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Dane Shumak, CFRE, BBA

About Dane

How to Retain and Engage Your Millennial Fundraisers

I’m a millennial – the generation of the lazy, the entitled, the disloyal, the rebellious, and the perennially dissatisfied.

If you’re nodding your head, perhaps based on a millennial you know, work with closely, or have raised, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re wrong. Millennials are fantastically engaged, hungry for success, and easy to please.

Unfortunately, it’s a crisis of intergenerational miscommunication that is creating these tensions.


Millennial Turnover in Fundraising Offices

In fundraising offices, we’re already familiar with the crisis of turnover, so adding the crisis of millennial turnover to the equation is compounding what is already a very disconcerting trend.

If you haven’t yet noticed that your rate of employee turnover is increasing, you soon will. This isn’t because we’ve simply raised an entire generation improperly – it’s because the workforce is not structured for the incredible efficiencies millennials bring with them, for the technology they’ve grown up embracing, and for the disruption in archaic structures millennials are so used to purporting.

It also drives me nuts how many times I’ve had to battle uphill against assumptions made against me and my peers simply based on my age, or my generation. I’m lucky to have developed a relationship where I work now that is based on mutual respect – but so many of my peers haven’t, and they’re pretty pissed. And yes – they’re absolutely looking for other jobs right now.

Forcing millennials, like me, into boxes is no different than shoving square pegs into round holes. It either won’t work, or you’re going to break something in the process. Inherently, more than any generation before them, millennials are idealistic (almost to a fault). We’ve been told that we’re special, that we can change the world if we believe it, and that anything is possible.


I don’t know about you but to me that sounds almost like a charitable mission statement. But like many mission statements, it’s how you apply it that really matters, and that’s where I come in.

I’m a millennial fundraiser, and I’m here to help you.

The State of the Nation

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the average tenure of nonprofit fundraisers is sixteen months. Moreover, depending on which study you reference, as many as 60 percent of millennials are currently exploring other job opportunities and open to the right offer — and over 20 percent will change jobs next year alone.

These numbers should absolutely grab the attention of senior managers in every development office because, like it or not, millennials are now the largest generation of employees in the workforce, and their talents are the future of your office.


Last year, job-hopping millennials cost the economy over $30 billion. How does this apply to your fundraising department? Each fundraiser that leaves your organization costs you over $120,000, when it costs just under $46,000 to retain and promote them internally. Let’s do some quick math — that means that fundraising turnover costs your office just over $90,000 per year, per fundraiser.

Scared yet? Don’t be!

In this article, I’m going to walk through a few important must-knows and must-dos to help you retain the unicorn — an engaged, effective, efficient, and long-tenure millennial fundraiser.

It Starts at “You’re Hired”

In writing this article, I conducted a bit of a survey among my fundraising network. A manager I interviewed stated that for her, retention started the minute she was hired. According to her, it is critical to open up the conversation of expectations, budgets, targets, and metrics with new employees immediately — and give them the opportunity to feed into each of these areas, too.

Your new employees are smart (millennials will be the best-educated generation in history), and you hired them for a reason. Giving them the opportunity to engage with their ninety- day plan at the outset is a great way to show them that you trust them, you value their input, and you’re not going to expect too much of them, too quickly. Then, give your new employees the space and time they need to sink or swim on their own — while being there to lend a hand when they get a bit stuck.

This is not to say that training isn’t valuable — in fact, quite the contrary. The manager I spoke with said that having somebody help new employees navigate is critical. Policies, procedures, systems, databases — these are all things that different charities do differently, and while you think that all the acronyms you use make sense in your brain, your new employee’s brain is probably a bit overloaded.

Increasingly critical in training is training on culture and yes, organizational politics. By arming your new employees with the knowledge of the organization’s culture and players, you’re setting them up for success right from the outset — and making them feel welcome, too (especially if they’re managing your staff campaign!).

The Importance of Leadership Opportunities

To first step in retaining millennials is to ask yourself why they’re leaving. Millennials leave employment for a number of different reasons — but one of the most significant is that they have a hunger for a diversity of experiences and will be the first generation of true lifelong learners. Building space for this into your hiring and succession management planning structure is going to be a huge win for your office now and in the long term.

