Rethinking Employee Retention

When nonprofit staff discuss employee retention, the consensus is typically that employee turnover is a problem we need to fix.

I totally agree — sort of. Having a stable workforce can improve efficiency, provide institutional memory and significantly benefit donor relationships. Yet, retaining the wrong employees can be more detrimental to the organization, demoralizing to staff and the managers who eventually have to deal with personnel problems that have festered year after year.

As a fundraiser, it’s easy to see the importance of retaining employees, especially those who have relationships with key donors. “Donors desire to ‘plug in’ personally with someone from the organization,” Joe Dominguez from Phoenix Rescue Mission said. “If they can make the connection, the long-term benefits are endless: increased giving, volunteering and soliciting others to support the mission.”

“Donors often see retention as a mark of organizational stability,” Lisa O’Leary, a seasoned fundraiser at a community college foundation, noted. “When employees are committed to the institution, donors are more likely to want to provide the same commitment. These donors value the relationships they have built over the years and appreciate the ease of working together.”

Why Complacent Employees Actually Hurt the Organization
But with that said, retaining employees “no matter what” actually hurts an organization. For example, employees who have discovered that average is good enough at your organization often become complacent. Dominguez was hired to lead a team that had staff with 10 to 25 years of service in their positions.

“Despite their tenure and vast experience, they were unable to meet the department goals,” he recalled. “They believed they knew the best way to do things because they had been in the position for so long.” Over time, Dominguez added team members whose “primary focus was not to keep their jobs but to figure out how they could do the best job. Their enthusiasm and drive helped change the landscape and propelled us to meet our objectives.”

Additionally, retaining staff who are unexceptional at best and incompetent at worst can send a message to star performers that all work is equally rewarded. An employee can produce good, bad or mediocre work and remain employed. “There is almost nothing more demoralizing to star performers than feeling like their hard work and the results they produce aren’t recognized,” Kellie de Leon, an experienced marketing and fundraising leader in nonprofits and the agencies that serve them, said. “When you retain employees with mediocre performance, it shows your entire team where the bar is set: low. You disincentivize your best employees.”

The end result is often that the very employees who could help your organization grow and succeed leave for other positions, and you are left with sub-par performers who are perfectly happy with the way things are now. Your organization survives, but it can’t thrive and reach its full potential because the people who should be pushing you forward are comfortable right where they are. It’s like trying to win a game of tug of war when a few people are pulling with all their might while the rest are barely keeping their hands on the rope. You may not totally fail, but you’ll likely never make progress.

How Your Nonprofit Can Best Prepare Itself
A better approach is to embrace the fact that turnover is inevitable and is not a bad thing unless you — and your employees — are perfectly content with status quo, both in terms of organizational performance and personal career growth. With this attitude, you can focus on preparing for — and embracing — turnover.

First, commit yourself to developing current position descriptions that are reviewed annually and updated when needed. “Department work processes are always in a state of flux, and it’s our responsibility to be diligent in regularly reviewing job descriptions and responsibilities,” Dominquez said. This activity needs to be part of regular reviews that cover strengths and weaknesses. de Leon knows that “it’s natural to want to avoid challenging conversations, but we owe it to each employee to be as transparent about negative feedback as we would be about praise.”

You must also make sure there is a healthy environment for cross-training and knowledge-sharing. “In organizations where turnover is minimal, employees may retain tacit knowledge that is often not passed on to other employees before their departure,” O’Leary noted. “Although this can be beneficial when the employee is still there, it can be difficult for future employees to complete these tasks since the knowledge (to do so) was not documented or shared.”

It is also critical to identify your key performers, work with them to define a career path and help them pursue that path. When an employee is committed to personal growth and career enhancement, seeing no place to go in your organization sends a loud message: I have to work elsewhere to keep growing.

Perhaps the most important practice nonprofit leadership must commit to — even if you don’t work in the fundraising department — is to insist on copious reporting of donor interactions. This must be a “trust but verify” task because it is so critical when you have turnover of any staff person who has interacted with a donor. A second part to this is to never, ever let only one person have a relationship with a major donor. While one may have the primary relationship, one or more others need to have ongoing, consistent interaction — even if it is a supportive role — so the donor has a familiar point of contact if an employee leaves. These two actions, taken together, are essential for maintaining major donor connections despite inevitable staff turnover.

