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Half Of All Fundraisers Flee

By Patrick Sullivan - July 9, 2013

More than half of all chief development officers (CDOs) recently polled served less than two years in their most recent position, according to a study by Campbell & Company. A panel of chief development officers shared how things could and should be during the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) International Conference on Fundraising (ICON).

Marian DeBerry, director of executive search at Chicago, Ill.-based Campbell & Company, asked the three panel members their thoughts on how to prevent high turnover in development. “You really have to make sure you have a CEO with realistic expectations who understands the nonprofit industry,” said Amy Franze, executive vice president of field development for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

St. Louis Art Museum Development Director Carl Hamm agreed: “Shared expectations from the beginning are a reason why people leave because there’s a breakdown in communication,” he said. According to the Campbell & Company study, titled “CDO Confidential,” 75 percent of CDOs and 62 percent of CEOs cited unrealistic expectations as the reasons for high development director turnover.

Mark Stuart, chief development and membership officer for San Diego Zoo Global in San Diego, Calif., tried a unique approach in getting his CEO’s expectations lined up with the realities of development. “I got my CEO out of the office and visited donors,” he said. “He got to see why (the donors) were passionate, what they do now and what they’d do in the long term.”

More than one in four (28 percent) CDOs said their organization’s lack of understanding of development was a reason for their short tenure. To identify if there is a lack of understanding, Stuart suggested new CDOs ask their CEOs two questions: What is your vision for the next five to 10 years, and what are you willing to do to invest in philanthropy to achieve that vision. “If you can’t get clear answers, that’s not a place I would want to work,” said Stuart. “It’s a place that doesn’t see the role of philanthropy to fuel its vision.”

High turnover trickles down from CDOs to their staff. DeBerry noted that 18 to 30 months is the average tenure of a development professional, and asked, “What if this is the new normal?” DeBerry said that an 18-month tenure in a 20-year work history is not of concern to her, but she worries when she sees three successive 18-month tenures. “No matter how good (the candidate) is the real worth of their experience is six years back. If you’ve been somewhere for two years, you were finishing someone else’s work,” she said. Franze agreed, saying, “I want individuals who have been through the highs and lows of an organization.”

One of the keys to keeping gift officers, according to panelists, was making sure to hire the right person in the first place. There is a shortage of qualified candidates, said DeBerry. “When I interview people to work at the zoo, I don’t even look at the résumé anymore,” said Stuart. “I ask, ‘what are you passionate about?’ I want to hear ‘wildlife, conservation, education.’ Trying to hire someone based on passion is how to keep someone.”

Stuart and Franze both said that professional development programs help in retaining talent, as do benefits. Franze cited advancement opportunities, health benefits, investment plans and cross-share positions as some of the perks of working for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Hamm said that mangers must be clear about their expectations. “If all I care about is their output, they’re going to get frustrated,” he said. “I’d rather work with someone who’s learning and growing.”

A crucial component of a successful CDO tenure is getting the lay of the organizational land as quickly as possible. “You have to hit the ground running,” said Stuart. He said within two months of being hired at the zoo, he had to make a $500,000 ask of a couple he barely knew.

Hamm noted that it can be a challenge going from being a practitioner of a specific subset of development, such as major gifts or the annual campaign, to overseeing everyone. “Not doing the work product elements is liberating but challenging,” he said. “You don’t get to spend as much time on the things that brought you to that spot, and that’s something I didn’t anticipate.”

CDOs should not discount relationships with chief financial officers, either. “Talk about things that people don’t tell you when you take a CDO position,” said Hamm. “It’s one of the most important relationships. There’s nuance in the way we count gifts, the way we approach gifts we’d pursue. Even if you don’t see things eye to eye, you must understand and respect the position.” Stuart put it more succinctly: “Always make sure you’re best friends with the CFO because they have all the money,” he said.

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