The Road to Retention
Jennifer Smith doesn’t hesitate to answer when asked why she’s stayed at her workplace for so long: supportive supervisors, opportunities for professional development, and clear paths for career growth.
“That open and honest communication about your career goals and how your team can help you get there is so important,” she says. “I thrive in an environment where collaboration is truly a priority and there is investment in my professional growth.”
Smith has been a development officer at the University of California, Irvine, for 12 years—eight times the average tenure of a gift officer. During that time, she has risen through the ranks from associate director of development for UCI’s School of Humanities to senior director of development for the university’s central office.
She has quarterly check-ins with her supervisor about her career trajectory, she and her colleagues receive robust professional development, and UCI has accommodated her each time she has wanted to advance. Smith knows she could probably make more money elsewhere, but would she receive as much support? “You are always going to work harder for someone who is invested in you and helping you,” she says.
An employee with longevity like Smith’s is a coveted resource in today’s higher education landscape. With more and more universities embarking on record-breaking fundraising campaigns, grappling with stagnant enrollment, and defending their place amid seismic societal shifts, employees with institutional knowledge and deep-rooted relationships with faculty and staff are essential to communicating the values of an institution and connecting the public with stories that embody those values.
These are challenging times for higher education. Good advancement professionals—those who work in communications, alumni relations, and development divisions—are in high demand, and universities need to work harder than ever to keep them. “There are too many opportunities,” Smith says. “If there is an inkling of unhappiness, people are going to start to look. And they don’t need to make a lateral move; they can get a jump in their salary.”
Research shows that often it is not pay that prompts workers to leave their jobs, but stalled careers or a dearth of employee engagement in the workplace. Disconnected employees are much more likely to job hunt, according to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report. Researchers found that 56% of nonengaged employees were “looking for jobs or watching for opportunities,” versus 37% of engaged workers.
Another Gallup survey from 2008 found that career growth outpaced pay as the main reason for employee turnover. Thirty-two percent of respondents cited career advancement or promotion as the top reason for leaving, while 22% reported pay.
The toll of turnover in higher education is remarkably high.
Studies have cited varying levels of financial strain on institutions. Researcher Penelope Burk established the cost of replacing a development officer at more than $127,000—and that was seven years ago. In a 2018 report, the Work Institute claimed it costs one-third of a position’s salary to replace a worker. “Consider this: For every three workers who leave your company, for the same expense, you could likely have one additional full-time employee,” the Work Institute report posits. “The cost and effect of constant turnover is devastating to a company’s productivity.”
Just 30% of higher education staffers said their leaders engage them in regular discussions about professional development.
Then there are the intangible costs: the time it takes for a new employee to get up to speed and establish new connections, and the workplace knowledge that a departing employee takes away. Teresa Flannery, vice president for communications at American University, estimates it takes at least a year for employees to get the hang of their jobs and develop a nuanced understanding of their new institution. It takes several more years for them to reach mastery of their roles. “Then there’s the question of how long it takes you to establish trusting relationships,” she says, adding that new employees “have to establish their credibility, competence, and trust with people across the institution.”
In fundraising, the time frame for that process can be even longer. It can take years to cultivate a donor for a major gift. If an employee leaves in the middle of that relationship-building process, the departure has ramifications well beyond the individual’s salary. Thirty percent of organizations reported turnover as a major impediment to closing more gifts, according to a 2017 survey of 270 advancement leaders by consultancy Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
“It sets everything back,” Smith says. “Universities would be very well served to invest in their great talent and figure out a plan [for] how to keep those people.”
Yet the kind of support Smith has experienced at UCI is far from the norm in higher education. Research suggests that although most employees crave career guidance and professional development, few report receiving it.
Just 30% of higher education staffers said their leaders engage them in regular discussions about professional development, according to a 2018 report by higher education consultancy Academic Impressions. Seventy-one percent of the 2,577 respondents said they would be more likely to stay at their institution if they received professional development.
In a 2016 study, educational technology companies Ellucian and Cornerstone found that 47% of university staff reported work culture as a top driver of attrition at their institutions (meanwhile, 58% of the 469 respondents cited compensation).
Institutions and managers can minimize turnover by examining their engagement practices. The Academic Impressions survey found that more than half of respondents (55%) said they were unlikely to leave their jobs if their division had a culture of professional development and growth.
“What are you doing in onboarding? What are you doing in commitments to professional development? What are you doing to create opportunities for employees to get the variety they seek?” asks Flannery. “How are you investing in them in ways that say ‘You are really important to me,’ which includes salary but isn’t limited to that?”