Reward Your Star Performers
Finally, no matter how little funding you have for raises, reward employees for performance, not just for staying around. “Think deeply about how each team member contributes to the promises you make to donors, whether that’s how your programs get carried out or how efficiently you work to make sure their donations stretch,” de Leon said. “Then reward the behaviors and people that align most closely with carrying out your work.”

When you identify your star performers and give them the raises and the support that enable them to achieve their career goals, you will likely retain the people who can help move your organization ahead — and that’s far better than retaining everyone but never moving ahead.

In closing, each person that I invited to contribute to this article has shown himself or herself to be a rising star — two while working on my team and one in the classroom where I was the instructor. Each one has risen to my expectations and then moved beyond, and I could not be prouder. If any had remained where they were when I first met them, the nonprofit community would be less than it is today, and important causes would have suffered. I urge you to join me in accepting that turnover as inevitable — but more importantly, in embracing it as a way to grow people, organizations and missions.

(This feature article was originally published in the November/December 2020 print edition of NonProfit PRO)

It’s Time to Stop Complaining

Pandemic. Wildfires. Snowstorms. Killer hornets. Monoliths. The election… And the list goes on. We had more than enough to justify complaining in 2020.

Yet these events — especially COVID-19 — seem to have also given us a great excuse for abysmal customer service. Every other call I make seems to begin with a recording message: “Due to COVID-19, response times may be longer than expected.” In one case, I waited 45 minutes only to then get a message that the company (a major national brand) was not supporting its phone lines at present. (You couldn’t tell me that 44 minutes earlier? No, you had to keep promising me I was moving up the queue.) Several other times, I pressed all the right buttons, waited several minutes, and then was cut off. Oops! Try again…

Now don’t just assume I am too old school to know that we’re supposed to go online now instead of using the old-fashioned telephone. These call attempts came after ignored emails, online contact forms and even a few efforts to start conversations on social media.

It’s time to stop complaining and get back to focusing on our donors.

I firmly believe (assuming I am anything like a normal person) that the companies and nonprofit organizations that show care for their “customers” will be the ones that spring back from the pandemic with super loyal supporters. Believe me, I remember my experience with the national telecom company; sure, I was on hold a while, but when my call was answered, the representative went out of her way to make sure my problem was addressed. In the course of conversation, she told me she was working at home and that her shift ended five minutes after she picked up my call, but she was not going to hang up until my problem was resolved. I suspect I’m a customer for life now.

And what about the small, local diner that wrote “Happy Holidays” and drew some Christmas holly on the cover of my take-out breakfast? That’s showing me I’m their honored guest, even if I’m limited to dashboard dining.

Yes, these are for-profit examples. But the same principle applies to nonprofit organizations: There is never a good excuse for bad donor service.

If you’ve let the pandemic and all its corresponding frustrations color your response to your donors, it’s time to take action.

Answer their calls. If staff are working from home, calls can be forwarded to them. Even if they don’t have access to what they need to answer, they can collect the information, research it when they are in the office, and then call back.
Receipt their gifts. It’s well worth the dollar or so to mail a receipt for a donation, because a sincere thank you is remembered and valued.
Tell them what is now possible because they gave. This doesn’t have to be a multi-page annual report or a four-color newsletter. A half-sheet update in a receipt or even a postcard with a brief report is inexpensive and can be very meaningful.
Truly value them. If you view your donors as necessary evils to accomplishing your mission, it’s time to get out of the nonprofit business. The reality is that your paycheck is a result of your donor support, as is all the work your organization is able to accomplish. Your supporters need to know they mean more to you than a cash withdrawal at an ATM.
Ask them for donations. Many organizations that are doing the steps listed above and are using tried-and-true methods of fundraising are succeeding. I’ve heard many nonprofits tell me that direct mail is performing better than at any other point in recent memory. The same is true for eAppeals that feel personal — not those that read like, “To the entire free world, Greetings.” With no galas and golf outings, we now have time to read letters and emails. Take advantage of people being at home and reach out to them.
I know many nonprofits that have been hard hit by the events of 2020. Yet, many others I am familiar with are doing fine. They didn’t allow the events of 2020 to be used to justify bad donor service.

