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Are Big Development Staffing Changes Around The Corner?

As we know, the length of tenure for a development professional at a nonprofit is on the shorter side compared to many other professional careers. But how might the confluence of the pandemic, social justice changes, generational change and technology affect even further development staffing in the coming year?

Are we bout to see a mass exodus in development staff at organizations? And even more gasp-inducing, might these professionals leave the philanthropic field altogether?

Let’s get a baseline first. According to Bloomerang, the average tenure for a development professional is 18 months.

And the excellent report, Underdeveloped, by CompassPoint, highlights the fact that around 50% of Development Directors (highest paid development professional at an organization) anticipate leaving the organization within 2 years. Interestingly, as the size of the operating budget grows, the likelihood of staying in that position also grows. But this means smaller nonprofits, those under $10 million in this study, who have a smaller development staff and thus less infrastructure to navigate staff changes are more inclined to encounter development staff change.

The Microsoft Work Trend Index Annual Report of March 2021 shows that 41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year.

Did you catch the April 2021 New York Times article by Kevin Roose about the YOLO Economy? Can you picture this resonating with you or any of your development staff colleagues?

And I wonder if the recent Axios article’s reference to “the great resignation” sounds familiar to you, anyone in your family or your network of friends?

Suffice it to say, a lot is being researched and written about anticipated employment and career changes in the near-future.

If you’re a VP of Development or Development Director, ask yourself “how much did I really accomplish” in my first 18 months on the job?”

Speaking for myself, during my tenure as VP of Development for the organization singer-pianist Michael Feinstein founded, the Great American Songbook Foundation, I stayed almost three years to the day and loved nearly every single moment of it, I must say! Three years. That’s double the average tenure for “one of us” development professionals in the field.

I transitioned from the Songbook Foundation due to philanthropic consulting growing faster than anticipated. But I can tell you for certain that it took me two full cycles (in this case, two years) to feel my stride, like I was actually seeing results and progress that my uber-driven-self aimed to see.

How does that resonate with some of your shorter and longer tenures? How long did it take you to feel your stride in various positions you’ve held?

We’ve explored the potential wave of changes in this blog post. Then we reminded ourselves that it is often a matter of time before we’re hitting our stride at an organization we’re serving. Cue the value of retaining high-performing staff members!

Retaining your high-performing staff members just may matter more than ever. What four tools might you consider to build and retain those talented members of your development team? For your consideration:

  • Prioritize what matters. While everything has at least some level of value and importance to an empathetic, driven team of development members, everything can’t be a level-one, red-alert priority. Alongside your team (this offers an excellent platform for their input and thus bolstering their pride of product and ownership in the journey), take a weekly look at the needs and opportunities before you, prioritizing them in a three-tiered ranking system. You don’t have to do this indefinitely, but perhaps doing it weekly for 2 months will move the needle.

  • Listen to them! Everyone likes and needs to be heard, and we mean really heard, not just listened to. Make a point to pause from your day, take a walking coffee (a favorite of mine) or a zoom huddle simply to offer your ear and check-in. Much like the intel prospective donors share with us during the cultivation process, so too could your development staff give you intel about what deflates them or what energizes them.

  • Compensation is real. No doubt, it is difficult to compete with comp packages of larger nonprofits and the for-profit sector. And yet, adjusting compensation for a revenue-producing individual who is producing at a high level shouldn’t be as complex a conundrum as it strangely is for some nonprofits.

  • Provide opportunities for upward growth. Now, we know it isn’t every single development professional who wants to continue moving up the ladder, but chances are that driven, self-motivated hire you made doesn’t want to be in the same chair for the next 5 years. It takes time and ingenuity on the organization’s part, but illustrate to your development colleague a path for them to grow professionally at the organization.

No doubt, change can be expensive. And change can upset the apple cart. Then again, change, and in this case we’re talking about forced change that none of us predicted, let alone invited, to the party, can be powerful.

For further reading, here are the referenced articles:

Michael Pettry


Cape Fletcher Associates

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