Investing in Development
In the middle of an aggressive $2 billion fundraising campaign, the University of Toronto launched another ambitious project: a series of in-house professional development programs open to all advancement workers. The university’s Advancement College holds sessions throughout the year to help employees develop unit-specific strategies for better performance and leadership skills. The goal, according to David Palmer, the university’s vice president of advancement, is to help workers develop new skills and find success in their current roles, as well as prepare them for professional growth.
Since the university launched the college in 2015, Palmer says, the capacity and sophistication of fund-raising units has increased significantly throughout the institution. He credits the in-house program with helping the university close its most recent campaign $700 million over the original $2 billion goal.
Palmer’s division also connects a handful of senior-level staff members with robust external professional development and coaching opportunities each year. The benefits of continuing education are twofold: It gives workers the skills to improve performance and build connections, and it shows them that the institution is committed to their careers.
Professional development programs, Palmer says, help keep turnover at U of T low and allow the university to fill many top vacancies internally. Two recent assistant vice presidents of advancement were internal hires.
“At the end of the day, people feel good about what they do when they feel they are growing personally in their role, that they’re making a difference, and that the kind of difference they can make in their role is growing and expanding over time,” Palmer said. “There’s a tremendous personal satisfaction in that type of growth. That’s really the key to attracting and retaining the best people in our business.”
Sixty percent of employees leave jobs, or consider leaving, because of a bad supervisor ... Meanwhile, 58% of workers said they would stay at jobs with lower salaries if that meant working for a great boss.
Julia Zito knows this firsthand. She participated in American University’s leadership institute, an internal development program that cultivates mid- and senior-level staff. The institute’s interactive lessons helped her define her career goals and develop leadership and problem-solving skills.
This kind of opportunity “really speaks to the type of culture that I want to be a part of: an organization that recognizes [that its] investment in you is beyond even the role you have right now, [an organization] that is invested in your growth,” explains Zito, American’s assistant vice president for marketing.
Even after finishing the program, graduates of the institute continue to meet quarterly and are often used as a brain trust to review new university programs. Graduates have also proposed and launched their own employee engagement programs, including a universitywide mentoring and job-shadowing program.
Zito’s biggest takeaway from the leadership institute is the relationships she forged with staff from across the institution. Her new connections help her feel more embedded in the university. “People get stuck in their silos. Through the leadership institute and the mentoring program, there is an intent to introduce people to others at the university,” Zito says. “The goal is to share institutional knowledge across divisions and to see opportunities that you might not have seen before. The goal is that you build more job satisfaction, that you understand your piece of the greater whole and how the institution can benefit from the work that you are doing.”
As much as employees want to add value to their institutions, they also want their workplace to add value to their lives by providing opportunities for career advancement. One of the best employer strategies for increasing staff longevity is career counseling, says Zach Smith, deputy managing partner for search firm Witt/Kieffer’s education practice (and husband of UCI development officer Jennifer Smith).
Career counseling “creates a career-focused culture,” explains Smith. Rather than a sole focus on what employees are doing for the university, there are also discussions about what the organization can do for the employee. Smith says employers should hold several check-ins each year, including conversations about career trajectory and tangible ways to accomplish professional growth. “Universities could perform at a much higher level if they were focused on this,” he says.
Managers in higher education are notoriously bad at having conversations about professional growth, adds Amit Mrig, president of Academic Impressions. If managers know their unit does not have the resources to offer a raise or enough imminent openings to accommodate promotions, they may avoid career conversations. But avoidance, Mrig says, can leave employees feeling frustrated and hopeless about their career growth. “A lot of managers are reticent to engage their staff in these conversations if they don’t have something for them. It’s a big fallacy,” he says. “The reality is [that] people just want to be challenged in their role. They want to know that they are continuing to grow, learn new things, and contribute to the mission in new and interesting ways.”
Even if managers cannot offer a raise or a promotion, they can support opportunities for professional development and find stretch assignments that challenge workers in new ways.
In many cases, Mrig says, managers have not received training on how to engage their employees about career growth. In other cases, supervisors might be so busy they fail to make conversations about career trajectory a priority, says Christine Pina, chief advancement officer at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. “As a leader, you want to be known for really developing good, strong people,” says Pina. “The best managers develop a high emotional intelligence and can really pay attention to the signs.”
Research reveals that an emboldened supervisor can make or break an employee’s work experience. Sixty percent of employees leave jobs, or consider leaving, because of a bad supervisor, according to a 2018 survey of 763 workers by human resources company Randstad. Meanwhile, 58% of workers said they would stay at jobs with lower salaries if that meant working for a great boss.
“It really comes down to supervisory support: Is your supervisor engaged with you?” asks Mrig. Such support includes having conversations with workers about their careers, giving stretch assignments to those who want them, and trying to align job responsibilities with particular employees’ strengths.
