Op Ed | Turnover, toxic work culture, and Millennials

publication date: Apr 14, 2019
author/source: Vanessa Chase Lockshin

Rogare recently released Critical Fundraising (USA) Report and one section that I’m paying close attention to is “The Current and Anticipated Fundraising Talent Crisis” by James Green, MBA, CFRE. While fundraising is a profession that is maturing, it is still a profession facing growing pains. Unfortunately, this article ignores the underlying issues causing some of these growing pains and does a disservice to all fundraisers by not addressing them.

Green writes, “Nonprofits are not keeping less experienced fundraisers any longer than they have in the past 20 years. And there is no sign the problem is getting better.” Fundraiser turnover persists as an issue with the article citing, “early career fundraisers (under 10 years) average merely two to 2.5 years per job.” The article delves into the roles that lack of investment (where non-profits are not putting time, energy or resources into fundraiser development) and lack of diversity (with 88% of fundraisers being white) may play on turnover.

Undeniably, lack of investment and lack of diversity could be impacting Millennial fundraiser tenure. But what this article critically misses in the discussion is a deeper look at the systems of oppression that might make non-profit fundraising departments unwelcoming or harmful environments, which in turn impacts staff turn-over. Furthermore, with the rise of industry groups like Rogare and Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) who have mandates to professionalize our industry, we must ask what are the moral obligations and costs of pushing this goal forward with little to no critical analysis of systems of oppression that perpetuate sexist, racist, and otherwise unsupportive work cultures that harm staff?

Toxic work culture and management are real issues fundraising professionals are dealing with every day. This encompasses issues like sexism, racism, ageism, hostile and aggressive behavior, sexual harassment, micro and macro aggressions, and so on. All of these behaviors and circumstances can impact mental and physical well-being of staff and can contribute to burnout. While all generations can face these issues in the work place, Millennials are especially susceptible as many of them are early in their career or not yet in leadership or management positions within non-profits.

Two of the problematic issues that have been part of industry discussion in recent years are sexism and racism fundraisers may face. Given that fundraising is predominantly female and the Millennial generation is the most diverse workforce yet, it is imperative that we understand how these two systems of oppression could be contributing to toxic work environments and staff turnover.

Research reported by The Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2018 revealed that 1 on 4 female fundraisers has dealt with sexual harassment on the job. To make matters worse, women in fundraising not only face the threat of harassment from colleagues, but also from donors. Women are less likely to be in positions of power within a non-profit and can face social and professional consequences if they try to advocate for themselves. For women earlier in their careers this can be especially disempowering because of a lack of existing professional networks.

With the majority of non-profit employees (and a disproportionate number non-profit leader) being white, it is unsurprising (and unacceptable) that fundraisers of color often have to deal with racism in the workplace. As one fundraiser shared on Twitter, “I had a really poor manager who was only interested in building relationships and developing people who looked like her. ”

Similarly, Tycely Williams, CFRE and Chair of AFP’s Women’s Impact Initiative shared in response to the 2017 Nonprofits, Leadership and Race Survey from the Building Movement Project, “As substantiated in the new report, despite obtainment of education and credentials, women of color are often overlooked, usually underpaid and commonly criticized. ”

Unfortunately, the extent of the Critical Fundraising (USA) Report ‘s discussion of lack of diversity is dedicated to the business reasons why lack of diversity is a problem (ie not being able to reach diverse donors and volunteers). While they do have another section in the report discussing equity and diversity, it did not include such obvious suggestions as making sure fundraisers of color are paid equally. They treat diversity as a failure of attracting the right talent, instead of questioning whether the environment is harmful to certain types of people, which drives people out of organizations.

My own experience as a Millennial fundraiser included a 15-month stint at an organization that I left due to an extremely toxic and exploitative work culture. I was burned out and being in my mid-20s at the time, I was new to the workforce and had not yet learned how to recognize a toxic work environment.

To find out if I was alone in thinking that toxic work culture and management has played a role in other Millennial fundraisers leaving jobs, I took to Twitter. My ad-hoc Twitter poll, that 370 people participated in, showed that 62% cited toxic culture or management as a top reason why they left a fundraising job in less than two years. While this is obviously not a statistically valid survey, the response and engagement with this poll is suggestive of the fact that this is not an exceedingly rare issue.

The results of the poll and stories people shared in the thread echo many of the problematic issues are bubbling to the surface in very public ways, which makes it all the more concerning why this article would not address or acknowledge them.

If our industry is to have a chance at improving staff retention we must consider the interconnectedness of sexism, racism and other systems of oppression as reasons why staff leave. We must call on all organizations to treat all staff decently. But most of all, we must consider the possibility that these issues persist because non-profit leadership is predominantly white men who could be unmotivated and unaccountable to solve these issues.

As an industry, if we do not change how we have conversations about staff turnover, we will continue to send they message to staff that they do not matter. We will continue to have work environments that burn out staff, cause emotional and physical harm, and ultimately cause great fundraisers to leave jobs or the industry entirely.


Vanessa Chase Lockshin is a consultant specializing in non-profit storytelling, fundraising and communications, author of The Storytelling Non-Profit: A practical guide to telling stories that raise money and awareness, and the creator of immersive online training programs for non-profit professionals. Vanessa's approach goes beyond strategies and tactics to empower non-profit professionals to be the expert their organization needs. You can find her on Twitter at @vanessaechase

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