Matthew Sherrington: Why there is such a high turnover of directors of fundraising

It means that the critical relationship between that role and the chief executive will remain fraught, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Fundraisers are like prostitutes, a charity chief executive said to me recently – in exasperation rather than disdain – as we discussed her difficulty in finding a new fundraising director. She wasn't reassured to be told her revolving door of three to four years was the norm.

But it is. One fundraising magazine has just published its biennial list of the top 100 charities' fundraising directors, and it was the years they spend in post that struck me. The average time is indeed 4.3 years. But that drops to only 3.4 years when you exclude the top 10, half of whom have served 10 years or more. Only 30 per cent have served for more than five years; a full third have been in post for a year or less.

So is there a seller's market in top talent, with fundraisers moving to the highest bidder? I tend to hear more of chief executives struggling to recruit, who want fundraising directors who can hit the ground running (as it is invariably not their own discipline) and who are anxious about affording less experienced fundraisers the chance to step up. Look out for those adverts asking for previous experience of managing the same scope of role being advertised. In the context of austerity, challenges with supporter recruitment and cuts to service delivery contracts, expectations are high.

My experience is that fundraisers, like anyone else in the sector, are driven and motivated by making a difference. Passion for the cause matters – they have to sell it on, after all. I hear from them of disillusionment when their charity lacks ambition and wants business as usual plus a bit, or has unrealistic expectations while taking no account of the resources fundraising will need in order to succeed. One fundraising director had to make it clear to their board that they were unlikely to find a venture philanthropist to underwrite fundraising investment when they were sitting on millions in reserves. As a new fundraising director, I had to tell a board it would take two years to bottom out their 10 years of unmanaged decline. They were aghast that I couldn't turn it around quicker. It's also not unusual to find charities struggling to answer that basic question: "What would you actually do with an extra £1m?"

There is undoubtedly growing concern about the shortage of top talent, particularly in areas such as individual giving and major-gift fundraising. It's a paradox that fundraising is often the most commercially focused part of a charity's business, where results and impact are most measurable, yet is also the part where the professional skillset is least appreciated: anyone can write a fundraising letter, people seem to think, although no one likes to ask for money.

It's interesting that half of the top 10 fundraising directors are long-servers. Cause and effect, or success breeding success? Conversely, three of the top 10 charities have gone through three or four fundraising directors in as many years.

Everywhere there is high expectation, impatience for results, questions about talent and trust, and pressure. A good fundraiser in a supportive organisation will do great by both. But with so much at stake, that crucial chief executive-fundraising director relationship is likely to remain fraught.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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