For Impact


The Development Officer Churn

Team | | Nick Fellers

The turnover rate of nonprofit development professionals is alarmingly high. A study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy a few years ago put the average stay of a development officer at 16 months!!! In the virtual era — where unemployment rates are low and the friction to move jobs is almost nonexistent — we’re seeing anecdotal evidence to suggest that this churn may be increasing! 

Why is the churn so high?

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 (or story). The third is the right person. 
Making a development hire successful is a three-legged stool. Remove any one of these three legs and the stool doesn’t work (hence, the churn)…

  1. Team commitment to a funding model.

    Most organizations don’t have a funding model. I believe this is the wedge that drives 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 an assortment of fundraising activities. Perhaps this includes an annual event, some emails, grant applications, and some individuals asks.

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

    But the commitment to *a* model (generally) supersedes a commitment to a sales model (specifically).

    Note: If you approach this conversation 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 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? Culture is about values. It’s also about how you work. (See: Building a Culture of Philanthropy.)

    On Context: Is this person coming from a 100-year-old school?  In that case, the job is about stewardship and maximizing relationships.  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.

Bottom line points:

  • Hire the right person into a defined model, with something to sell; OR
  • Hire with eyes wide open and a clear mandate + support for the new hire to develop the model and funding rationale.