Ian MacQuillin: Why do fundraisers leave?

If their charity doesn't care for them, fundraisers should go to work for one that will

Headshot of Ian MacQuillin

Fundraising is an unstable profession, job-wise. People don’t stay in their jobs long – the received wisdom for new entrants is 12 to 18 months in their first role – and repeatedly job-hop.

Now, more and more people are leaving fundraising altogether.

Some recent research by the Lily School of Philanthropy at Indiana University suggests things might not be as bad as feared, at least in the US.

This shows the mean job tenure for fundraisers is almost four years. Twenty per cent say they intend to change jobs. And 7 per cent are planning to leave fundraising entirely, and they have shorter average job tenures – in other words, people who say they will quit fundraising don’t stay in the jobs for as long as those who plan to stay in the profession.

This research looked at the factors that might correlate with longer-job tenure, such as salary or educational attainment. But it didn’t explore why people change jobs or leave the profession.

Why might this be? Here are some hypotheses:

1) Bad management and toxic workplace cultures. Many fundraisers have stories about being the ‘necessary evil’ and how they are poorly treated by the rest of the organisation. In most professions, if we were looking for reasons why people kept leaving their jobs, this is where we’d start.

2) Rectifying an accident. Most fundraisers – 44 per cent, according to Beth Breeze – get into fundraising by accident. Another 42 per cent arrive at a decision to become a fundraiser gradually over a period of time. Just 5 per cent make a deliberate decision to become a fundraiser as first-choice career.

If many people find they have ‘accidentally’ got a job in fundraising, there is a good chance that, for at least some of them, it’s not the right job, and so they take steps to rectify that accident by finding the right one (either within fundraising or outside of it).

The Lily School paper cites research that showed person-job fit predicted intention to leave the profession: some people found that fundraising just wasn’t right for them, so got out. It seems likely that many people will find fundraising ‘isn’t right for them’ if the main reason they are a fundraiser is chance or happenstance, rather than deliberate career choice.

3) Need to gain knowledge. With no formal competence-based entry routes to equip fundraisers with the knowledge and skills they need at the point of entry to the profession, they’ll need to gain that knowledge on the job soon after they join.

Perhaps high turnover/low tenure is due to a lack of training and CPD opportunities: fundraisers move to a job where they hope this might be forthcoming, find that it isn’t, and so move again.

Related to this, fundraisers with skills will be in very high demand, creating a candidate-short market that is likely to see more movement between jobs.

4) It’s fundraisers’ fault. Fundraisers should show more loyalty to their causes and resist the temptation to move jobs just to earn more money or further their careers. I’ve heard this argument many times. It’s bollocks.

If fundraisers are leaving because of bad management and poor training opportunities, then telling them they need to suck this up for the greater good is utterly unfair and unethical. Fundraisers should not have to bear the cost of bad management; that cost should be borne by management itself.

Putting this into the language of rights and duties, such as a fundraiser bill of rights, charities have a duty of care to look after their fundraisers, train them in the skills they need, remunerate and compensate them fairly, treat them with professional respect and protect them from harm (such as excessive demands of donors).

If charities do not or cannot exercise this duty of care, then they cannot expect, as of right, loyalty from their fundraisers.

Fundraisers have no duty to stick around at a nonprofit that does not care for them; they are at perfect liberty to go to work for one that does.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the fundraising think tank Rogare

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