Are you interested in raising more dollars, increasing fundraising efficiency, creating a happier workforce, and retaining your talented staff? Consider this high-impact, low-cost approach: optimize your ratio of frontline fundraisers to support staff. 

In an increasingly competitive job market, nonprofits must recruit and retain the best talent. These are important considerations, especially around fundraising roles in nonprofit organizations that rely heavily on philanthropic revenue. Insights from CCS’s extensive experience with major higher education institutions confirm the following: 

  1. Maximized talent leads to thriving development teams and greater fundraising results. 
  1. Misappropriation of time and resources impacts productivity, dollars raised, and job satisfaction. 
  1. Staff turnover is costly. 

The Center for American Progress has found that the average cost to replace an employee such as a major gift officer is up to 213% of the salary and benefits of the person being replaced. How can you mitigate some of the risks leading to turnover in your development office? Create a positive, inspiring work environment by maximizing your team’s skills. Ensure that all staff can professionally thrive by optimizing their work. 

How are Your Frontline Fundraisers Spending Their Time? 

Utilizing data gathered from over 70 annual higher education partners, CCS has found a ratio of 1:3 – 1:5 frontline fundraisers to support staff is optimal. In this model, “support staff” includes far more than administrative team members. Consider any member of your team who provides resources for your frontline fundraisers part of this definition of “support staff.”  

A ratio below 1:3 may indicate your fundraisers are not dedicating enough time to active donor engagement. This results in an under-optimized fundraising team, fewer dollars raised, and increased burnout. Your fundraisers do not have the opportunity to do what they do best; deepen donor relationships and inspire new prospects.  

A ratio above 1:5 may indicate an environment where “back of house” team members dominate, creating a high volume of red tape and potentially inefficient systems and processes. This results in an under-optimized fundraising team that is unable to focus on relationship building through strategic cultivation and solicitation leading to transformational gifts.  

If your frontline fundraisers conduct any of the following indirect fundraising tasks, read on! 

the case for retention

Last year, CCS supported over 70 colleges and universities and worked with a total of 700 organizations located in over 350 cities across 18 countries. We frequently encounter frontline fundraisers with inordinate responsibilities that keep them from direct fundraising, which we define as cultivating, soliciting, and expertly stewarding prospective supporters and donors. 

Though it might seem reasonable for fundraisers to wear multiple hats, this approach will cause frustration and increase turnover. Fundraisers need time to build relationships and time spent elsewhere can be costly especially when more than 67% of giving in the United States is driven by individuals. Individual philanthropy thrives on personal connections to your organization’s mission, and the time required to build those relationships is critical to fundraising success.  

Retaining your fundraisers has a huge financial impact. It takes multiple years for a fundraising professional to meet their peak potential. In fact, the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that it took, on average, four years for major-gift fundraisers to “mature into their roles.” After four years, frontline fundraisers dramatically increased the average dollars they raised.  

The Impact of an Imbalanced Development Operation 

Examples abound demonstrating how the misappropriation of fundraisers’ time negatively impacts philanthropic revenue. Consider an organization that spends less than $0.20 to raise a $1 for their primary annual fundraising event. On the surface, this type of result is commendable. After closer consideration, however, this event’s low cost may mean that the development staff, including frontline fundraisers, carry too great a burden to optimize the cost to raise a dollar. This would certainly impact their ability to cultivate donors, build relationships, and solicit gifts—all of which could be avoided with a simple shift in resourcing for the event. 

In addition to assessing how various activities impact fundraising, you can also assess how your frontline fundraisers individually make an impact. Here is one example: 

Deon, whose salary is $100,000, is responsible for raising $1,000,000 each year. If 25% of Deon’s time is focused on non-fundraising activities, one could extrapolate that the organization is risking $250,000 in possible gifts each year (not even factoring in compouned growth). The organization is also indirectly budgeting $25,000 every year (a quarter of Deon’s salary) to support this non-fundraising activity. 

This example does not account for the time it takes to develop meaningful donor relationships. With 25% less time to focus on fundraising, Deon has lost incalculable opportunities for relationship building and future revenue generation. For example:

Would a donor have given twice as much if Deon had the time to more deeply engage them?

This calculation will be further exacerbated when Deon is tasked with responsibilities that don’t play to his strengths and take him away from activity that will allow him to hit his goals. You can anticipate this situation will ultimately lead him to give notice, leaving your donors without a steward they know and trust. 

If you think your organization would benefit from revisiting the delegation of responsibilities across the fundraising team, take these steps to determine your current fundraising-to-support staff ratio. 

how to optimize Your Team 

1. Evaluate and Redistribute Responsibilities

Begin by defining who you consider a frontline fundraiser and who you consider support, noting that support does not always equate to strictly administrative responsibilities. The simplest approach is to consider support staff as any role that does not hold direct fundraising responsibilities. Some roles may be split (e.g., roles that include managerial, administrative or other responsibilities), and for those roles you can divide their time across both categories (.25, .5, .75 etc.). 

Here are some examples of how this might be approached: 

Sample Role Frontline Support 
Director of Development .5 .5 
Manager of Individual Giving  
Major Gift Officer  
Manager of Institutional Giving/Corporate Relations  
Planned Giving Officer  
Communications Coordinator  
Research Analyst  
Database Manager  
Development Associate/Assistant  
Special Events Manager  
Alumni Relations Staff  
Advancement Communications Staff  

If the fundraising to support ratio falls short of our recommended 1:3 – 1:5 ratio, you should determine where you can delegate more of your fundraisers’ indirect work to support staff. 

2. Consider Hiring Support Staff

Next time a vacancy opens up on your team, or you have an opportunity to add headcount, pause to reflect on this ratio and how your staff are currently spending their time. Consider asking your staff to spend two weeks tracking their time. This exercise will provide data for an informed assessment to support potential changes in the way you delegate and/or how you reallocate tasks.  

To maximize your team’s efficiency with limited resources, CCS often encourages our clients to consider adding these support staff positions before adding costly frontline fundraisers: 

Areas of Support Impact 
Proposal or Grant Writing Frontline staff can advise on content but are not tasked with the considerable time necessary to produce stellar proposals. 
Stewardship Report Writing Frontline staff can focus on amplifying the stewardship process (e.g., arrange to hand-deliver a report) if not tasked with writing the content. 
Event Coordination Frontline staff can focus on inviting prospects and engaging attendees during and after the event, ensuring positive experiences, and deepening relationships. 
Data Entry This reduces desk time and ensures both efficacy and continuity of information included in the CRM. 
Data Analysis Harnessing your data to make informed decisions (e.g., portfolio analysis) can improve fundraising performance. 
Prospect Research Frontline staff can focus instead on research insights, connecting their donors to demonstrated areas of interest. 
Board Management Boards are frequently the biggest drivers of fundraising activity and expert management is key. Dedicated staff ensures that your Board is leveraged to their fullest extent and ensures a seamless donor experience. 
Volunteer Management Connecting donors to meaningful volunteer opportunities (such as Advisory Boards, Alumni Councils, Admissions, Career Development, etc.) frequently results in greater philanthropic investments. Frontline staff should connect the dots, while others should manage logistics such as volunteer assignments, training, and data collection. 

Where your team spends its time is where your organization spends its money. Investing in the right kind and amount of support for your frontline fundraisers will reduce turnover, increase funds raised, and can make all the difference.

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