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Where Is the Love? Addressing the Nonprofit Commitment Problem

James Green, MBA, CFRE
Published:  09/14/2018

In the struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with early career fundraisers, nonprofits still have a commitment problem. Contrary to predictions of decline, the fundraising field is booming with qualified young professionals. The real issue is that new fundraisers are often not given the proper development tools to succeed. Even worse, nonprofits are typically unaware that they are not investing enough resources into their early career fundraisers. So how can we foster relationships with new fundraisers and keep them in our organizations longer?

Here is some great news: according to new research from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, nonprofits looking to hire the best possible candidate for entry level fundraising have never had better prospects. Today, the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, the Association of Fundraising Professionals and many universities are offering an abundance of more affordable training opportunities than ever and preparing the current cadre of fundraisers for the workforce like never before. In Fundraisers in the 21st Century, a longitudinal study of today’s fundraisers compared with their 1995 counterparts, Prof. Sarah Nathan and Prof. Gene Temple found an overall increase in the number of college-educated fundraisers with a graduate degree, an increase of almost 9 percent1. They also found that more new entrants are coming to fundraising as a first career. The average age of entry into the profession declined from 33.5 in 1996 to 30.5 in 2016, and the median age of someone in their first fundraising job is 271.

Here is even more good news: Contrary to dire predictions of decline, the fundraising field is exploding. Since at least 2006, nonprofits have been warned about a coming talent shortage. The conventional fear has been that Baby Boomers are retiring at a rapid pace, Generation X has too few members to fill all of the vacating leadership positions and the millennial generation is too young to fill the remaining roles. Fortunately for the fundraising profession, these predictions have not come to pass.

Though there is improvement still needed, in the past 20 years the sector has done an admirable job of professionalizing the field and making sure people know fundraising is a viable career option for younger, talented people. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (USBLS), there is a projected 14.8 percent annual growth rate in the fundraising occupation from 2016 to 2026—nearly double the average occupational growth rate2. The USBLS estimates there will be 103,800 fundraisers in the U.S. by 2026.

So what’s the catch? Unfortunately, as the nonprofit sector enjoys an influx of younger, highly talented and well-trained professionals, those new fundraisers are often not given what they feel they need to succeed. Early career fundraisers find that most employers don’t seem to trust them enough to invest in their professional development, but most nonprofits don’t even know they have this problem. Ninety percent of nonprofit CEOs believe their organization offers formal professional development opportunities, but only 52 percent of their leadership teams agree3. Young fundraisers also don’t see enough opportunities to advance. Fifty-five percent of emerging nonprofit leaders believe they need to leave their organizations to advance their careers4.

All of these factors are contributing to short tenures: Early career fundraisers (less than 10 years’ experience) average merely 2 to 2.5 years per job,1 but it doesn’t have to be this way. All relationships should be reciprocal. These young fundraisers are making a passionate but calculated decision about where and with whom to spend the incredibly valuable and productive early years of their career. If we want to keep them, nonprofits need to show more care, more respect and a lot more commitment. So, here are some tips to keeping your junior gift officers in love with you a bit longer.

  1. Stop maligning millennials. We have all heard the stereotypes: “They are self-centered,” “They can’t take criticism,” “They need too much affirmation” and “They are disloyal and switch jobs faster than other generations.” Not only are these stereotypes untrue, they are destructive to your work relationships and your work environment. In a recent study, Pew Research Center found that millennials have a slightly longer tenure per job compared to Gen Xers at the same age5. If you start treating your young professionals with professional respect, they will stop feeling undervalued and start being more productive.
  2. Build professional development and capacity investment into your funding requests. Funding for professional development and capacity building from foundations has decreased from 1.24 percent of total awards to nonprofits from 1992 to 2011 to 0.8 percent by 20136. Buck the trend and treat your fundraisers like the skilled workers they are. Invest in them. Ask funders to invest in them as well. If you give your fundraisers the professional development opportunities they need to grow, your organization will benefit.
  3. Offer multiple paths of advancement. In Staying Power, employee retention expert Cara Silletto claims you can increase your young talent tenure by providing different paths of advancement. Mentor your fundraisers personally, offer mentorships outside your organization and allow your young professionals to mentor others7. While mentorship shows your personal concern for their career, it is also important to provide formal development and training. Your young folks are eager to learn. Taking a caring and personal interest in their professional career can have a dramatic impact on their tenure.
  4. Provide more levels of advancement in shorter periods of time. According to Silletto, millennials have grown up in a world of instant gratification and quick rewards7. This is what they know and it’s often the assumption from which they operate. By rethinking your job levels and titles, providing more levels of advancement and decreasing how long it takes to award the next level of advancement, you could increase how long you hold on to that talented individual.
  5. Diversify your staff. Though the labor outlook is strong for fundraisers, there are other reasons for concern. Eighty-eight percent of fundraisers are white, and 75 percent are female1. And despite the overwhelming majority of female fundraisers, men are overrepresented in leadership roles and earn substantially more money for similar roles1.

Our field is growing and we are beginning to see our talent pipeline expanding rapidly. You have a great opportunity to take advantage of these new trends, but in order to fully reap the benefit and potential promised by these eager new fundraisers, you will need to change your organizational culture to help them grow.


  1. Indiana University ScholarWorks Repository. Nathan, Sarah K. and Temple, Eugene R. 2017. Fundraisers in the 21st Century. 4-11. https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/handle/1805/13845
  2. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2018. Employment Projections, Occupation: Fundraisers. https://data.bls.gov/projections/occupationProj
  3. University of Washington, Evans School of Public Affairs and Waldron. 2014. Readiness, Reticence & Reality: Social Sector Leadership & Succession Planning. 33. https://evans.uw.edu/sites/default/files/public/2014_ceo_survey_0.pdf
  4. Cornelius, Marla; Corvington, Patrick and Ruesega, Albert. Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out. Compass Point. 2008. 23. https://www.compasspoint.org/sites/default/files/documents/521_readytolead2008.pdf
  5. Fry, Richard. “Millenials aren’t job hopping any faster than Generation X did.” 2017. Pew Research Center, Fact Tank. April 19, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/19/millennials-arent-job-hopping-any-faster-than-generation-x-did/
  6. Stahl, Rusty Morgen. 2013. "Talent Philanthropy: Investing in Nonprofit People to Advance Nonprofit Performance," The Foundation Review: Vol. 5: Iss. 3, Article 6.
  7. Siletto, Cara. 2018. Staying Power: Why Your Employees Leave and How to Keep Them Longer. 97-98, 134-139. Kenosha, WI. Silver Tree Communications.
NEWS  /10/11/18
The Charitable Giving Coalition’s member organizations, including AHP, conducted a survey in July 2018 to gauge the initial effect of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, passed by Congress in December 2017.
NEWS  /01/02/19
The Report on Giving is a yearly survey project that the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy conducts to collect data on health care-related philanthropic activities.
NEWS  /12/11/15
The following article is based on an AHP webinar, “Trends in annual giving: Practical approaches to meeting your institution’s and donor’s needs

Meet The Author

Jim Green
James Green, MBA, CFRE
Regional Vice President
Mercy Health Foundation

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