By Jen Herrmann, Vice President, Graham-Pelton

The labor market and economy have been turbulent in recent years for nonprofits, to say the least. Following the Great Resignation, employment data and overarching recession fears have sent mixed signals across the nonprofit sector.

Employee retention has always been important, but today’s erratic job market has underscored its importance. Many nonprofits have struggled to retain and develop their gift officers, among the most important revenue-generating roles in any organization.

Why is gift officer retention so important, and how can you position your organization and its team to thrive in the long run? Let’s take a look.

The Importance of Retaining Gift Officers

Employee retention is particularly crucial for the success of nonprofit organizations. Typically operating on tight margins, nonprofits can face significant hurdles to growth when dealing with the impacts of employee churn, including both opportunity costs from lost productivity and the financial costs of hiring and training replacements.

For gift officers and other donor-facing development roles, the risks of turnover are even greater.

These are relationship-centric roles. Losing a gift officer can lead to poorer stewardship experiences for donors or even the loss of donor and funder relationships. If the departure happens in negative circumstances, turnover can even harm your nonprofit’s reputation.

Taking proactive steps to retain these key staff members is a worthy investment. By keeping them engaged and empowered to succeed and grow in their roles, you’ll strengthen your entire nonprofit.

Employee Retention as a Holistic Effort

As many managers today understand, retention is driven by more than just compensation and benefits alone. Conversely, average or below-average salaries and bonuses for gift officers shouldn’t be thought of as the only driver of turnover. During the height of the Great Resignation, toxic workplaces were cited as a leading factor of turnover.

Management styles, recognition strategies, and other aspects of workplace culture all contribute to a productive, positive workplace that encourages employees to stay engaged for the long term. A holistic retention strategy is multi-pronged, and its elements all work together to strengthen the overall health of the organization.

We identify these as the essential elements of an effective nonprofit retention strategy:

  • Benefits and compensation
  • Learning and development
  • Organizational culture
  • Employee engagement
  • Career progression opportunities
  • Effective recruiting practices
  • Management styles and frameworks

Rather than think of employee retention as a siloed challenge, it’s recommended to instead think of it in terms of your broader talent strategy, one that considers the entire employee lifecycle. A more proactive and holistic approach is much more effective than enacting bandaid solutions only when retention becomes a snowballing problem.

5 Strategies for Retaining Gift Officers

So what are some of the specific retention strategies you can employ with your nonprofit’s gift officers? Here are a few recommendations:

1. Review your recruiting and onboarding practices. Look to the start of your employee lifecycles to see if your organization is 1) hiring individuals who are likely to stay engaged, and 2) creating good first impressions on new hires. Ensure that you’re hiring based on mission alignment and provide an opportunity for success. Consider incentivizing current staff members to provide referrals. Invest time in improving and communicating your EDI efforts. Remember that the early days play a big role in setting the tone for your relationships with employees, so provide positive, streamlined experiences that reinforce your mission.  Develop an interactive and robust onboarding experience that includes a deeper personal connection if possible, to another employee (e.g. a “buddy” during onboarding).

2. Foster a productive, positive culture. As mentioned above, workplace toxicity is a top driver of turnover. Take proactive steps against this by regularly seeking feedback from employees, providing transparency into organizational decisions, and encouraging collaboration. Create a recognition program if you haven’t yet that spotlights both individual and collective wins. Look for ways to better embed your mission and values into your everyday operations and interactions with employees.

3. Look closely at gift officers’ metrics and goals. Performance metrics should be used as active tools for motivation and satisfaction; otherwise, they can begin to feel arbitrary or detached from bigger-picture career trajectories. Consider these tips:

  • Set goals thoughtfully. They should be realistic but with a bit of stretch to push progress forward. And while they shouldn’t be tailored to every individual, you also shouldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to the entire development shop. Consider setting goals and metrics by pipeline stage and/or portfolio maturity, and dig into your data to find realistic targets.
  • Regularly check that your gift officer KPIs are relevant in today’s environment and to the organization’s current goals. For example, don’t overly rely on the number of in-person meetings scheduled if you find that they’re not as clearly correlated to successful solicitations as they once were. If certain pipeline stages are a priority, use them to set new goals. If gift officers work in specialized fundraising fields, like grateful patient programs, ensure their performance targets are tailored to the reality of their workflows.
  • Incentivize performance with concrete perks at both the collective and individual levels if possible within organizational guidelines and policies. When pegged to ambitious but achievable goals and supported with frequent communication and data transparency, this can be a highly effective way to drive job satisfaction.

4. Take career and skill development seriously. NonprofitHR has repeatedly found a lack of career growth opportunities as a top cause of turnover in recent years. Don’t wait to think about L&D until a high-performing gift officer is already thinking about taking the leap to another organization. Actively talk about skill gaps and career goals. Create templated career plans to help start conversations with high performers and consider offering a training stipend or covering membership dues. Look for easy ways to expand skillsets, like by recruiting a gift officer to help draft your next campaign case for support.

5. Empower fundraisers (and managers) with the structures they need. Actively set up your teams for success with visibility, data, and organized workflows.

  • For example, development teams should use portfolio systems to manage their contacts. Update your CRM or invest in new tools to support the process. Difficult-to-use systems can easily become a major source of dissatisfaction for someone who loves fundraising and relationship-building but who suddenly finds themself becoming a project manager buried in a database every day! Of course, remember to adhere to all data compliance standards in your field, particularly for healthcare fundraising programs.
  • Additionally, make sure that you’re collecting the right role-specific metrics and points of feedback so that managers can have more productive and transparent conversations. Fresh information and organization play crucial roles in all of the retention best practices discussed above.

Finally, ensure that your bases are covered by tracking retention, turnover, and departure data in the first place—this foundational step is surprisingly overlooked by many organizations!

Thankfully, the NonprofitHR study cited above and for previous years show steady growth (60% of nonprofits in 2021 to 64% in 2022) in the number of organizations that actively track employee retention. There was even greater growth in the number of organizations that developed formal retention strategies in the same period, although this number (21% in 2022) is still quite low for a sector where we stand to lose so much—productivity, relationships, and revenue—when turnover is left unchecked.

But by having a clear strategy backed up with data and best practices, you can position your nonprofit to retain its talented gift officers and thrive for years to come.