Monday, January 17, 2011

At Philanthropy's Heart

The vast majority of advancement leaders identify staff turnover as their greatest concern. And well they should. The average tenure for a fund raiser is about two years. Consider the damaging consequences of that reality; fund raisers say it takes them 10 to 12 months to assimilate to the environment and establish themselves with prospects and donors; a year later they’re gone. Prospects and donors with strong affiliations to an institution weary of saying good-bye to someone they’ve just gotten to know, only to see another fresh face show up to start the process all over again. From the institution’s perspective, it is terribly wasteful to bear the costs of searches and staff training for such abbreviated tenures. Yet the pattern persists, it seems, virtually unabated. It makes you wonder, as Will Rodgers once said about weather, “Why everyone complains about it but no one does anything about it.”

Well, Penelope Burk of Cygnus tried. She conducted a three-year study, concluding in 2009, to determine why fund raisers leave their jobs. Her findings:

  • 48% – to obtain a higher salary elsewhere
  • 39% – because they felt they had achieved all they set out to accomplish in their current positions
  • 31% – to get away from the “old-school culture” of fundraising
  • 15% – to reduce commuting time / to work closer to home

The “old-school culture” of fundraising encompasses a number of issues identified by survey respondents, such as:

  • lack of appreciation for the time it takes to cultivate donors and raise increasingly profitable gifts, often expressed by Boards or CEOs as, “We have to have the money now.”

I’ve learned, when reviewing research findings such as these to focus on the ones that reveal the emotional, not the rational, elements of decision-making. That’s where the truth is. Rational reasons are rationalizations of emotional feelings. Emotion runs deeper than reason. For instance, entering freshmen claim year-in and year-out that their over-riding reason for enrolling in a particular institution of higher learning is it’s “academic quality” -- no matter what school they choose. That’s a rationalization; it’s what they think they’re supposed to say. But, if you can remember your seventeen-year old mind, you’ll recall that there was a lot of “Will I fit in? Will I belong? Are there other people like me?” Well, of course. You don’t want to spend some of the most formative years of your life feeling awkward, out of place and or just plain lonely. That’s why it is wise for young people to visit and get “the feel” for various campus cultures. That’s why campus tours led by current students have such an impact on the decision-making of prospective students. And, it has little with what the tour guide actually says. The prospective students sees the guide as an exemplar of that culture and decides if that is the kind of person that he or she would like as a friend. And, you know what? I think that’s just fine. Emotionally-intelligent decision-making yields more lasting emotionally satisfying results.

So when I look at Burk’s survey, I zero in on the 31 percent who say they leave to escape an “old school” culture. I simply do not believe that most people leave for the sole reason of getting more money or a feeling they’ve accomplished all that they set out to do. Those are rationalizations. Further, I ask myself, not just why most leave their jobs but why the very best practitioners do. And who are they? In my estimation the very best are those who relate most deeply to the cause they represent and who care most deeply about the people who align with it. In other words, the seek to be true to both the institution and the people they engage on its behalf. They don’t mislead or manipulate people for their own gain. They leave prospects and donors feeling as if they are in hands of conscientious professional who will do right by them. When allowed to act of our the values systems, these professionals convey the moral substance of the institutions they represent. What could be more important? Mastery of some fund raising technique? Please.

So what happens when these kind of professionals find themselves in a culture of “We have to have the money now”? The imperative of “now” suggests desperation, that the need for money is based on exigent operational circumstances not on vision for a better way to serve the cause. Desperation is not a foundation for a lasting relationship of any sort in any circumstance. Desperation clouds judgment and foreshortens perspective. And so those conscientious, cause-driven fund raisers find themselves in soul-depleting environments with little opportunity to develop the deep bonds with prospects and donors that lead to the most persistent, productive philanthropy. Instead, they are given lists of hundreds of names and told to convert those prospects to generous donors in the shortest possible time while asking as little as possible from the institution. Vision? The exact use of the requested money? Who will benefit? The lasting difference to made? How the money will advance the interests and values of the donors? The answer: “Make it up as you go, just get the money. Meet your metrics.”

The institutions that raise the most money over the long run do so by creating the conditions that attract, continue to inspire, and amply feed the soul of the best fund raisers. The greatest reason for the highest rate of turnover of the best fund raising professionals, for the disillusionment of most donors, and, therefore for the sub-optimization of most fund-raising operations, is the “get it now” imperative. True philanthropy doesn’t work that way. Good people don’t work that way. Prospects and donors deserve better. And, however our heads may try to rationalize the opposite, in our hearts, we know this is true. Philanthropy requires its adherents to follow their hearts.

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