5 Ways to Improve Your Fundraising Team’s Morale

nonprofit fundraising staff retention tips and resources

Employees at nonprofits are notoriously overworked. Many are driven by a passion to do good that often leads to long hours and increased stress, even when managers and leaders are supportive. Add to this the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic on nonprofits to do more with less and it can be challenging to keep up morale and prevent burnout.

Professional fundraisers are especially prone to burnout because they carry the responsibility for securing the revenue that pays the bills. In a pre-COVID survey from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 84% of fundraisers said they “feel tremendous pressure to succeed.” As a result, more than half of fundraisers surveyed said they planned to leave their current job within two years, and almost one-third planned to leave fundraising altogether. Fundraisers also cited feeling unappreciated, lack of recognition for their accomplishments, and not enough support from leadership as key reasons for their dissatisfaction.

Nonprofits that wish to keep their best fundraisers need to invest in their well-being and create a work culture that keeps employee morale high. Here are five ways to help with that.


1. Set Clear Goals and Benchmarks

Sometimes, there can be a disconnect between the internal goals set by a nonprofit’s leadership team or board and the staff tasked with accomplishing those goals, especially at a large organization like a university or national chapter-organized nonprofit. Like a game of telephone, the information gets diluted or lost as it’s passed down. Worse, leadership may hold back budget numbers during bad times to “protect” low- and mid-level staff from the truth.

A better approach is to think of your nonprofit’s internal goals as the organizational representation of your mission. These goals represent what needs to happen within your organization for it to make an impact out in the world. Just as you want every employee to understand how their contribution impacts your nonprofit’s mission, you also want them to understand how they’re helping meet your nonprofit’s internal goals and benchmarks.

Start by defining goals and benchmarks clearly. Clarity means defining goals in such a way that every member on your team can measure your progress and know when that goal is reached. It’s not uncommon for organizations to achieve an internal goal yet many of the staff have no idea. Morale is built from a feeling that we are all working towards a shared goal, we’re making progress together, and each person’s individual contribution matters to the whole.


2. Use Data to Keep the Team on Track

How do organizations measure their progress to a goal? Data. In the absence of data, people begin to speculate. And human nature being what it is, speculation can often become worry, especially when it’s about the financial health of one’s employer. Pretty soon you have employees gossiping about budget cuts or layoffs, which creates a negative or even toxic work environment, making it harder on fundraisers to perform. Remember, fundraising is a hard job in the best circumstances; it’s that much harder when you have a voice of worry whispering in your ear.

But when fundraisers are kept in the loop with hard data, they feel more empowered and less a victim of forces outside of their control. Even if the numbers aren’t great, your staff — and the organization as a whole — will be better served by transparency. Let’s say revenue is down and you have to cut the fundraising budget by 20%. By continuously communicating the truth about revenue and budgets, your fundraising team can participate in strategic planning rather than just reacting to a sudden shortfall. They may have ideas for how to better use the money that is available.

Additionally, good communication moves in both directions. Make sure you’re constantly soliciting data from your fundraising team. You wouldn’t believe how often we’ve seen situations where the fundraising fell short of the annual goal and the board is surprised. “How did you let this happen?” they demand from the development department. And fundraisers respond, “Weren’t you paying attention to the numbers?”

The solution is to standardize dashboard reporting so that every part of the organization gets a clear report card at regular intervals throughout the year. That way, shortfalls are caught early so you can fix the problem.


3. Lean on Your Internal Partners

Too frequently, nonprofit organizations segment responsibilities into little fiefdoms. Data is held close to the vest and individual departments become separate silos of information. In the most successful nonprofits we’ve worked with, the different departments understand that they all serve a common mission. When one part of the organization is underperforming — corporate gifts, for example — the shared mission is in jeopardy.

Encouraging one part of your organization to lean on the others has multiple benefits. First, on a practical level, the more departments that work together, the stronger the operations will be on the whole. When fundraising, marketing, and program strategies are all integrated, ideas can be shared; resources can be allocated (and reallocated) where they’re needed most; and external communications across all departments will look and feel consistent to donors and beneficiaries.

Second, sharing responsibility for goals boosts morale and creates a stronger sense of team. When you’re on a team, victories are sweetened because they are shared; challenges are softened because their weight is carried by many people. It’s important that staff feel like they’re part of the whole organization, not just members of a department.


4. Seek Outside Support

Sometimes the best way to relieve pressure on your fundraising staff is to seek outside support from a nonprofit fundraising agency like IPM Advancement. In addition to benefiting from the agency’s experience and expertise, you can also get many of the more mundane tasks off the plate of your fundraising team.

When your fundraisers no longer have to coordinate with mail houses or handle fundraising art and copy, for example, you can task them with more rewarding work like developing a leadership giving pipeline or nurturing relationships with major donors. It’s not only a better use of their time, it’s more invigorating, less cyclical work for those who are most likely to burnout.


5. Establish Employee Wellness Programs

Often, fundraisers choose to work for a nonprofit because they’re purpose-driven. As such, they tend to work too hard, even when management isn’t pushing them to do so. The best way to counteract this tendency is to implement an employee wellness strategy.

Start by defining healthy boundaries for your fundraising staff (and the rest of your staff); monitor for overtime or long hours to identify employees at risk for burnout. Also, include employee wellness goals in their regular performance reviews. And third, launch companywide wellness programs that address your staff’s unique needs. For a nonprofit, employee wellness programs can translate into stipends for counseling services, discounts for a local fitness center, opportunities for professional development, or even bringing in a meditation teacher on a regular basis. Seek input from your staff. What systemic changes would they like to see to help create a culture of mental and physical health within your organization?  How can you honor each employee’s vision for what their ideal work environment would be?


Bonus Tip: Give Your Annual Giving Fundraisers an Escape Plan

In our decades of experience working with nonprofits, we’ve met very few fundraisers who’ve worked in annual giving their entire careers. It’s a hard job. Annual fundraisers are asked to grow their programs year after year, no matter what else is happening in the economy or fundraising environment. They’re required to work within strict budgets; or they’re asked to maintain (or increase) performance even when budgets are cut. Add to that the repetitive nature of the work, and it’s easy to see why so many talented fundraisers in annual giving burn out.

Instead of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, give your annual fundraisers an escape plan. Right from the start, acknowledge that their position is challenging and there will likely come a day when they want to do something else. Give them a vision of a sustainable career path within your organization — moving from annual giving into leadership and major gifts, planned giving, or a capital campaign, for example. Check in with them regularly during performance reviews to help identify what parts of their job they like most so you can steer them in the right direction.

Building the opportunity for career mobility into their job from the start has several advantages. It provides additional context and meaning to their work now. It prevents them from feeling trapped in a job that doesn’t offer much variety. And it keeps their valuable experience in-house. Imagine if your annual fund team had a difficult challenge and could simply pick up the phone and call the major gifts officer (who previously ran the annual fund for five years) for advice.

Some of the hardest working fundraisers we’ve met work in annual giving. It’s in your best interest to keep them on board for as long as you can.


Final Words

Morale in an organization starts at the top. When making organizational decisions that affect the work experience of your staff, leadership should remember that nonprofits exist to be a force for good in the world. Not caring about the wellness of your staff is a betrayal of your mission that will eventually cost you your best employees. But with some effort, you can create an internal culture that empowers and invigorates your fundraising team. It will not only make them more effective at their jobs, they’ll also be much less inclined to give up and move on.


On average, new IPM clients see a 34.8% increase in direct mail fundraising acquisition response rates within the first year of working with us. Want to learn more?

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