Spinning Faster and Getting Nowhere

| by Mendi Nieters

I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned in the first few years of development work. In my first year, we had planned 13 mass-market event fundraisers. The development manager left two months before half of the events took place.  We had a new CEO, and I discovered my position was funded by adding event income to the budget. If only I had known! 

My reaction was to keep running. I proceeded to work weekends and several nights a week as we onboarded a new development manager, then another one.  It was like we were hamsters in a wheel spinning until someone decided to jump off and a new person jumped on. Each time we had a change, I had the pleasure of meeting with volunteers and donors or share our “new plan” going forward.  

The stats around development turnover are as true today as they were when I first started. According to the study UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising by CompassPoint and the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund: 

  • The average development officer plans on leaving within 2 years. 

  • Development director vacancy averaged 6 months. 

  • One third of executive directors are not happy with development performance.  

It’s a vicious cycle that comes at a cost.  Considering it takes a full year to learn the organization’s rhythms and donors – much less activate strategy.  On average that leaves you have less than a year with that person. In between you have a lapsed position and even more lapsed donors.  

How we got the hamster wheel to stop spinning. 

What I still don’t know is if it stopped because of luck or good strategy.  It was probably a combo of both! 

Some of these steps we did intentionally and some were by accident, but all attributed to creating an environment where our development work could thrive. 

  • Invest in your people: The number one factor for development staff leaving is money. There is a greater need for good development talent than people in the field, so this investment is key.  If you can’t afford to fully invest right now, offer other benefits. Offering more professional time off enhances any benefits package and is the expectation these days.   

  • Invest in training: Get your team the training they need. With active local Association of Fundraising Professional chapters, workshops, and online training, it is not hard find affordable training to fit any need.  

  • Invest in flexibility: Development never has been or will be a 9 to 5 job. Offering staff flexible hours and locations instills trust and confidence and helps offset those 7 am donor coffee meetings and weekend events.   

  • Invest in a plan and tools: The study also showed that 31% of organizations had no fundraising plan in place. Once we had a plan in place and systems documented, we had the tools to drive it, even when someone left.  

  • Invest in culture: I think this was the big tipping point for us.  When we stopped to celebrate the small victories, explored and held ourselves accountable to core values, and created a donor-centered team, the spinning disappeared.  We went from a team in constant transition to a team where people stayed 4 plus years. 

Change is hard, but necessary if your team is spinning because by default you are not moving forward.  The challenge is to STOP and think about what small steps you can take to get off that hamster wheel! 

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