In 2021, refuse to allow complaining. Instead, show your donors that despite all the uncertainty of life, your organization continues to do the work they believe in — because they continue to stand with you. Together, you are changing the world.

(Originally published in NonProfit PRO, January 4, 2021)

Hidden Treasures for Fundraising Copy

As a writer of fundraising copy, one of my greatest frustrations is having to create new copy on a regular basis with little or no fresh material to work with. Between privacy laws and too-busy-to-write-stories-up issues, it’s not unusual to have next to nothing to begin with.

Even if your writing is limited to the year-end eAppeal, a thank-you letter or a proposal, you likely know how challenging it is to keep saying what is basically the same thing in a way that is fresh and unique. But that creates a problem — I firmly believe that monotonous copy is a sure path to donor attrition. I have often said (so much so that I’ve likely become boring) that “a bored donor is a former donor.”

It often doesn’t take much to get you started on writing a great message, so even when there seems to be nothing new to write about, consider these hidden treasures.

What Is the ‘Other Guy’ Saying?

Reading what you can from similar organizations can help you recall a story or a fact that you can use as the beginning of your writing project. I’m not suggesting plagiarism; rather, read with an open mind and see if anything sparks a fresh angle you can take.

Sometimes even reading unrelated copy can help. I confess I sometimes look at famous quotes on a given topic, and often, one of those will spark an idea that I can move ahead with. (At the very least, it makes my procrastination seem more purposeful.)

What Are Your Donors Saying?

Collecting tidbits from the notes donors include with their checks can be a great source of brief comments that can be woven into your copy. In my experience, these short notes often include a turn of phrase that is a hidden gem. I recently had a client provide me with a few dozen notes (most just a sentence or two) — and truth be told, a few expressed the value of the nonprofit better than I could have done so myself.

What Are Your Volunteers and Staff Saying?

Getting people to write down what they see and hear can be hard; instead, ask them to call your office phone after hours and leave a message with the story. Except for the genuinely bad story (“After we helped her, things were better until she was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison”), try to use most of what you get, and tell the person who provided it how you incorporated it. This encourages that volunteer or colleague to keep providing these nuggets to you.

What Are the Statistics Saying?

Yes, stats can be boring (unless they are an integral part of grant or donor reports or requests), but you can make a statistic meaningful to your more typical donor by putting it in visual terms. For example, in the county I live in, 20% of people are hungry. On its own, 20% is kind of flat. But put it in terms I can visualize — of the five people you saw at the bus stop this morning, it’s likely one didn’t know where his or her next meal was coming from — and it becomes a much more meaningful way to present a need.

Mark Twain, one of my favorite sources of inspiration, wrote this: “And mind you, emotions are among the toughest things in the world to manufacture out of whole cloth; it is easier to manufacture seven facts than one emotion.”

Until we have files of resources to comb through every time we need to find a fresh way to ask for money, keep seeking out these hidden treasures. Ideally, one will give you the emotional “hook” to make your next fundraising message irresistible — and that sure beats manufacturing emotion.

Published in NonProfit Pro, September 11, 2020

Retention: Still Your Best Strategy

Much of what we knew about fundraising before COVID-19 seems to have gone out the window, and “nimble” has been the new No. 1 skill. We’ve received donations from first-time contributors to help with COVID relief,  we’ve moved events online, major donor cultivation has moved to Zoom and work-from-home has become the daily reality.

But no matter how soon or how long it is before COVID becomes a distant memory, one thing remains the same: Donor retention is still the best strategy for long-term sustainability.

Retention isn’t easy, as the numbers show us. The Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s 2020 Q1 report found that “the donor retention rate — the percentage of donors who gave last year and have already given in 2020 — dropped three points to 16.4%.” It also found that last year, only six in 10 of existing donors, as of January 1, 2019, gave throughout that year. Or to put it another way, 40% of the people who gave to you in 2019 will likely not give to you in 2020 — even without the mitigating factor of COVID.

What’s a smart fundraiser to do? Focus on the basics!

1. Make Retention a Priority

Don’t allow yourself to be lured by the sultry voice of the “next great thing.” That doesn’t mean you don’t try it; you simply can’t sacrifice your tried-and-true foundational fundraising programs to put all your energies into the shiny new thing. Study after study shows that donors who receive communications across multiple channels are more likely to keep giving.

