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Tackling Staffing Challenges in Independent Schools: Strategies for Success

This is the time of year when most Independent Schools are finalizing contracts for the next school year. Naturally, it is often a time when fundraisers find new opportunities and may decide to change jobs. This year, it comes as many schools are already experiencing vacant positions and staffing shortages on their teams.

In a landscape where finding and retaining top talent seems more challenging than ever, let’s explore the causes and potential solutions to this issue for your institution.

How We Got Here: Reasons for the Staffing Crisis

  • Even before the pandemic and “Great Resignation,” staff turnover in the fundraising industry was a concern, with the average tenure of a major gift officer being just 18-24 months, which is problematic for a role and industry heavily dependent on relationships.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that fundraising jobs were expected to grow by 15% from 2016 to 2026, resulting in fierce competition and demand for fundraisers that is far outpacing average job growth. Salaries have remained flat since around 2019 – even as the number of available opportunities increases.
  • A December 2019 study found that 51% of fundraisers surveyed planned to quit current jobs by 2021. Add to that a pandemic, the Great Resignation, and a work force with an increased desire for flexibility, the result is that many schools now find themselves struggling to attract and retain top talent.
  • While the first three reasons apply to all types of nonprofits, Independent Schools additionally face a combination of two major challenges: less flexibility and lower salaries. The joy of working in an Independent School is being part of a community, and many of us willingly trade compensation for connection. We all missed this connection during the depths of the pandemic, but we also proved that remote work is possible. While we won’t advocate returning to remote learning, or even fully remote Advancement shops, many talented job seekers are looking for a flexible and hybrid work environment. This is particularly relevant since Independent Schools are often competing with hospitals and higher ed institutions that offer greater flexibility and higher salaries.
  • Lastly, many Independent Schools are located in areas with high real estate and rent prices, making the lack of flexibility and lower salaries even more exclusionary for potential hires.

What Can You Do? Considerations and Actions for Your School:

  • Offer a flexible work environment: While it may be a debate with your Head of School, we have proven that schools can function in a remote and hybrid environment. It will not only make you more competitive, but it also makes your current team happier and more fulfilled in their existing roles.
  • Partner with a search firm: Many Directors of Advancement and Development are managing the details of searches while also doing their jobs, managing their teams, and covering the responsibilities of the vacant position. The investment in a search firm often pays off in multiples.
  • Offer higher salaries: Independent Schools have never paid frontline fundraisers very competitively. We know there will be more and more new positions elsewhere, and we are losing talented fundraisers to other nonprofits. Offering more competitive salaries now will help prevent turnover down the line.
  • Retain your current team: Be clear about what is expected of current team members and be proactive about their desired growth path in your organization. Ambitious and talented team members might not see an obvious growth path in your organization and leave to find another opportunity. Don’t let it come to that. Make sure you are having intentional conversations about performance, professional development, and opportunities for career growth. Where possible, work with your team and school leadership to find the best pathway forward. My colleague Laura McGarry already wrote a great article on this.
  • Hire interim staff: If your team is already down a position (or multiple positions), firms such as Graham-Pelton can provide interim staffing to support your current team, help curb burnout, and maintain fundraising momentum.

Independent Schools are wonderful places to work and learn. Our careers are fulfilling, fun, and we work with a lot of great people along the way. As you consider your staffing strategy, implementing these changes can increase your ability to attract and retain top talent.