“On average, development directors stay in their nonprofit positions only 3 years.”

We hear it at fundraising conferences all the time – a constant refrain followed by bewildered head shaking.

In many communities, development directors drift from nonprofit to nonprofit in a game of professional musical chairs. They get settled into an organization, get a lay of the land, begin budding relationships with donors, and then, snap! They’re gone. 

So what’s going on? Can development directors find long-term success and satisfaction with one organization?  And if so, what’s the secret?

There’s a lot of current discussion about how to attract and retain development professionals. Issues include meaningful work, the opportunity to grow, manageable workload and compensatory salary. But there’s a powerful indicator of professional satisfaction that we’re not hearing a lot about.

What is it? First, a story.

At a breakfast meeting a few weeks ago, I bumped into a colleague of mine, Elena Montello, who I hadn’t connected with in awhile. We did a quick “catch up,” and then she happily announced she was celebrating her 15th anniversary as development director at Hope House, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities live fulfilling lives in their community.

Fifteen years? I thought to myself “not possible, could it really be that long?”  

I remembered back to a cold, damp winter evening in 2000 when she invited me to have a drink and talk about the development position that she had just been offered. Elena had worked part time for Hope House but was completely green in the area of fundraising.  Over a martini, we had a frank discussion about fundraising as a career, and by the time the checks came, she decided to accept the opportunity and embrace the challenge.

A couple days after our recent breakfast meeting, I received a letter in the mail from Hope House addressed to my husband and me.  I opened it thinking it would be a perfunctory thank you note for our year-end gift.

It was not. 

It was a personal letter from Elena thanking us for the wonderful relationship we have built over the years with her and Hope House. She reminisced about asking my husband for her first face-to-face gift – how nervous she had been and how he put her at ease. I have never received a letter thanking me for a relationship. It was surprising and so refreshing!

This touching letter got me thinking about how important relationships are in development. Not just the relationship with donors and volunteers; it’s the relationship with leadership, the executive director and the staff. It’s the relationship with constituents, and it’s the relationship with one’s self – personal vision and values. Relationships span all stakeholders.

I asked Elena to sit down with me, this time over lunch, to talk about what her secret to longevity was in her position. 

Let’s begin with her relationship to her vision and values.

I asked Elena what about her work makes her feel fulfilled.

“The world is so much bigger than me,” she said. “I learned from my parents to work at what’s important to me, and I truly feel that I am making a difference.”

She remembered back to her childhood growing up across the street from a family with three developmentally disabled sons. Rather than institutionalizing their sons, the parents raised them at home and made their lives as normal as possible. The boys were an important part of their neighborhood.

“This made a huge impression on me. I babysat for the boys, and they grew up with our family. I learned to accept and appreciate people for who they are and how important it is for people with disabilities to be part of the fabric of their community,” reflected Elena.

Every day, Elena brings her personal experience to her work.  She taps into her values and expresses what’s meaningful to her.

Then there’s her relationship with donors and volunteers.

Elena is a people person. You can tell that immediately when you meet her. Warm, completely authentic and effervescent, she’s a natural to work with donors and volunteers.

“When our executive director offered me the position, I asked her why me? I didn’t have a development background!” said Elena.

“She said to me, “Elena, you have what we can’t teach. You are a people person, everything else you can learn.”

Elena learned quickly, and her responsibilities expanded. Her duties include running the organization’s annual campaign and directing two of the region’s most high profile events each year.

I asked Elena how she cultivates her donors and volunteers.

“I build relationships with all kinds of people,” she responded. “Not everybody is going to be a large donor or even a small one, but everyone can do something for the organization – attend an event, volunteer, open a door, be an ambassador.”

She continued, “Through the years, I am grateful to have built relationships with many people who I can call on to help, and they are happy to in a way that’s meaningful to them.”

Strong personal relationships and a true team identity among lay leadership, executive director and staff in the organization bring everyone together. 

“Our organizational retreats are excitedly anticipated every year,” said Elena.  “Leaders and staff get together at the out-of-town retreat to talk about what’s going on with the organization and to brainstorm new ideas. Everyone is excited about their role in pursuing the mission. The retreat energizes us and creates a strong team spirit.”

The staff at Hope House learns from one another. “We work together as an integrated team. I share my skills with others. In areas where I may have weaknesses, staff members help me. We compliment one another. As a result, we tend to hire from within and staff stay for a long time,” said Elena.

“There’s no greater mentor to all of us than our executive director. Her door is open, and she’s always accessible, even if she’s away.”

She continued, “She gives me the tools I need to succeed and understands my personal need to grow and learn.”

This mentoring culture is augmented by a strong sense of concern for what staff may be undergoing in the personal lives.   Elena was grateful for the compassion she received a couple of years ago when her father suddenly died. Without hesitation, her executive director told Elena to take a month off – not to worry, everyone at the office would do their part to fill in the gaps while she was gone.

“That was a priceless gift,” said Elena.  “I knew my boss and fellow staff members cared about me as a person and valued me enough to give me the time I needed to be with my family.”

In the end, Elena said it’s the organizational culture of celebrating and valuing relationships with all it’s stakeholders – donors, volunteers, leadership, constituents, volunteers and the community – that keeps her feeling satisfied and successful in her job.

“It’s not just about salary,” concluded Elena. “It’s about the satisfaction I feel every day in knowing that I make a real difference and that I am surrounded by caring people. I cannot imagine working for any other organization.”

The value of relationships throughout an organization’s culture easily can be taken for granted. Organizations that create strong team cultures and value their employees as people will succeed in retaining them.

Years ago I attended a fundraising conference that headlined an elderly gentleman.  I don’t remember his name, but I will never forget his opening lines.

“Successful organizations always remember that their employees are their first clients and customers. Strong relationships build loyalty and commitment.”

I say that’s the secret ingredient to development longevity.