One of the keys to retention is how committed you are to caring for your existing donors. Jeff Jowdy of Lighthouse Counsel noted that, “We often find that most organizations don’t need to focus on donor acquisition — yet — because they have so many donors leaving their organization. Shore up the support of your family first!”

2. Truly Serve Your Donors

We have all seen the communications from donors that make no sense, ramble on, go on a tirade, ask crazy questions or feel more like a “lonely hearts club” episode. But each communication represents an individual, and that individual deserves respect. Engaging someone in a debate who really isn’t interested in changing his or her opinion isn’t good use of time but saying “thanks for sharing your thoughts with us” can be.

3. Try Something Innovative

One positive out of the pandemic is that many nonprofits had to pivot quickly and find a way to replace a fundraising tool that has served them well for a number of years. Some had success; others not as much. But the takeaway is that many organizations that were previously living in the land of “The Way We’ve Always Done It” stepped out of that comfort zone — and just maybe found a new tool in their fundraising toolbox.

4. Get and Tell Great Stories

Our stories need to be long enough and detailed enough so the donor can paint a picture of the need and solution in his or her mind. This can sometimes be accomplished in a few sentences; other times it takes a few paragraphs. No matter what, it is focused on the donor — not on the organization.

“Too many nonprofits don’t understand the big difference between marketing communications and fundraising communications,” Jowdy said. “We need stories to grab the donor’s interest and show how they can make a difference. We don’t need stories about how great we are, or how much trouble we are in.”

5. Encourage Your Organization to Invest in Programs That Donors Can Relate to

Every program may not have the sizzle that donors can visualize and be attracted toward, but parts of most projects can have a donor-friendly component without sacrificing the integrity of your work. Sit down with your program staff and show them what projects excited your donors. Become collaborators, not competitors, and everyone will benefit.

6. Thank Your Donors

Call, write, visit — just say “thank you.” Forget about self-service — you know, “if you want to feel good, all you have to do is go to our website.” Everyone in development, including your CEO, needs to make saying thank you a priority. The time you spend on that “is a key indicator of the quality of your fundraising program and how it is fulfilling its potential,” Jowdy said.

Pandemic or not, our job as fundraisers is retention. This takes many forms, but one truth doesn’t change: Your donors know you need money. You have to show them you need them. That’s the 14-word secret to retention.


Published in NonProfitPRO, August 4, 2020

Change Your Perspective: Look In From The Outside

Ah, the perfect world: a world where we have plenty of money to do research and make decisions based on well-documented findings that provide a deep level of confidence in decision making. Sadly, most of us don’t live in the perfect world. In our world, we may only have money for the very basics — and donor research hardly fits into that category. Happily, there are ways to get a better understanding of who your donors are that won’t stretch your budget any further than it’s stretched right now…

Read my entire guest post on the Lighthouse Counsel blog at


Becoming a Skeptic to Improve Fundraising

Me? Not so much…

Don’t get me wrong. I really believe in what you do. I want to end homelessness/feed the hungry/bring about justice/preserve nature/educate people and so many other important causes. But I just haven’t bought into your organization as the only solution.

The problem, as I see it (and read it and hear it on multiple platforms), is that fundraisers eventually know enough to forget that the “PD” (potential donor) doesn’t know nearly as much. Unless there is a logical  connection (e.g. a satisfied alumnus), the PD can’t figure out what your “secret sauce” really is and why your nonprofit is the ONE that really deserves money and loyalty.

Don’t misunderstand — as your PD, I’m well-educated. I have disposable income and follow world events. But I don’t sit in on your board meetings, I don’t talk firsthand to your staff and I don’t read the executive summaries of the reports that show the impact you made using grant funding.

As a fundraiser, we have to start with that reality, and then work to change it. And that requires a healthy dose of skepticism. Only then can we figure out how to talk to PDs and turn them into loyal supporters who are at least pretty convinced we’re one of the best — if not THE best — solutions to the problem we care about solving.

To view your fundraising as a skeptic and then identify the most effective way to communicate so your PDs embrace it, ask yourself some questions.

