Issue 2 – Fall 2013: Coherent strategy is the first casualty of high turnover

A long-term history of staff turnover in a charity’s fundraising department is debilitating. Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) President & CEO Andrew Watt sees three trends among charities worldwide, but particularly in North America:

1. Very few charities can change direction in under five years – a period longer than the average tenure of many fundraisers and executives. When strategies are developed by one set of people, implemented by another and followed through by a third, awareness and coordination are lost.

2. Turnover at high levels demoralizes a charity’s entire staff. Strategic issues are tweaked constantly. The lower ranks, unable to keep up with constant changes, focus on their own jobs rather than the big picture.

3. People are not looking at the resources and skills that are available internally. The outside experience that external candidates can offer often swamps valuable internal experience.

“There is no sense of attachment to the overall mission and vision at every level when people are moving through in two or three years,” Andrew reflects. “When people know they may not be there in three years, they’re keen to change things immediately and long-term insights are lost. It’s critical to get long-term buy-in throughout the organization, yet that can’t happen without staff retention.”


AFP’s own statistics reveal a myriad of motivations for changing jobs. In the association’s 2013 survey, the most frequently cited reasons for considering a job change among both Canadian and U.S. members included:

39% to earn a higher salarycoherent-strategy

34% for more responsibility and authority

29% frustration with the work environment

23% to engage in more interesting or challenging work

20% due to greater opportunities for career advancement elsewhere

Among AFP’s members, the average tenure of U.S. and Canadian fundraisers is 3.2 to 3.3 years. That’s a bit higher than Penelope Burk’s findings, but still disappointing when compared to the relationship-building requirements of long-term fundraising success. Burk’s sample, Andrew believes, may be broader in terms of the range of organizations covered and include some respondents who are not AFP members.


The impact of turnover on donors is more difficult to measure. An organization may be quite good at promoting its mission and vision, but unable to maximize the impact that donors and volunteers make, for example. There’s an opportunity cost, Andrew points out, of delivering less-than-optimal support to donors and fundraising volunteers.

“If donors were more aware of the impact on potential, they would be much more vociferous about the need for good working conditions and the high value of employees,” Andrew states. “But the prevailing view is that staff costs, as Part of overhead, must be tightly controlled. It’s a short-sighted double standard. People working for a charity must feel like they’re living up to their maximum potential.”


Andrew suspects the lack of importance and respect accorded to fund development may feed the frustration that leads to job hopping. “Most nonprofits are very focused, rightly so, on the end result – what they want to achieve. If they weren’t mission-driven, we wouldn’t want to work for them. But that means it’s very easy to rate people involved in service delivery much more highly than staff in resource development. resource development staff don’t warrant as much interest or attention. That’s woefully short-sighted.”

Many organizations don’t understand they’re investing in human capital. “They see their staff as a commodity – if they don’t fit, the organization doesn’t try to make it better,” Andrew laments. “Beyond the executive level, charities also need a strong board commitment to building the best possible staff teams and employment policies.”

“If senior leaders aren’t interested in offering a solid, strong work environment,” he concludes, “it’s hardly a surprise that people don’t become loyal or stay long.”