A Ladder for Growth
When Peter Hayashida arrived at the University of California, Riverside, nine years ago, it quickly became apparent that he needed to create a defined structure of promotion within his division. As vice chancellor for advancement, Hayashida oversees 120 employees, and he wants them all to understand the path to promotion so they can envision a future at Riverside.
The career ladder in Hayashida’s division has five rungs, with roles at the entry, junior, mid-career, senior, and leadership levels. Each role has fixed goals and a preferred length of tenure. The number and levels of roles within units are clearly publicized, allowing staff to know whether they can grow in their existing unit or would need to move to another unit to climb the ladder.
The increased transparency, Hayashida says, gives employees an understanding of the potential for growth in the advancement division, allowing them to strive and plan for that growth. The structure is simultaneously beneficial for the institution because it creates a pipeline of workers who are equipped to fill senior-level roles, letting the university look internally when there are critical openings. To encourage internal movement, the advancement division also emails employees a weekly notice of job openings.
“People will go where they feel they are going to be treated appropriately and valued, and where they are going to experience growth,” Hayashida says. “If they get to a point where they don’t see a future, then I don’t blame them for going somewhere else.”
Hayashida understands the toll of turnover and has worked to put networks in place that encourage job satisfaction. He conducts a yearly survey that examines employee engagement within his division. Staff consistently report recognition and acknowledgment—peer-to-peer recognition programs, awards, announcements at meetings, individual expressions of gratitude and encouragement—as the most important factor in their job satisfaction. In the most recent survey, Hayashida says, workers expressed a desire for more professional development and career planning, as well as for learning about the work of their colleagues.
Since the first engagement survey five years ago, Hayashida says, his division has made great strides in its employee engagement. The division has launched a lunch-and-learn series, during which staff share their career trajectories and advice; a weekly job notice; awards to recognize staff for reaching milestones; and a team of employees tasked with creating engagement activities to boost morale.
Hayashida also makes himself available to any of his employees if they want to brainstorm ideas or simply talk. “I don’t say no to anyone. If anyone from my organization wants to spend time with me, that’s my first priority,” he says. “At the end of the day, if they’re not successful, I am not successful.”
Though Hayashida sets the vision and builds the structure, he knows it’s his staff—particularly those in the middle—who are executing crucial communication plans and creating programs to excite donors. These people are on the ground working tirelessly to complete Riverside’s $300 million fundraising campaign.
“The group in the middle is the engine pulling you forward,” he says. “We can’t ignore them.”
Turnover: Not Always a Bad Thing
The voluntary turnover rate in the advancement division at the University of California, Riverside, ranges between 10% and 15% each year.
Peter Hayashida, Riverside’s vice chancellor for advancement, is pleased with that range.
Although employee longevity is deeply valued at his institution, Hayashida also understands the value of new team members. They can bring fresh ideas and question the status quo in ways existing employees either are uncomfortable with or are not considering.
“My philosophy on turnover is that it should not be zero, or you are doing something wrong,” he says. “At some point there is a risk of groupthink, where people are working together for so long that they stop thinking creatively.”
Hayashida continues, “People who come in brand new ask questions that those of us who have been here don’t think of. ‘Why do we do things that way? Why haven’t we thought of this that way? At my previous institution we did that.’ That’s really important to keep the organization fresh.”
Research from the Society for Human Resource Management found the annual voluntary turnover rate in the United States in 2016 was 13%. The overall turnover rate was 18%, including firings and layoffs.
Teresa Flannery, vice president for communications at American University, says that “some refreshment of the team” is important, as it can infuse a division with new skills and new perspectives from people of different ages and cultural backgrounds.
“In the balance between longevity and higher turnover, you want some level of stability but you also want some level of new membership in the organization to keep things fresh,” she says. “For teams that have to do with the communications aspects of advancement, [turnover] is particularly important because of the creativity it brings and because, in a digital world, the skill sets keep changing so quickly.”
Although some turnover may be beneficial, it would be best if such turnover occurred at the low end of the performance spectrum, says Zach Smith, deputy managing partner for search firm Witt/Kieffer’s education practice. According to the SHRM report, the turnover rate for high performers was just 3% in 2016.
“Certainly new ideas are always beneficial to an organization, but in development long-term relationships are essential for fundraising success,” explains Smith. “Strategic turnover is important; however, that relates more to moving out low performers and constantly assessing and ensuring you have the right people on the bus to be successful.”
Retention and Management Resources
About the author(s)
Kellie Woodhouse is the Communications Director at San Diego State University. She has written for Inside Higher Ed, Slate, PBS Newshour, and more.
Article appears in:
Advancing to the top: How professionals from advancement fields found their way to top leadership roles. Plus, advancement professionals share how to avoid data pitfalls, and CASE celebrates 10 years of training the next generation of fundraisers.