  1. So what? Your organization is busy doing X, or it’s about to launch Y. What difference is that going to make? You helped Z people last month. Did that really make a difference in the problem? Be honest. Be bold. Find the gold nugget in all the surrounding pyrite.
  2. Who’s doing it better? This is not information you’re collecting to share with your donors, but it is likely information some of your PDs have. Your job is not to point to another organization’s flaws, but rather to use this information to develop an explanation of what your organization is doing differently that makes your approach the best choice for your PD.
  3. What is our “unique selling proposition”? This marketing term is from the 1940s, but it’s still relevant. We may now call it a more contemporary term, but the question it seeks to answer is the same, regardless of the nomenclature: What makes our organization stand head and shoulders above everyone else in the business of doing whatever it is we do? You may not be the biggest or the flashiest, but your PD sees the possibilities. What makes a PD fall in love with your organization is a fierce belief that YOU have a RIGHT answer to the concern they are PASSIONATE about.
  4. What’s the best story to show this specialness? It’s not enough to know what your secret sauce is; your PDs need to understand it and want more of it. Statistics are nice, but it’s hard to get excited about a cold, hard number. But tell a story of how your approach to whatever it is you do best is changing the world — even if it is on a smaller scale than another organization — and I’m going to “get it.” I may not give, but if I do, I will be more likely to be loyal because I believe your unique approach is what’s really going to change things over time.

To create fundraising that turns PDs into loyal partners means taking off the rose-colored glasses and letting yourself be skeptical about everything. That’s how you put yourself in the PD’s place and find language and images to make your fundraising messages credible. The result? When PDs understand what you stand for, they become more likely to connect with your organization, not just the broad cause.


Published in NonProfitPro, June 4, 2020

Don’t Let a Pandemic Ruin Your Fundraising Program

It’s been quite a while since I wrote an article about fundraising, having decided it was time for younger voices to take over. But as I think about the current pandemic, I realize that younger fundraisers may not have a lot of experience raising money during a major crisis or national disaster.

In my 41 years of fundraising, I have raised money during wars, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, genocides, earthquakes … and in the quiet, “routine” times, as well. In recent weeks, I have helped nonprofits navigate postponed capital campaigns, cancelled events, a semi-annual “routine” mailing and emergency needs – all a direct result of COVID-19.

So it seemed time for me to come out of my self-imposed “article-writing retirement” and offer some wisdom only learned over four decades of constant fundraising, through good times and bad, recessions and economic booms, celebrations and crises … and now a pandemic.

Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.

Right now, cancelling things seems to be the norm. Whether it’s the vacation we’ve been planning for months or the annual event that raises half our income, we’re having to suck it up and pull the plug. All the energy we put into planning is now going toward renegotiating contracts, begging for refunds and worrying about how we are going to replace the revenue.

Your donors are just as frustrated as you are as their own plans crumble. They feel isolated and are missing social interaction. Take time to reach out to them. Call them up just to see how they are doing. Send a handwritten note to tell them how much they are appreciated. (A computer has nothing over handwritten when it comes to personal.) Send out a letter with something that isn’t just “business as usual” – for example, enclose a great recipe that your family appreciated during these unusual days, a video “fireside chat” or photos of your staff working from home.

What matters right now is the human touch – and since we can’t do it in person, make sure you are being creative and communicating one person to another with your donors. They will remember this special effort when they’re again able to support your events, campaigns and appeals.

Your donors know you need money. Tell them you need them.

Now is the time to talk to your donors via mail or electronic means and tell them how important their support is. Don’t whine; we all know things are out of control. But let them know what you are doing, why it matters, and why it can’t happen without “you” (that’s the reader/listener, not your organization).

You may choose to reference the pandemic, but don’t make it the focus (unless the work you do is related to responding to COVID-19 or people who are impacted by it). For example, one nonprofit that only mails two appeals a year was about to mail when their state shut down. They inserted a brief note that referenced the pandemic but mailed as planned. The mailing is doing extremely well, and they are getting notes of encouragement from donors along with checks.

Another nonprofit that is seeing increased requests for help because they provide services to people out of work or struggling to pay bills chose to mail out a special emergency appeal explaining just that. They needed support from their donors because requests for their help were multiplying because of COVID.

Fundraising is not about percentages or pie charts – it’s about people.

