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To improve retention, keep your road warrior fundraisers better connected to campus

By Arminda Lathrop

Justine Beckett

A colleague new to advancement recently asked me why 12 gift officers had left her university during her first six months on the job. The fundraisers, her vice president said, had been lured away with great opportunities elsewhere. This is a common explanation for high turnover in the United States—the average tenure of gift officers is 18 to 24 months nationally—but doesn't provide advancement leaders with insight on retaining staff.

Good major gift officers leave for various reasons: poor leadership, lack of support, no options for promotion. But research shows they are willing to stay in less-than-ideal conditions when they're connected to the institution and feel their voice is heard.

Most fundraisers who plan to stay in their positions do so for two key reasons, found a survey conducted by Cygnus Applied Research. First, they believe in the importance of the organization and its mission. Second, they are "included as a respected participant in discussions and decision-making on issues affecting fundraising."

In our metric-driven haste to get gift officers on the road as frequently as possible, we've overlooked the necessity of connecting them more deeply to the university and advancement team. Frontline fundraisers can't make a compelling case to donors when they feel little ownership of the university's vision, people, or needs.

We also need to educate fundraisers on the challenges facing higher education. I've met with savvy donors who want to discuss the latest tuition increase or the dean's funding cuts for select departments. Development officers are frequently asked why their comparatively wealthy university deserves donations when the social service sector is desperate for funding. To respond knowledgeably, gift officers need to know their business and believe in it.

Advancement leaders must encourage gift officers to participate actively in the university community, says JoAnne Dolan, assistant vice president for principal gifts at The George Washington University. "Staff members need to feel as though they are a part of the fabric of the place. It's about establishing a culture and commitment that we're all in this together."

Build Investment through the three C's

Many frontline fundraisers believe in the importance of education, but that will not keep them at an institution. As managers, we must take a long-term perspective and help grow fundraisers' attachment to the college and campus community by discussing more than visits, asks, and dollars. We need to consider the three C's: contribution, culture, and credibility. These help development officers take ownership of the team's and institution's success.


With a sole focus on closing gifts, fundraisers are often relieved of other, distracting tasks. Though this approach is understandable—gift officers don't need to plan the next alumni event—it leaves them disconnected from campus and sends the message that gift officers are lone rangers rather than integral contributors to the staff culture.

Dynamic, multifaceted gift officers can manage a fundraising project without allowing it to monopolize their time. Overseeing strategy for minicampaigns, such as a small-scale capital project or funding a departmental endowed chair, is a great way for development officers to deepen their connection to the institution by learning about its priorities and collaborating with colleagues to identify potential donors.

At the Oregon State University Foundation, which recently completed a $1 billion campaign, the average tenure for gift officers who stay through their first anniversary is seven years. Major gift officers take the lead on special initiatives that broaden their exposure to other areas of the university. One fundraiser, for example, led the Provost's Faculty Match, a program that leveraged internal and external resources for endowed positions. "It gave the development officer an opportunity to work with university leaders to build a new program and take ownership for its success," says Executive Vice President Shawn Scoville.


The OSU Foundation's culture promotes civility, teamwork, productivity, and continuous improvement, while working to recruit and retain staff at all levels. "We hire people who understand our culture and want to be a part of it," Scoville says.

Connection to the rest of the advancement team is essential to staff retention, but how often do managers ask gift officers about the role they're playing in the team culture? Major gift officers, who are often senior members of the staff, can serve as mentors and role models. Prioritizing collegiality, collaboration, and cooperation with the rest of the development team is essential. This emphasis begins during onboarding and continues through performance review discussions.

"People have to become committed, not just to the cause but to one another," says Anne Murray Allen, vice president of organization design and integration at the consulting firm Conversant. From her work around the world, Allen has concluded that team members remain divested from a goal unless they are emotionally connected to one another. Encouraging gift officers to get to know their colleagues and better understand their roles, challenges, and goals will help them feel invested.


In addition to building strong relationships within the advancement office, gift officers should also partner with colleagues across campus. This can be difficult, particularly if they're perceived as flighty socialites with little understanding of faculty perspectives or the challenges facing higher education. Every gift officer has been asked if he or she attends parties for a living. Feeling devalued or misunderstood makes it easier to accept the next call from a recruiter and move on to a new job.

To build campus partnerships—and credibility—development officers should comprehend their university's needs and challenges and combat misconceptions about fundraising. They need to know how their position is vital to achieving the university's long-term goals and how those goals distinguish their university from its peers. By understanding higher education issues on a national level, they'll be equipped for conversations within and outside of development, which can help build mutually beneficial partnerships with faculty members and deans.

The Importance of Leadership

The three C's won't substitute for the basic structure required for major gift officers to thrive: a clear promotion ladder, learning and professional development opportunities, a strategic vision from leadership, and dedicated administrative support. Indeed, overreliance on gift officers' commitment to the cause plagues the development shops of small nonprofits everywhere. But good organizational structure isn't enough: development officers need opportunities to invest themselves in the campus and community.

Institutions also require patient leaders who understand that retaining fundraisers long term will lead to more gifts, larger gifts, and donors with stronger affinity. While traditional performance metrics of visits, dollars raised, asks, and closes remain essential, managers need to consider the three C's in onboarding and ongoing performance management. We must expect a deeper knowledge and greater buy-in from gift officers and provide support and time for them to build these crucial connections. "People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves," says Dondi Cupp, associate vice president for development at the University of Michigan. "We need to guide them in seeing the institution's vision and goals as their own."

About the Author Arminda Lathrop Arminda Lathrop

Arminda Lathrop is director of development at The George Washington University's School of Engineering and Applied Science and an international consultant on strategic partnerships and fund development.




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