Millennial employees look for leadership opportunities and autonomy — both intrinsic and extrinsic. Showing them this level of trust early and often will help alleviate that sixteen-month itch — you’ve given them the freedom to design their own short-term and long-term goals, and you’re giving them the autonomy to see these goals through themselves.

Oh, and by the way — let me pause the article to say that if you’re not doing long-term fundraising strategic planning at all levels of your fundraising department, from annual giving to bequest giving to direct marketing to advancement services, stop reading right now and go do that. Seriously.

Three Things You Might Be Missing

There are probably three big gaps in your retention strategy if you’re noticing employees leaving too soon: learning and development, fulfillment and engagement, and meaningful growth.

Many organizations don’t recognize the importance and crucial nature of continued professional development and training — and allowing for horizontal workplace learning. Both millennials and fundraisers tend to leave jobs to develop skills they feel are crucial to the future of their careers, but that they aren’t able to grow within their current job. Millennials fear being pigeon-holed into a specialty — and in fundraising, this happens all too easily. By not allowing for horizontal learning and professional development in areas outside of your employee’s current specialty, you’re missing a fundamental aspect of what it’s going to take to keep your employee in-house.

Don’t believe the stereotypes. To keep your millennial employees engaged, you don’t need to have ping - pong tables and bean bag chairs around the office, you don’t need to let them work whenever they want, you don’t need to let them wear whatever they want, and you don’t need to spend tons of money on cocktail Fridays, snacks, and open-concept workspaces. I can’t tell you how far back in my head my eyes roll when I read that millennials are entitled and materialistic. They’re not, and, besides, that misses the point. What do all of the above have in common? They’re attributable to managers that care and invest in their workplace culture. If you have restrictive policies about hours of work and dress code that are not backed up by the requirements of the job, then, of course, your millennial employee is going to be peeved.

Millennials are disruptors by nature. Of course, as fundraisers we have a duty to invest our donors’ dollars wisely so more often than not, frivolities are beyond our budgets — and that is okay. Millennials crave a sense of purpose in their work, and this is one thing that charities can offer in droves. Plug your millennial fundraiser directly into the impact of what it is they’re doing (think of them as a major donor!) and steward them properly. Not just that, but give them time and space to build relationships; it’s critical to allow for networking and mentorship, build a meaningful two-way relationship with your direct reports, and avoid burnout. Over 60 percent of millennials say that they’re going to stay in a role that gives them a real sense of purpose.

Lastly, meaningful growth is critical. Of course, realizing right from the outset that you’re not going to be able to promote or give raises to every single employee that walks through your door is critical — sometimes, the best you can do is to prepare for a sixteen - month departure and have the infrastructure in place to deal with it.

But for those employees you really want to invest in, taking a critical look at how you reward performance and plan your succession management is worthwhile. It costs a third of what it costs to recruit a new employee to recognize an existing one properly.

Commonly, and justifiably, fundraising offices are afraid of compensating their employees competitively to show their donors that they spend their funds responsibly. Equally as common, especially in publicly funded charities, are archaic policies that limit salary increases to a mandated and structured amount that doesn’t allow for proper recognition of an employee’s true ROI. Sometimes your employee’s leaving is going to come down to simple math — if you offer a 2 percent salary increase, I guarantee a skilled fundraiser could easily leave and find a 10 percent, 15 percent, or even 20 percent salary jump in a month at a different organization that is starved for young fundraising talent.

Some Last Thoughts

We are approaching an interesting precipice in fundraising management, now — where there is increasingly a need for skilled fundraisers but there is not enough skilled talent to go around. You’ve probably noticed your recruitment costs have gone up, or you’re increasingly compromising on your new hires in an effort to simply plug the hole to stop the bleeding.

Instead of looking outward or skyward to solve this crisis, increasingly we should be looking inward — at the talented millennials we already have, at the policies that govern how we manage and recognize them, and at the work we are requiring them to do.

I bet we’ll be amazed at the solutions we find.


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