Top performers and rising stars, like top donors, warrant special treatment. They contribute more than others, and they raise the bar for everyone. Top donors capture the attention of other organizations, and competition for their philanthropic dollars intensifies. By raising more, top performers and rising stars capture the attention of hiring managers in other organizations who are looking for exceptional talent.
Leading philanthropists thrive on accomplishing great things—many of their gifts fit into the category of “transformational.” Leading advancement professionals also thrive on transformational contribution. They derive pleasure and professional satisfaction from exceeding fundraising goals, strengthening engagement of potential donors and advocates, and playing an important role in the achievement of strategic objectives that enhance their organizations’ ability to serve society. They want to make a difference in their organizations, and they want their contributions to be recognized, not necessarily publicly—they correctly want the focus to remain on donors and volunteers—but certainly by their supervisors.
Some of their work will bear fruit in days or weeks, and some in years or decades. But experienced administrators and board members recognize an outstanding advancement officer when they meet and work with one, even as they recognize a true philanthropic partner. One of the greatest gifts these leaders can make to their organizations is to act upon that recognition.
Recent studies have measured the cost to an organization of turnover in a development position; one study calculated the direct and indirect costs as $127,650. I would suggest that the cost of turnover when a top performer is involved could well exceed 10 times that number. Investing in a principal gifts program can seem expensive at first, as facilitating relationships with these prospective donors requires significantly more time and attention, hence greater cost per donor. But the loss of revenue associated with not making such an investment is enormous—and the same is true of failure to invest in top talent.
Major gift donors typically make gifts 10 to 100 times the size of a regular, annual gift, and principal gift donors might make gifts 1,000 times, or even 100,000 times the size of their annual gift. We need a strong pipeline of donors, moving from engagement gifts, to campaign and other major gifts, to transformative investments involving philanthropic partners. Similarly, we need a strong pipeline of talent. As donors demonstrate increased ability and inclination to give, we move them through the pipeline, giving them more and more attention. We must do the same with talent. If an annual fund donor making a $1,000 gift shows both capacity and inclination to make a $100 million gift, we don’t keep them in the leadership annual giving or major gifts pool; when a staff member shows capacity and inclination to move through the talent pipeline at an accelerated rate, we should similarly find ways to recognize and capitalize on that capacity, without being tied to a “normal” rate of movement.
Here are some suggestions for retaining your top talent:
As a starting point, identify top performers and rising stars. Successful fundraising programs keep an up-to-date list of principal gift prospective donors. Organizational leaders—from president to board leaders to development staff—know them by name. In senior development leadership meetings, a discussion of top performers and rising stars—starting with each senior manager letting their colleagues know whose performance has captured their attention—should be a regular agenda item.
Once identified, principal gift prospective donors receive substantial attention in prospect strategy meetings and in discussions with senior leadership. Training, professional development, mentoring, and career tracks of top performers and rising stars should be discussed at least quarterly, not only in an annual review.
Top performers and rising stars generally seek and deserve more responsibility at a faster rate than other staff members. Be open to changing their job descriptions, promoting them, giving bonuses, and possibly increasing their salaries off cycle; if warranted, be open to making changes more than once per year. Small bonuses and increases tied to achievement and career advancement, made when they are not expected, can cost the same or less than an annual raise and yet have a much greater impact on an employee’s sense of achievement and recognition of that achievement. In addition, however, be prepared to increase compensation at rates that may significantly exceed “normal” rates, tying these much more to increased responsibility and contribution than to cost of living.
Top talent will receive other job offers whether you like it or not. Embrace the recognition they are receiving from outside your organization, and celebrate that recognition WITH them. Invite them to let you know when they receive such calls, and even when they see an ad that intrigues them. Ask them what about the other opportunity appeals to them, and see if you can find a way to accommodate their desire for career growth internally. Creative solutions might include an internship or short-term project assignment in an area that interests them, without requiring a complete change of job: For example, a stewardship and donor relations officer who wants to try individual giving might be allowed to manage a few prospective donors, or to join in some donor visits.
Principal gift donors sometimes challenge organizational leaders to think outside the box, and some of the greatest transformational gifts have resulted from creative thinking on the part of both donor and administrator. Similarly, talented people do not fit neatly into boxes, nor should we want them to. Work with talent management colleagues to create more flex in your org charts for top performers. Allow boxes to bend, and even break, creating new boxes. Chances are, if you take the time to think it through, you can cover all your needs with a combination of your best people if you are open to creative reassignment of responsibilities. In other words, start with your best people and create the boxes around them, rather than starting with the boxes. And be willing to let boxes bend and break regularly, as the interests and capabilities of your most talented people grow and change.
Recognize that front-line talent and accomplishment does not always predict aptitude or interest in management. Standard promotion tracks require increased management responsibility to accompany increases in title and compensation. In some cases, a move into management can be the worst step for both employee and organization. Create career tracks that allow top producers who wish to remain on the front line to do so. Give them opportunities to contribute to senior-level strategic discussions and to increase their compensation without having to squeeze themselves into management boxes that do not allow them to make their highest and best contributions.
Colleagues in human resources may or may not be inclined to the level of flexibility outlined above. Let them know about the top performers and rising stars you and your advancement colleagues have identified, and educate these human resources colleagues on the level of competition in the market for top fundraising talent. They want to retain top talent as much as you do, and the best way to engage them in the creative approaches required for retention of fundraisers is to bring them into the conversation early and often.
If you’re not sure what philanthropists want to achieve, the best way to learn is to ask them. If you’re not sure what your top performers want to achieve, ASK THEM.
The most talented people in our field rarely leave an institution for a title or for more money. They leave because they lose a sense of mutual benefit—a sense that their career advancement and the advancement of their organizations are aligned in mutually beneficial, exciting, and rewarding ways. Organizations routinely lose donors for the same reasons—donors lose the sense that their own philanthropic objectives and an organization’s objectives are aligned in mutually rewarding ways.
An organization’s best principal gift donors are true philanthropic partners. They achieve their philanthropic objectives—their desire to do something important and worthwhile—even as they help the organization achieve its philanthropic objectives and fulfill its mission. The more their sense of philanthropic achievement is tied to the organization, the more they give. Treat your top performers and rising stars like true philanthropic partners. Allow them to experience advancing your organization as the best possible way to achieve their personal and professional objectives and make a real difference in the world.
Your top donors have hundreds of other giving opportunities, and your top performers and rising stars have the same. You treat your top 5 percent of donors in special, customized ways. You can afford to—you must—be willing to do the same to retain top talent.
Ron Schiller is Founding Partner of the Aspen Leadership Group and the Philanthropy Career Network. He has held advancement leadership positions in multiple institutions, including the University of Chicago, where he led a team of more than 450 that completed a $2.3 billion campaign.