Issue 2 – Fall 2013: Supporters and staff turnover

Gifts may drag, work often lags

So far in the charitable sector, there has been much more research on how turnover affects charities and individual professionals than on how it affects key supporters. But both supporters and professional staff acknowledge that turnover packs a double whammy when it comes to major donors who are also fundraising volunteers.

To probe the impact on giving and volunteer commitment, I spoke to three active philanthropist-volunteers. Their causes range from health care through arts organizations, independent schools and the United Way. I also spoke with someone uniquely positioned at the crossroads between funders and charities. Their insights offer a window into the minds and hearts of our donor-volunteers.

The more critical the role, the bigger the problem Margaret Dickson, Director TCI at Tides Canada, oversees many relationships between funders and staff implementing charitable programming. “Some overlap time will help,” she advises. “Introduce the new person to key relationships and processes. Don’t let the outgoing person keep everything in their head – that can lead to the funder feeling their relationship is not being cared for properly.”

Icon-Exit“I don’t think there’s any question that stability of staff helps build and maintain relationships,” she continues. “That helps fundraising, granting and everything else you do. It’s costly in both time and resources to lose staff because you lose continuity. The more critical the role, the bigger the impact.”

Those closest to the organization understand that some staff change is inevitable even in the most successful charities. Philanthropist Graham Hallward says that charities with effective stewardship programs for both donors and volunteers have the best shot at mitigating the impact of turnover.

“Stewardship is critical with major donors who are also key volunteers,” he explains. “If you lose them, you lose not only their future gifts but the doors they could have opened. You can’t separate volunteer stewardship from donor stewardship. There’s a very high leverage in having happy, highly engaged volunteers because they can multiply their own giving five to ten times.”


When stewardship principles are applied to managing turnover, he continues, an outgoing senior executive might call him to say goodbye and ask, “What can I tell my successor so that the relationship [with the charity] can be seamless for you?”

But all that goes down the drain if the new person doesn’t absorb and act on the information that’s passed on. Graham describes having to orient a new charity executive to the terms and status of his multiyear gift. “Those terms had been documented,” he recalls. “It’s in the charity’s interests to cover them off. Poor transition due to staff turnover doesn’t reflect well on governance or board leadership.”

Internal promotion can help to smooth the transition. The new person knows the organization and its key networks, and can often pick up relationships more effectively. Donor-volunteers like Graham enjoy seeing a bright, ambitious, personable junior make the most of a new opportunity. Internal promotion also happens to be a great strategy for retention. Everyone wins. One retention strategy, though, can backfire if it’s not explained properly. When job enrichment means that individuals are regularly transferred from one set of program funding responsibilities to another, donor-volunteers may read it as a sign that the Program they value is a low priority for the organization. Like other concerns, that misconception can be addressed through stewardship: helping donor-volunteers understand the apparent turnover is a staff development strategy and ensuring that information and guidance are properly passed on to the new officer.


“ Moving every couple of years is not going to give you the skills and job satisfaction you’re looking for.
You should be able to succeed by staying in your job.  In a senior role, you should be looking at a
10- year commitment with an organization.”
— Paul Alofs


Perhaps the worst impact of staff turnover is felt when the position is not immediately filled. Here’s philanthropist George Fierheller on the struggle to lead a capital campaign for a hospital just as it was forced to merge with two other hospitals and lost its CEO: “I spent several years handholding. There wasn’t much else I could do. They brought in temporary staff from Ketchum that effectively reported to me. That kept the annual campaign going. It can be very disruptive when the CEO leaves. It takes way too much time to get things back into place.”

“Jane,” a board member and fundraising volunteer who prefers anonymity, recalls a similar experience: “Our foundation CEO was hired, and then was lured away after six months. That was a shock to the system. She had developed a capital campaign strategy, and suddenly there was nobody to run it. One year later, we found someone wonderful, but there was a real gap, a year when we couldn’t make progress, define roles or set up teams. When there’s a leadership vacuum, it’s awful. There’s nobody to tell you what to do; what your portfolio is.”

Sometimes, however, turnover can create an opportunity. Jane supports a hospital that gave her treatment she couldn’t have received anywhere else in the country. When “her” donor relations officer left, the foundation CEO didn’t just hand the entire portfolio to an incoming hire. She reviewed each donor looking for a good fit with another development officer, not necessarily the new person. Jane says her current contact is “much like me” – a risk-taker with a sense of humour. “That,” she affirms, “was a positive transition.”


It’s clear that while the downside of staff turnover is seldom measurable, it can, depending on the vacancy and the particular donor-volunteer, lead to strategic drift, campaign delays, annoyance, stagnation, and markedly slower giving. Like most philanthropists, Jane, George and Graham have seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of staff turnover and related stewardship of donors and volunteers. It’s clear that for all of them, the cause is paramount. Jane is profoundly grateful to the hospital, and focuses on her contacts with doctors more than her contacts with fundraising staff. George and Graham believe deeply in the institutions they support. As long as the mission continues, the three philanthropists will do and give what they can.

But “what they can” can vary significantly. Some have had their giving delayed when the record of their previous interests and support was not considered. All have been unable to work to their potential at times when their staff relationships are interrupted. As donors, they are willing to make allowances for the charities they love – but they are not willing to make excuses to their friends and networks when they put on their volunteer fundraisers’ hats.