Even with everything topsy-turvy, take time to find a few good stories about how your (the donor’s) gift is making a difference. Most of us relate better to a story than we do to stats, and with all the added stress of balancing life during a pandemic, engaging hearts becomes critical. I don’t know about you, but my brain is on overload. What I need is a story that makes me feel good – and it just may make me want to give a gift so I can help write more stories.

The people that supported you before the pandemic still care. They haven’t forgotten you. But you might have to work harder to get a few minutes of their time. Doing things differently to give them a few minutes break from video meetings, homeschooling, strategizing grocery shopping or figuring out what’s for dinner may be just what it takes to remind them how good it feels to support your organization.

American actor John Krasinski said, “When everything gets turned upside down, it only leads to better quality stuff.” Perhaps a different kind of fundraising today will prove better for developing donors who stick with you, even after a pandemic.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

A Fundraiser’s Secret Weapon: Program Colleagues

Blackbaud has published a terrific new — and free — eBook, npEXPERTS 2017  – Fundraising Matters: Building a Culture of Philanthropy. My article, “A Fundraiser’s Secret Weapon: Program Colleagues,” begins on page 23.

Use this link to download your own copy – and remember, it’s free!

npEXPERTS 2017 – Fundraising Matters: Building a Culture of Philanthropy


Fundraisers Have No ‘Summer Slump’

For many nonprofits, fundraising energy becomes sluggish as the temperatures rise. It may not be prime event season, donors may be too busy for a visit, mailing an appeal letter might be put off until fall, and online efforts take a back seat to vacation and “summer hours.”

While the challenges of raising funds in the summer are real in many cases, it’s not an excuse to coast for eight or more weeks. After all, summer is followed rather quickly by what is typically the most important quarter for fundraising—and that annual occurrence, Dec. 31.

So while vacations and enjoying the warmer activities should not be neglected, neither should fundraising. In fact, there are some great things to focus on before Labor Day, especially if you want to achieve your annual goals and have a spectacular year-end.

Review and revise (as needed) your appeal plan for October through December. Are there groups of donors you’re neglecting? Do you have a great plan in place for reactivating lapsed donors and just maybe getting some people on that big list of non-donors to take the plunge and give? Do you have in your schedule time to work on a request that arrives in-home in early January, asking monthly automatic donors to consider upgrading? Do you have enough time built in to get all the e-appeals and letters you want to send out in November and December done—not simply “somehow,” but with the best copy and graphics possible to capture attention and move donors to respond? Do you have some clear offers that you can build into reasons to give?

Review your online giving portal to make sure it’s donor-focused and robust enough to handle even more responses. Online giving is going to increase each year (in most cases), so what was “just fine” last year may now be inadequate. Don’t wait until your system crashes to find that out. Use some downtime now to make sure it’s ready for what you anticipate will be your best year-end online giving response ever.

Figure out what you want to learn before year-end to be a better fundraiser—and get started. Whether it’s the book you want to read, the course you want to take or the mentor you want to secure, use the summer to move that dream forward. We’re all extra busy in the fall, so ask more seasoned fundraisers for advice or recommendations when they have more bandwidth to help you.

Take a risk. Summer is also a great time to try a fundraising skill that is new to you. Whether it’s writing a newsletter article, meeting with a donor, researching foundations, planning a new event—or whatever else—use your time to explore new possibilities. You may just find a previously unknown talent that makes you an even better fundraiser.

Talk to your donors. Pick up the phone and make some calls—not just once, but every week. Thank your donors. Tell them how much they mean to your organization. Let them know if programs that will be launched or expanded in the fall. Build their excitement—and deepen a friendship at the same time.

Send me an email if you have a question you’d like me to tackle. I can’t answer everything since I’m still on a journey of learning, too, but I’m always looking for “felt needs” to discuss in this column. So if your summer reflections lead you to wonder about something related to fundraising (especially direct response and operations), contact me at While I can’t promise you fame and fortune, if I use your question you will get a mention in “Old Dog Fundraising”!

Regardless of how you spend your summer, this old dog hopes it’s a great prelude to your best fall ever. After all, the work we do as fundraisers builds on what we’ve done in the past, so make every minute count—and don’t forget to have fun, too!

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.