Re-Thinking the Crisis in Fundraising

Published by Rebecca Davis on

To mark the third anniversary of the publication of Underdeveloped: A National Study of the Challenges Facing Fundraising, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services has announced that it will soon release an Action Guide for nonprofit’s seeking to break the “vicious cycle” that results in a revolving door among development directors. According to Compass Point, the revolving door among development directors is part of a larger “syndrome” in which:

  • Development directors experience high levels of job dissatisfaction
  • Executive Directors are dissatisfied with Development Directors
  • 25% of all Development Directors are fired, and
  • Half of all fundraisers consider leaving the profession altogether.

KnipselCompassPoint describes the process of this “vicious cycle” (in brief)

(1)  as organizations not having the requisite conditions for fundraising success

(2)  then, organizations hiring development directors

(3)  because these organizations lack the conditions for success, the development directors are not supported and/or do not succeed. Therefore, the development directors leave their positions prematurely (either by quitting or by being fired)

(4)  which then results, again/still, in the organization not being able to create and sustain the requisite conditions for supporting a culture of development.
The “crisis in fundraising” that the report outlines has been much discussed. The evidence for the crisis is largely from the CompassPoint/Haas study and other similar studies that focus on the opinions of development directors and executive directors about how they feel about their positions, their work, and about each other. Taken by themselves, these data are very concerning.

The recent release of the 2016 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report by Kivi Leroux Miller provides a comparative focus that helps us view some of the conclusions of the Underdeveloped report, and some of the discussion that has followed, through a different lens.  For example, Ms. Miller reports that among nonprofit communications staff, 48% of Communication Directors and 61% of Communication Coordinators plan to leave their current position within the next two years—rates similar to those reported in Underdeveloped and other places about nonprofit development directors. Also reminiscent of research on development directors, the Communications Trends report shows that only 40% of communications directors believe they have a good, strong relationship with their Executive Director.

Other research on workplaces outside of the Third Sector has found large numbers of workers dissatisfied with their work, hating their bosses, and calling their workplaces “toxic.” Gallup’s 2012 polls, for example, revealed that only 30% of the US workforce was “engaged and inspired” at work (and that 20% admitted to being actively disengaged, spreading rumors, wandering the halls gossiping). According to the The Bully at Work by Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie, an estimated 54 million Americans have been bullied at work.

Further, Jeffrey Pfeffer from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, writes about the decline in tenure of all company leaders, especially CEOs, and about the declining effectiveness of CEOs. A poor relationship with an Executive Director may not be something that a Development Director and/or a Communication Director alone experience. It may be part of the growing trend he observes of leadership incompetence.

I don’t mean to share all of this to say that the Underdeveloped study is invalid or its conclusions wrong. In fact, I believe that many great things have come from the Underdeveloped study. I think the concept of a culture of philanthropy is a very important one and that the focus on developing a culture of philanthropy that has resulted from the study and the ensuing discussion has been very useful. I also believe that the study’s emphasis on reminding organizations that fundraising is not the responsibility of one person alone is a message that can’t be repeated often enough.

But, while I am not saying the study is wrong, I am saying that before we sound the alarmist bells and talk about a “crisis in fundraising,” a comparative perspective on the data might be useful to help us understand to what extent the trends observed about development directors, their brief tenures, and their poor relationships with their CEOs might be part of a broader pattern of workplace issues.

I recognize that the anecdotal evidence suggesting that development directors are uniquely problematic—in the sense of being quick to go and hard to replace—is strong. Without comparative analysis (of development directors versus other nonprofit professionals and development directors with other professionals), that’s all we really have, though, isn’t it? Anecdotal evidence? Before leaping to conclusions and rushing to reform the profession, our training, and our practices, we should pause and take a look at broader trends to see to what extent the data we have captured accurately reflect problems that are not shared by other parts of the sector or workplaces in general. If we discover the trends we have observed are part of a bigger trend, the solutions we might wish to consider could be very different than if we continue to perceive that the challenges are unique to the fundraising field.

As we look at these questions in 2016, let’s make sure that the crisis in fundraising really is a crisis in fundraising and not just a crisis in the workplace.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis, PhD, CFRE is the founder of Davis Nonprofit Consulting which offers strategic, fundraising, and marketing services for nonprofit organizations. She writes a free weekly newsletter that helps you grow your annual giving.


