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Managing Young Fundraisers

Resource Center - Foundation

By Penelope Burk

March 27, 2012

Sigh...another critical expose of Generation Y in the workplace.

In a recent radio interview, an HR consultant was speaking dismissively about young workers’ supposed sense of entitlement, their reluctance to work overtime, and their need for constant praise. My frustration mounted as I listened to him pile on one criticism after another, but this complaint was particularly irritating: “In job interviews, Gen Ys seem to be more interested in asking about the position they will be promoted into rather than the one they are actually applying for.”

Wait a minute! Aren’t young people who explore future opportunities sending two very positive messages – that they want to be successful well beyond the requirements of the job in question and that they are interested in staying in the company or organization as they build their careers?

Rapid turnover of young workers is a troubling fact and it is just as pervasive in the fundraising industry as it is in any other occupation. In research studies conducted by my firm with 1,500 professional fundraisers, respondents under the age of 30 stayed a mere sixteen months in their most recent position. By their own admission, these same young development staff felt they needed ten to twelve months of orientation, training and close supervision before feeling confident enough to manage their responsibilities independently. This means that not-for-profit employers are getting only four to six months of fully productive time from young fundraisers before they leave – not very attractive by any investment/return measure.

But why they are leaving is the more important issue. 41 percent of fundraisers under the age of 30 whom we surveyed left their last job for a position with more senior responsibilities; and 38 percent left to work for a not-for-profit with more opportunities for career advancement. It is interesting to note as well that fundraisers under thirty years of age were considerably less likely to leave a job for higher pay elsewhere than were their older counterparts.

Young people enter the workforce today having earned one or two university degrees, being technologically advanced, and completely at ease in a world that moves incredibly fast. Young workers master the limited requirements of their entry-level positions quickly and soon approach their bosses for more variety in their work and greater responsibility. But, their enthusiasm is sometimes dampened by managers who, ironically, have too much to do and too little time in which to do it themselves. Instead of focusing on the benefits of retaining an eager, motivated and now experienced young staff member, they think about the additional orientation, training and supervision time required to promote this individual and hire his or her replacement.

Exacerbating the problem is the criteria managers often use to make decisions about whether and when their employees are ready for more senior positions. “That’s not how things worked when I started in development” threads its way through our research with management-level fundraisers. But no manager can alter the beliefs and behaviors of employees by insisting that they think and act “like I used to when I was your age”. This serves only to distance managers from reports, leading to substandard performance and premature resignation. Managers enjoy exalted titles, better pay and superior benefits not because they have hung around the workforce for longer than other employees, but because they hold down the most difficult job. They are charged with the responsibility of maximizing the productivity of their staff, and that includes young workers who think differently and bring a different work ethic to the office.

In fact, there are two practical reasons why seasoned managers actually need their young workers to move up the seniority ladder at an accelerated pace. First, donors are changing the ways in which they give and fundraising is adapting to keep pace with those changes. In the last five years, participation in typical direct marketing programs by donors has declined 21.5 percent[1] as more donors choose to support fewer causes with higher level gifts. While this means a decline in the number of entry-level jobs at the bottom of the fundraising pyramid over time, opportunities are expanding inside Major and Planned Gifts programs. As a result, young workers need to gain the skills and experience required for relationship fundraising much earlier in their careers.

The second reason pertains to management-level fundraisers themselves.  Only 43 percent of all development professionals we surveyed said they plan to stay in fundraising for the balance of their careers. Among them, one in two will retire within the next five to ten years. In order to resource our industry with enough qualified and experienced professionals to meet the demand, senior practitioners need to applaud, not discourage, their young fundraisers’ desire to climb the ladder quickly.

Managers are right, however, to wonder whether their young fundraisers are as ready for the future as they think they are. No, they don’t know anywhere near what their bosses know; and, yes, it’s so easy for young workers to be confident about their ability when they’ve never been tested in a crisis. Still, managers cannot criticize young workers for having been brought up in an overly protective environment, and then keep them in an equally protected environment on the job. The fundraising industry needs to throw its young professionals into the fray so that they can fall down early, pick themselves back up, and become the next generation of development leaders as soon as possible.

Penelope Burk is president of Cygnus Applied Research, Inc. Research data in this article is from her forthcoming book, “Donor-Centered Leadership.” Burk will be featured as a distinguished speaker at the AFP TechKnow Conference happening June 4-5, 2012 in Orlando, Fla., where she will discuss how to better use performance metrics in donor-centered fundraising. Burk will also present a session at Planet Philanthropy, hosted by AFP chapters in Florida and co-located with TechKnow.

[1] Target Analytics, Blackbaud, Index of National Fundraising Performance, 2011

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