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How can we stop this crazy false economy?
Non-profit leaders should urgently invest in improving the flagging morale of their fundraisers.


Ken Burnett, writer, publisher and occasional fundraising consultant.

Blog 11th July 2012

...the average stay for a fundraiser in the USA is just 16 months and the cost to replace each one averages $127,650. This is serious expense on top of mega-disruption for their fundraising organisations.

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Oh dear, more bad news this week about the troubled state of mind of those fragile, sensitive possums, Britain’s young fundraisers. According to a Charity Pulse survey recently trumpeted in the estimable Third Sector magazine, morale at the younger end of our profession has slumped to a new low.

Here are some of their key findings:

  • Half those polled said morale at their charity is low – nearly twice as many as a year ago.
  • Less than half plan to still be in the same job this time next year. That’s up by a scary 23 per cent.
  • More than half think their senior management is ineffective – again, well up on last time.

Aah, bless them! These are hard times of course but even so, this slide in job satisfaction among the young seems extraordinary. No wonder they’re troubled. Maybe the rest of us should be too.

In the UK it’s broadly assumed that fundraisers stay in post on average just 18 months before moving up or, more often, upping sticks – going elsewhere to secure better recognition, pay and conditions. I can’t prove the statistic but suspect it’s reasonably accurate. Research doyenne Penelope Burk recently reported (see opposite) that the average stay for a fundraiser in the USA is just 16 months and that, all in, the overall cost to replace each one averages $127,650. This is serious expense on top of mega-disruption for their fundraising organisations. Apparently, Penelope goes on to explain, keeping rather than replacing the movers would cost much less, on average just $46,650, if invested prudently in better salaries, work conditions and more holiday time.

So not investing enough to keep and retain the best seems to be a false economy of some scale. Calamitous even. Unless this slide is arrested morale, already alarmingly low, seems set to sink still further.

While there’s not likely to be an easy or total solution to this it’s a no brainer that collectively and individually our sector leaders should all be doing a lot more to stop the drain. For one thing (see the twin secrets of fundraising success) it’s impossible for most long-term fundraising plans to be conceived or realised if the people who must implement them aren’t around long enough to get them started, far less steer them to fruition.

So what could we do?

  • We could elevate the issue. Commit to keeping the best.
  • Define and promote the culture of a great fundraising environment (I sense some work here for my partners Alan Clayton and Jacob Rolin).
  • Create a concept of staff stewardship that parallels best practice in the stewardship and development of donors, but instead focuses on what it takes to keep and develop our staff.
  • Offer long service rewards. They do this quite effectively in Australia. Not just the longer you stay the more holiday you’ll enjoy, but sabbaticals after 10 years and other perks.
  • Offer more money to the proven achievers. Substantially more.
  • Show clearer career progression. Promote from inside whenever you can.
  • Better training and more of it, including skillshares and inspiration events.
  • Better leadership. Investment in leadership training for mid-managers and above.
  • Firmer action earlier on under-performers. If this initiative could be broad enough to include under-performing trustees/ board members  our sector might actually get somewhere (miracles can happen…).
  • Make your fundraising office a hotbed of innovation and creativity, a great place to work and learn and a nice place to be, too.
  • Publicise what it takes to be a great place to work.
  • Celebrate best practice much more … with awards, features, profiles, league tables for great employers and so on.

That’s just for starters. I’m sure a sector as creative and imaginative as ours can come up with many innovative ideas to turn the tide, stem the flow and make the voluntary sector the shining exception, the one sector where everyone wants to stay put because where they work is so great.

Come to think of it though, I don’t know why this inability to invest in systems that nurture and develop our best staff should so shock me. As we know to our cost charities are much less good than they should be at attracting, inspiring and retaining donors in all their variety. So it’s perhaps not surprising at all that fundraisers too should be lapsing and attritting by the shedload.

Seems we never learn.

© Ken Burnett 2012

PS Before you write, I use the phoney verb to attrit here very much with tongue in cheek, in the hope that I’ll discourage its use. Though I fear the irony will be lost on many. Needless to say, they’re the ones who shouldn’t get that pay rise, more holidays or indeed any perks other than being shown the door to, perhaps, a career where how you communicate doesn’t matter.

For more from Charity Pulse about what fundraisers themselves are telling us about the state of their morale, see here.

Ken Burnett is co-founder of Clayton Burnett Limited, a director of The White Lion Press Limited, a consultant to The Burnett Works agency and former UK director, director of fundraising and chairman of the board of trustees for the international development charity ActionAid. He’s author of several books including Relationship Fundraising and The Zen of Fundraising and is managing trustee of SOFII, The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration.

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How Third Sector announced the findings from Charity Pulse.

We know to our cost that charities are much less good than they should be at attracting, inspiring and retaining donors in all their variety. So it’s perhaps not surprising that fundraisers too should be ‘lapsing and attritting’
by the shedload.


The above information appeared first in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The underlining is mine.

Reader’s comment

Reader Nicola Tallett, fundraising and marketing director at the UK’s MS Society, has written to point out that low morale in a fundraising team is often linked to one or more individual’s inability to deliver. While their colleagues aim high and dream big, they just want an easy time doing what they always did, so they’re frustrated. And the more their colleagues thrive, the more their morale sags.

She’s right, of course. Low morale is often self-inflicted and perhaps is the mirror image of low morale imposed from on high by poor leadership. Such people are what my partner Alan Clayton would call ‘the drains’. Every NGO has them and it’s best to part company with such folk sooner rather than later, before they affect the morale of those around them.

The point is, low morale is costly and saps everyone’s energy. It has to be addressed.


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