Are Our Hiring Practices Following Our Fundraising Goals?

For the last several years, the idea of donor retention has been much discussed.  Thought leaders like Adrian Sargeant, Penelope Burk, Jay Love and so many others including those associated with the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, have urged us to improve our stewardship practices telling us that donor attrition will rates will never improve if we don’t continue to improve our stewardship practices.  As a result, we’ve all worked harder to acknowledge gifts in a more timely fashion, more sincerely, and more creatively with mixed results.  We’ve also worked to be more creative and faithful about reporting back to our donors about the impact of their gifts, again, with mixed results.  Reports on our practices continue to find uneven practices with some of us acknowledging gifts swiftly, others slowly, and still others, not at all.

In the years that we have spent talking about donor stewardship and its importance for donor retention, little seems to have changed.  In fact, if anything, donor retention rates have continued their downward spiral and the problem has gotten worse. 

Why has it been so difficult to make head-way on this problem? Why has it been so hard to turn the ship around on these issues?  Here are a few of the challenges some organizations–particularly small to mid-size organizations–face:

In small- to medium-size nonprofits, the person who performs data entry of donations and mail merges thank you notes may not be a member of the development team.  He or she may be a member of an administrative team and may report to someone else—often the Executive Director.  The Development Director may have little or no say in the prioritization of that person’s job tasks or how his or her job is performed (particularly where Executive Directors do not have a good understanding of fundraising and the Executive Director supervises this employee).

The people we hire for these positions—when we are allowed to hire for them—are often some of the worst paid people in our organizations.  They’re usually hourly and not infrequently part-time.  They tend to fall into two categories:

  1. Administrative—Treating donations as secretarial work.
  2. Financial/Bookeeping—Treating donations as things to be receipted and reconciled financially

Donor stewardship as we’ve come to understand it is so much more than that.  According to Penelope Burk in Donor Centered Fundraising, stewardship entails, donor recognition, donor appreciation, and stewardship.  These things include things like honoring a donor’s intent, investing gifts wisely, donor welcome kits or packages, refreshing content of thank you notes regularly, and regular communications like annual reports and newsletters. While no one person in the development office has to be able to perform all of these functions, it is important for there to be people to perform these functions and it would be very helpful if the people who were hired to assist with donor stewardship could, in fact, help with donor stewardship in more ways than simply by issuing a receipt or a perfunctory thank you note. Ordinarily, the people hired for these positions have only a limited understanding of (and, unfortunately, interest in) development.

Further, we should not think that these issues are unique to small- and medium- size nonprofits.  I had coffee with a colleague from a medium-sized university the other day. He mentioned that they don’t currently have anyone doing gift acknowledgement on their development team–despite the fact that they have a pretty large team of development officers. The university’s leadership has decided to prioritize development officers for colleges over the hiring of back-end development staff which brings up yet another staffing issue in hiring and staffing for retention:  no support from executive leadership. While we as Chief Development Officers may run our development offices, we often have to acquire budget approval from Chief Financial Officers, Boards of Trustees, Presidents, or Executive Directors. Far too often, they don’t understand the need for back office support.  They haven’t been reading the literature about donor retention rates dropping out of the skies like meteorites. They keep pressuring us to be out of the office asking, asking, asking to make our ever-increasing, targeted goals while cutting both our back-office support and our own time to attend to these tasks.

We as fundraisers need to begin a dialogue about how we can do a better job of managing up, that is, how we can engage in a constructive dialogue with people outside of fundraising—particularly those with power over fundraising such as board members, CEOs, Presidents, Executive Directors—on the state of fundraising today and on what fundraising requires to succeed.  We need to do this so that we can succeed.  We also need to do this so that the organizations we serve and the causes we care about can succeed.

I think we’re all pretty-much in agreement that we need to do a better job of donor stewardship.  The trick for us is how to execute better stewardship when we don’t have back office support (sometimes even when we do have a staff member filling a position) and we’re not going to get allocations for the support we need from our Executive Directors, Presidents, Finance Directors, Trustees, and Board of Directors any time soon. So how we do we begin a dialogue with those in positions of leadership about the importance of this and our needs for this support?  Ideas?  Would love to hear from you!