For Impact


The Development Officer Churn

Team | | Nick Fellers

The turnover rate of nonprofit development professionals is beyond alarmingly high. A study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy put the average stay of a development officer at 16 months!!!

Turnover is so common that it’s a running joke at most conferences. “The first year they’re getting settled, the second year they’re updating their resume, the third year they’ve moved on.”

Why is this?

The right ‘fit’ is only part of the challenge.

There are three things an organization needs in order to make the hire successful. The first is a team commitment to a clear (defined) funding model. The second is a funding rationale. The third is the right person.

Making a development hire successful is a three-legged stool. It requires:

  1. Team commitment to a funding model.

    Most organizations don’t have a funding model. This is the wedge that’s driving a whole series of conversations about revenue and earned-income in the social sector. For now, let’s focus on a philanthropic funding model.

    Most organizations have a series of fundraising activities. This includes a gala, and a direct mail program.

    A clearly defined model should be standardized and measured around inputs, outputs and ROI (cost of fundraising / cost of revenue generation). At The Suddes Group we’re partial to a sales model (and this is what a commitment to sales looks like). But the commitment to a model supersedes a commitment to sales.

    Note: If you approach this conversation from from the ‘social impact / social enterprise’ space, the conversation has largely abandoned fundraising because it doesn’t see that there is a sustainable model. There is.

  2. A funding rationale!

    It’s not enough to say, “Look, we’re really committed to major gifts. Our program team ‘gets it’, our CEO will be there, our board will open doors. Go raise $3M!”

    Work must be done to translate the the funding need into a funding rationale. What’s the impact? What’s the message? And then translating that into a story around funding programs, priorities or initiatives. This work can be led by the development professional, or by other senior team members. But if it’s not completed, eventually the development professional will move on out of frustration.

    Imagine a salesperson in another sector that is simply told to ‘generate revenue’. He or she has no defined products or services. There is no rationale-for-the-sale. Just a general story about the company, its impact in the world, and a need for revenue.

  3. The right talent.


    In the hiring process, experience with fundraising is often over-valued. “Oh, you have five years of experience and your resume says $10M was raised? Fantastic! We need you!”

    Culture and context are undervalued.

    On Culture: Is this a fit with the culture? This includes the passion, interests and values. It also includes HOW the team works.

    On Context: Is this person coming from a 100-year-old school? In that case, the job is much more about stewardship and maximizing relationships (i.e., a different model). It’s not about building new leads and new networks.

    Note: Context is equally important to experienced development professionals. There are PHENOMENAL development professionals at 100 year old schools! My point is about context. Context can explain why that experience does or does not translate to a next organization.

    If you’re just starting a sales model – you might be better off bringing in someone with sales experience from the for-profit sector! Specifically someone with start-up sales experience.

    This speaks to aptitude!

    In the area of aptitude think about skill sets in these terms: marketing, sales, communications, event management. And THEN ‘management’. What base skills sets do you need for your model? Hire for those skills and then for the management of those skills.

A really important note in closing: Specific conversations about model and funding rationale are lacking in our sector. Our hope is that this article – and other stuff we publish – helps to provide awareness, concepts and vocabulary so that you and your team can address these challenges. Most organizations have parts and pieces — they’ve just never established a common language and definition around the model (or lack thereof).