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How nonprofits can help frustrated fundraisers

Let’s be honest here.  From a day-to-day, in-the-trenches, getting-it-done perspective, working for a nonprofit is little different from working for any other organization. It’s a job.

But many young people enter nonprofit work starry-eyed at the prospect of changing the world.

This is admirable.  But regardless of an organization’s mission, for those who work there the work is, well, work – with all the usual pressures, tensions, stresses and demands of any job in any industry.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a recent report published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy finds fundraisers at nonprofits are “fed up.” According to their survey, 51% of fundraisers expect to quit their jobs in the next two years.

Fundraisers reported feeling “too much pressure to meet unrealistic fundraising goals” along with being underappreciated by their organizations. This kind of negativity does not bode well in a field where employees are so driven by emotion and a connection to the nonprofit’s mission – and to the donors themselves.

In too many cases, a nonprofit’s mission takes precedence over everything else, from salaries to working conditions to time demands.  If an organization exists to change the world, leadership can justify expecting too much from employees who may be willing to sacrifice – but not quite to the extent as, say, the founder or others at the top.

The best nonprofits adopt practices embraced by corporate America that aim at employee well-being – from regular reviews and strong HR support to good benefits and at-market pay.  Cash-strapped nonprofits find it more difficult to justify these kinds of expenses.  This often leads to employee dissatisfaction and a short tenure.

How can nonprofits fix this?

1. Paint a realistic picture of work for a nonprofit

The survey reports that 93% of respondents said they couldn’t work for an organization without a strong connection to its cause.

This is a big source of disconnection. There’s a sizable gap between an organization’s overall mission and the day-to-day work that it takes to achieve their goals.

While there may be moments of exhilaration and satisfaction from seeing a child’s life saved, a disease cured, or an advocacy battle won, it’s still work. Expense reports still need to be filled out, emails still come flooding in, and co-workers still have their flaws.

That’s life.

Nonprofits should embrace the eagerness and goodwill of employees to do good but be realistic and upfront with new hires about their job duties and expectations.

2. Raise professional standards

There is no national governing body for nonprofits, as there is for engineers, architects, or other professions that assure employees in those professions meet certain knowledge and proficiency standards.  Thus, even some high-level nonprofit executives do not understand fundraising to the extent that they should – especially if they entered from another field.

Fundraising is difficult work. It takes time, effort, and specialized knowledge – whether to plan an event, digital campaign, or make personal connections with donors and convince them that your organization is more worthy of their hard-earned money than any of the thousands of others out there.

Setting unrealistic revenue goals and pressuring employees to hit them is a recipe for failure. Any unsteadiness at the top, including at the board level, that is borne of ignorance ripples throughout the organization and can frustrate any employee.

Better nonprofit-specific training could help this problem and provide employees new to the sector with a base-level knowledge of fundraising in all its dimensions.

3. Implement employee business skills training programs

High-level executives are not the only ones who need training, however. Fundraisers also need help and support in both fundraising and base-level business skills.

Follow the lead of corporate America which invests heavily in its people through a wide variety of training programs. Teach employees how to handle multiple tasks and prioritize their importance. Keep them informed about the latest techniques and technologies being developed. Create programs that help them manage their stress and frustration.

Look outside your organization as well. Ask around and see what others in the industry have done when faced with similar problems. Talk to consultants and agencies about how they’ve helped organizations improve their fundraising effectiveness. This episode of the Groupthinkers podcast, featuring David Lapin, shares some aspects of leadership training that you might even consider.

By improving employees’ soft and hard skills, they will feel more appreciated, develop a vision for their career and potential, and most fundamentally help make the nonprofit more effective in all it does.

Don’t leave your fundraising professionals out on an island without the tools they need for survival. This report by The Chronicle of Philanthropy is a clear cry for help.

Tim Kersten

Widely regarded as one of the nation’s top direct response fundraising, strategic and creative talents, Tim Kersten brings more than 40 years of experience to his role as Chairman of RKD Group. Prior to joining RKD, he served as Chief Creative Officer and Executive Creative Director at two national advertising agencies and ran his own successful direct response fundraising consultancy for nearly 25 years.

Some of the nation’s largest and most respected nonprofit organizations that have benefited from Tim’s insightful and persuasive communication strategies include the Smithsonian Institution, American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, National Park Foundation, Covenant House, and dozens of others. Tim’s work has been recognized by his receipt of four Direct Marketing Association Echo Awards (gold, leader and two silver from 1986 to 2010) and a prestigious International Caples Award (2010).

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