Five years after the widely discussed Compass Point Underdeveloped study of the fundraising profession, a new study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Association of Fundraising Professionals based on a large-scale Harris poll reveals that time and attention have not fixed the problems of the fundraising profession. In fact, half of all fundraising professionals surveyed (N=1,035) plan to leave their positions within the next two years and 30% report plans to exit the profession altogether. Moreover, a desire to leave the profession is not fueled by retirement goals or health problems, but by unreasonable expectations, toxic organizational cultures, and a lack of appreciation. (See the special report:  Why Are Fundraisers Fed Up).

Much of what has been written in the aftermath of the publication of these findings has focused on advice to nonprofit organizations on how to keep their development professionals.  See for examples, Why Fundraisers Leave and How to Keep Them and Should You Counter a Fundraising Professional’s Offer. I’ve read these recent articles with a somewhat different perspective as someone who is in my third decade of work as a fundraiser and who more than once has been in a situation that has had me looking for the door.  I’ve accepted more than one job that I’ve wanted to leave before the first year of my tenure ended.

I wanted to write an article this week for fundraising professionals—not for nonprofit organizations or CEOs, but for fundraisers themselves. It is miserable to be in a situation where your work is not understood, where the expectations are unreasonable and the people are ungrateful. It’s a horrible experience to work somewhere in which there is a crisis of mission or there are program problems that disappoint donors and communities and, while you are at the same time expected to “deliver” and “bring results.” No one wants to “sell” an organization when the product is poor or the culture is toxic. No one wants to work in a situation like that and I don’t want fundraisers to be in a bad situation.

I wanted this week to write my blog not about how organizations can hang onto fundraisers but how fundraisers can avoid going to work in impossible situations in the first place.

It’s tough for fundraising professionals to ferret out the truth in the interview process because everyone is going to tell you that their culture is fantastic, that their workplace is pleasant (“we’re all one big family,”) and that goals are reasonable. So how do you get to the heart of things and avoid taking jobs that you will want to exit in eighteen months or less?

Here are a few key questions to ask:

    1. What did leadership like about their last development director? Ask the CEO what his or her last development director did that was successful. Was the CEO happy with him or her? In the Compass Point study, only 27% of executives in organizations with budgets of less than $1 million were “very satisfied” with their development directors. If a CEO didn’t like his or her last CDO, chances are they won’t be happy with you either.Really probe on this point.  When was the last time he or she was happy with their development officer? Have they ever been?  If they haven’t, run. Chances are their expectations are unreasonable.
    2. How long was the last CDO there? And the one before that? And the one before that? What’s the pattern? Think you’ll be the exception? Think again! Assume your fundraising colleagues/predecessors knew what they were doing. If they didn’t last, you probably won’t either. The patterns repeat for lots of reasons. In one of the last places I worked, the average tenure of the Chief Development Officer was about 6 months. I would argue that there were unrealistic expectations of the CEO, but also, everyone had learned to expect the CDO to be a short timer. No one (not donors, not other staff) saw the position as one with which they would develop long-term relationships.
    3. Were any of the last 4-5 CDO’s fired? If so, why? What about other development staff (if there are others)? Note that you probably won’t get the honest truth to questions about terminations for lots of reasons, but listen to what is and isn’t being said. If one of the last development officers was fired, there is a good chance you will not be able to make them happy either (even if you are really, really good at your job).
    4. Did the CEO collaborate with the last development director? In what ways? As you ask about this, listen to hear whether or not the CEO treated the development officer like a partner, took direction from the CDO, or respected his or her advice. Does the CEO feel like the CDO was just an annoyance to work around?
    5. How is the CEO involved in fundraising? Some of the worst CEO’s to work with, in my experience, have not been the ones that aren’t involved in fundraising, but the ones who think they know all there is to know about fundraising—the ones who won’t take my advice, who won’t listen to information about best practices in the fundraising profession.
    6. Is the organization financially healthy? Look at the books. One of the challenges of going to work with a nonprofit organization is that published information on the organization’s performance has a time lag. Audits and 990s are not completed until well after the close of the financial year. Then, these documents usually don’t get posted to the web by Candid (Guidestar) or other organizations until a year or more has gone by. Any information you can put your hands on without asking the organization is likely to be old so ask for the last several financial reports to the board and development reports. Is the organization in financial trouble? Is the organization’s leadership being transparent with you about the organization being in trouble? If the organization is in the “red” – what is being done about it? What’s the explanation the organization offers? What’s the plan? What kind of a role will you be asked to play in addressing any budget deficits or shortfalls and how quickly?  Be very careful about taking a job with an organization whose budget is in the red. Even if the CEO has reasonable expectations of a development director in a situation like this, others in the organization might not—the finance director, the program director(s), and/or the board members could have the unrealistic expectation that you immediately fix the problem and can make your life difficult as a result.  Further, even if everyone is reasonable (which, bluntly, isn’t likely), there is a lot of pressure to not only make the financial goals for the year, but to help the organization raise the money it needs to cover prior year(s) deficits. Think carefully about whether or not you want to sign up to own these problems.
    7. Look at the development budget. Ask to see it in writing. If there isn’t one, you probably need to think hard about whether or not you want to work with the organization. If there isn’t a budget for development, the organization probably doesn’t understand development. It does take money to raise money. If the organization doesn’t get this, there is trouble.
    8. Finally, ask yourself: are you looking at this organization realistically? Let’s face it: those of us who work for nonprofits are often guilty of wearing rose-colored glasses. Most of us are interested in the mission of the organizations we apply to work with. Some of the worst job placements I’ve taken have been with organizations whose missions I totally was over the moon about. In those situations, I’ve sometimes been so excited about the possibility of working with the organization and working on behalf of its mission, I’ve ignored red flags and not asked hard questions. It is important to support the mission of the organizations we work with, but when you are ecstatic about the organization’s mission because you are soooo aligned with it, look extra hard at whether or not you’re looking at the picture realistically.

Like many professional fundraisers, I’ve been super annoyed with much of the conversation about the revolving door in fundraising. Too often that has focused on fundraising professionals as opportunistic, hopping without commitment from one organization to another simply to bump up our pay. I’m sure there are some fundraising professionals who fit that narrative, but I don’t know any of them. The sad reality is that far too many fundraising professionals, despite good skills and good work ethics find themselves in difficult situations where too much is asked. While organizations can do their part to work on the problems, we as fundraising professionals can do ours as well. We can work to avoid job opportunities that are doomed from the get-go.

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