Keeping Donors Happy When Your Development Team Is in Transition

With the average turnover rate for fundraisers a mere 18 months, there’s little doubt your development team will go through transition. Though the time frame is likely longer in planned giving, the question remains: What will you do when, not if, a staff member leaves?

Recently, I asked Azure Christensen, executive director at EveryStep Foundation in Des Moines, and Aaron Levinson, planned giving director at Los Angeles Jewish Home, for their thoughts on (and real-life experiences around) handling development staff turnover.

Hope you enjoy our conversation.

Nathan: How can nonprofits minimize donor impact when a development team transition occurs?

Azure: There are a vast number of reasons why people give, but ultimately people give to people. For this reason, a development team needs to regularly take steps to mitigate what repercussions can come with inevitable development staff turnover. They include making sure the relationship your organization shares with donors is not based on one person; carefully tracking donor actions and communication; ensuring you can quickly identify those donors who are most important to you today; and finally, ensuring you drive forward with the positive.

Nathan: What’s the first step when a development team member says he or she is leaving?

Azure: Every organization should have an active and ever-evolving list of top supporters and prospects—people who stand out in their impact and potential to support your cause. When transition ensues, this list is where you start. Put a core team together to run through the list and determine what action, if any, needs to happen for each person. How do you communicate the change? Who has an existing relationship? What are the next steps? Develop the beginning of a plan and the message.

Nathan: If you’ve been part of a transition, either when you or a colleague has given notice, how has it been handled by your team?

Aaron: Almost always it’s handled in a similar way: The departing staff person says his or her goodbyes to key donors, and generally is gracious about telling donors that someone new will soon be coming on and will reach out. The departing staff person should always say they hope donors will continue their generosity with the new person.

Nathan: In past experiences, how have you told donors that a development team transition was happening?

Aaron: We have generally treated the situation in a matter-of-fact method. “So-and-so has given notice. We will be filling his/her position as soon as we can find a qualified person.” When the new person comes on board, I think it’s important for them to send a letter to key donors (or the entire Legacy Circle/Society, if it’s the planned giving position), introducing themselves and saying they will be calling in the near future. And then they do have to follow up with the calls, not just say they will!

Nathan: In terms of planned giving, did the transition slow efforts to steward donors?

Aaron: I would say planned giving could be an exception to the above rules. Planned giving staff tend to be closer to their donors than other staff, in my experience. So donors could have a more adverse reaction to the staff person leaving. It also could take longer to fill the position, so the transition definitely could slow an organization’s efforts. Yet even in these situations, I think donors still understand the reality that staff move around from time to time.

Nathan: How can an executive director or other familiar face help ease the transition?

Azure: Consider including an alternate relationship in communication, and also use this alternate relationship as a conduit once a new development staff person is hired. A familiar name, voice or face— board member, CEO or program director—is a nice way to maintain consistency.

Nathan: Any examples of when a staff transition was handled poorly?

Aaron: With respect to my position, it was previously filled for about seven years by someone who was fairly beloved by the donors. After she left, it was difficult to find the right person to fill the role. We had someone full-time briefly as well as a part-time consultant. Finally, I was promoted to the position. In this case, I think the donors were definitely neglected for several years as there was little stability in the position.

Nathan: Any positive actions that stand out in memory during that transition?

Aaron: When I finally filled the planned giving position, one donor’s attorney called the CEO and told her that someone better pay attention to his client or the client may take the organization out of her trust. (How lucky for us that we received this warning; often the negative consequence just happens and it’s too late.) I immediately called the donor and set up a lunch. We ended up becoming very close; I see her every week now. Eventually this donor’s planned gift will be eight figures, double what it was supposed to be before I took over the position.

Nathan: Is there a positive side to all of this?

Azure: Changing of the guard can be used as a time to reset with some of those closest to you. Engaging a donor in any communication is valuable to your organization, even if that communication is unfortunate news of a staff change. As a development leader, take the time to reach out to some of those donors who will be impacted by the transition and find out how they are feeling about the organization.

Nathan: What’s the most important thing teams can do during these transitions to ensure strong donor relationships?

Aaron: Simple. Keep the lines of communication and stewardship open.

Azure: Regular and detailed tracking of actions with any one donor is one of the best ways to ensure ease in transition. These notes can assist in identifying a donor’s intent, history, interests, sensitivities, even their favorite lunch spot. Most important, these records should allow another development officer to pick up where previous officers have left off without a donor’s need to retell their “story.”

Other voices, stories and perspectives help all of us do a better job when—not if—a development staff transition occurs. We want to hear your answers to these questions! Any success stories or tips you’d like to share?

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