Eric · January 28, 2016 at 15:29

This comparative context is extremely helpful in understanding the “Fundraising Crisis” – thank for sharing these reflections and including this data. Eric

Mary Cahalane · January 29, 2016 at 16:21

I’be been working on a post in a similar vein. (I love when that happens – something’s obviously cooking). I think you’re absolutely right that the problem extends beyond fundraising, beyond nonprofits.

It definitely affects fundraising, though. Which affects nonprofits’ ability to do mission – and that hurt ripples out across society.

Thanks for such a good piece!

    Rebecca Davis · January 29, 2016 at 16:39

    You make a great point, Mary. Whether our problem is unique or not, it is still a problem and solutions are called for. If we discern that our problem is not unique, though, we might look more broadly for solutions. We might also re-direct some of the conversation that I feel is not productive, for example, about fundraisers lacking commitment (as if fundraisers themselves were the problem), job hopping, etc. when their tenure is perhaps not wholly dissimilar to others and may be reflective of larger trends and problems.

    Your blogs always bring a new and interesting point of view to the table which I appreciate so I’ll look forward to reading your future post on the issue!


Matthew · January 31, 2016 at 10:53

Whether or not there is a crisis in fundraising – in terms of job satisfaction and turnover – is a fair question, and the comparitive data would help. Over the years, I have found fundraisers frequently feel they are the most marginalised and taken for granted. But talking to communications teams, they feel the same! Who knows what the quieter teams in HR, Finance and IT feel.

In the UK, high turnover in fundraising is definitely felt to be a thing – particularly in London. Issues of satisfaction, or of a very competitive job market?

But the current crisis in fundraising in the UK is something else altogether – one of public trust around aggressive fundraising practice, and a wholesale review of regulation. The ‘vicious circle’ model is no less relevant. A key condition for doing things right has been missing, namely Board and CEO engagement in fundraising – thinking about money not supporters, and squeezing ROI by demanding more for less. Fundraisers have to take responsibility too for the culture that has flowed from that.

    Rebecca Davis · February 1, 2016 at 05:02

    Thank you, Matthew–My post draws on data from the US which is most familiar to me, but an international perspective and international data is another source of important and useful, comparative analysis.

    I do think, as you point out, that Board members and CEOs (and fundraisers themselves, sometimes) can be very focused on short-term “results.” The pressure for cash-in-the-door is significant. Yet, what works best for quick-results is not always what will ultimately result in long-term, lasting relationships with donors.

    While, certainly, fundraisers share responsibility for educating stakeholders about some of the issues, we do not (or should not) bear that burden alone (which comes back to the heart of the message about a culture of philanthropy, doesn’t it?).

    I think, ultimately, what I would most like to suggest in this piece is that a comparative perspective helps us to accurately diagnose the problem, put it in context, develop solutions, and find appropriate language to discuss it. Some solutions to the challenges we observe in fundraising and in our sector, no doubt, would be specific to the sector and/or specific to fundraising, but I suspect that some others are broader than that. I think, it’s possible, that we might want to re-consider thinking about whether or not it’s fundraising or the workplace that is broken (or both).

    Thanks so much for adding value to the discussion!

ewald verhoog · February 1, 2016 at 22:00

All arguments considered, there still is a crisis in fundraising. That much is clear to me. But I am not sure whether you agree. (Your post has got me thinking that you are still in denial phase)
It doesn’t matter what symptoms we study. Whether we focus on the Development Director, other nonprofit professionals or the whole workplace… The bottom line is the sector is in bad shape. There are many vicious cycles that need to be broken. Should we really give in to the ‘i-need-more-data-syndrome’ before we sound the alarmist bells?

    Rebecca Davis · February 1, 2016 at 23:50

    Thank you so much for sharing, Ewald. I understand your view. Please don’t try to push an interpretation of my own view into a dichotomous (yes there is a crisis/no there is not a crisis) box. What I’m saying is not quiet that simple. I’m simply arguing that we should seek a better understanding. Again, not necessarily instead of actions and solutions, but in addition to.

    A doctor can treat symptoms without understanding the underlying cause of an illness, but for best results, one hopes for an accurate diagnosis. Not only does that usually mean that we can identify more medicines (treatments), but better ones as well. It also usually means that we can eliminate ineffective treatments.

    I’m just asking us to try to diagnose the patient accurately!

    Best wishes,

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