into play.

For most non-profit organizations, whether a university, college, hospital foundation, or charity, fundraising is an integral component of their revenue model. It’s critical that organizational leadership moves beyond the concept that simply by hiring a few good development officers and unleashing them, fundraising will take care of itself. The trends now point to investing the resources needed to have a high-functioning advancement team properly resourced and trained, including a sophisticated onboarding program designed to bring new hires quickly up to speed.

Being a great development officer is a fine balancing act. Working strategically across the institution requires continual updating of knowledge both about institutional priorities and the technicalities of professional practice. It requires working with highly talented researchers and academic leaders, as well as engaging donors and maintaining strong relationships on behalf of the institution. And great fundraisers rarely work alone—their success is due, in part, to working in high-functioning teams. Our best advancement talent deserves the best training to execute these opportunities.

A CFO asks the CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people and they leave?”

The CEO replies, “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?

—Peter Baeklund

Advancement Resources provides research-based, donor-centric training solutions customized to your organization’s needs. Our specialists in instructional design, adult learning, and live and online training can assist you in training and retaining your advancement staff. Contact us to learn about our robust training options that can be designed to tackle the specific issues your organization is facing.

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