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Building a Winning Talent Strategy

In August 2019, the Chronicle of Philanthropy released study results revealing that half of all fundraisers expect to leave their jobs in the next two years, with only 12% citing retirement or family changes as the reason. Even worse, three in 10 said they had recently left or plan to leave the development field altogether within the next two years.

They weren’t bluffing. Fundraisers quit in droves during the pandemic and the subsequent Great Resignation. A December 2021 report from the National Council of Nonprofits showed that nearly half of nonprofits had 20 percent or more of their positions open, with salary competition cited as the greatest challenge to hiring and retaining workers.


While the upward pressure on salaries might be out of your direct control, adopting an intentional talent strategy can increase employee engagement, boost productivity, and reduce turnover.

To begin building your talent strategy, start with these three key steps:

  1. Assess your team’s strengths and talents
  2. Create clear growth plans
  3. Set ambitious – yet achievable – goals

Assess your team’s strengths and talents

When people can leverage their natural talents and preferences in their jobs, everyone wins: employees have increased job satisfaction and employers benefit from increased productivity. Your first step as a leader is to understand staff members’ strengths and help them align these strengths with their jobs, which is proven to reduce turnover and boost employee engagement.

Personality assessment tools – such as DiSC, StrengthsFinder, Real Colors, etc. – help to build stronger, more dynamic teams by identifying employees’ strengths and providing insight on how to leverage them in the workplace.

Example PDP Proscan assessment results

An example of a PDP ProScan assessment report.

At Graham-Pelton, we prefer the ProScan Survey from PDP Global, which focuses on understanding strengths and motivators to reduce workplace stressors while improving morale. Not only is ProScan heavily researched and scientifically backed, but it is also easy to administer and apply.

No matter which tool you use, these assessments allow employees to become more aware of how they function in the workplace. They are not meant to determine if a specific individual is cut out for a specific role. Rather, they identify possible obstacles employees might experience based on their personality profiles and provide strategies for how to overcome them.

Don’t worry if the employee’s assessment does not immediately seem to align with the core competencies of their role. When an employee’s role requires them to stretch beyond their behavioral preferences, additional coaching and training can help them leverage their natural skillset to be successful.

Once you understand the strengths and motivations of your team, you can begin to create growth opportunities to keep them satisfied at your organization long term.

Create clear growth plans

Studies show that fundraisers’ yields increase dramatically after four years at an organization, supporting the long-held belief that developing the level of donor trust required for significant gifts takes time.

Yet, despite the research and anecdotal evidence, very few nonprofits have a formal retention strategy. Fundraisers must often change employers to get a raise or promotion, taking institutional knowledge and relationships with them on their way out the door.

Career path diagram

Go beyond the traditional org chart and create customized career paths for each position.

A formal growth plan for your fundraisers demonstrates that you value their experience and that they can advance their careers without having to leave the organization.

To start creating your formal growth strategy, consider these tips:

  • Don’t just offer a job description. Outline a clear vision of growth during the interview process, including where hires “can go” from their first position within your nonprofit.
  • Go beyond the org chart. Create a visual guide for each position that shows clear, well-defined growth opportunities and refer back to it during the performance review process. Remember that growth is not always linear – consider the career “jungle gym” as opposed to the “career ladder” – and demonstrate to employees that you are open to regular conversations about their unique path.
  • Reward professional development. Encourage employee learning by demonstrating that you value shadowing, memberships, board leadership, and other professional growth opportunities.
  • Support new managers. Management requires a different skill set from fundraising. To support talented fundraisers promoted to first-time managers, refer to their personality assessment profile and coach them on how to leverage their natural preferences to grow into their new responsibilities.

Set ambitious – yet achievable – goals

When people are faced with unrealistic goals, it leads to turnover.

Frontline fundraisers like to win, so focus on creating an environment where winning is achievable yet requires them to grow and challenge themselves.

One way to achieve this is to develop goals collaboratively with your staff. By employing a “bottom-up” approach, fundraisers can fully take ownership of their goals and feel invested in hitting them.

Ask gift officers to set a stretch goal and reward achieving it with specific, personally meaningful incentives such as a raise or bonus, additional vacation days, or professional development opportunities.

Goals should also be linked to the individual’s growth plan to provide a clear pathway to career advancement. Once the goals are set, make sure you have the systems in place to monitor and report progress. This step is especially important for multi-year goals, where timelines and milestones are key to keeping fundraisers engaged long term.

Wrapping up

Mapping out a transparent employee growth strategy requires intentionality and patience. The journey is just as important as the destination, so accept that there will be detours and roadblocks along the way. The results will be worth it.

If you are just starting out or are preparing for a major fundraising initiative, experienced counsel can provide objective recommendations and help you get up to speed quickly. Graham-Pelton’s Talent Strategy Services provides customized solutions based on decades of experience in development operations and talent management.

To learn more, call Laura McGarry at +1 (800) 608-7955 x1226 or email lmcgarry@grahampelton.com.