Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

Why does this matter?

Resilience is closely linked to training and skills development. When asked, over 90% of those interviewed had critical points of failure in their digital program implementation. The departure, illness or long-term incapacitation of the person I was interviewing, or someone else in their immediate team, would have caused the program to grind to a fairly immediate halt.

Staff retention in the higher education alumni relations and fundraising environment is a huge challenge, led by a number of factors:

  • those who have been able to demonstrate success and skills are often offered either new roles within the existing organisation, or are head-hunted to other roles;
  • the pay in alumni relations and annual/regular giving is typically low, especially compared to major gifts roles; this leads to lots of turnover;
  • the skills (particularly digital skills) developed are often paid at a higher rate in other industries, tempting skilled practitioners to leave;
  • the environment in many nonprofits (including higher education) can be stifling to innovation and creativity, particularly in micro-managed, risk-averse teams; this causes loss of motivation a fatigue;

Much of this is well documented in the sector. Staff turnover is a major problem for most development teams in the US and the UK. To exemplify this further, when I began my sector outreach for my research, I collected names and email addresses for over 500 Alumni Relations and Annual Giving Directors in the US and Canada. By the time I contacted them to arrange interviews merely 6 months later, almost 20% had left their institution entirely, or been moved into another role.

Implication for Digital

Whilst this is a known – and serious – problem for institutions already, this is particularly keenly felt in the digital space. Three of the organisations I interviewed had seen fledgling programmes that they had developed abandoned completely in the past year. When a member of a major gifts team leaves – this is a big blow. Relationships can take years to cultivate. But ultimately, there will be another professional who understands the role and can follow up the prospects that the original officer was working with.

In digital, however, the skills are often concentrated on one or a very small number of individuals. There will typically be a single person trained to use the relevant software, update the website, create the forms, interface with the CRM, interact on social media, create the email distribution lists, etc. Whatever the task, there is often a single “go to person” who has either by their role definition, or their expertise, assumed this critically important function.

This is exacerbated by the fact that those with the skills tend to be given all of the work associated with that skill, and sometimes also the job of learning new things, as well. This is what happened in the programmes which had ground to a halt. A single “digital expert” was grown inside those institutions by a combination of their own skills and a doubling down on them as the asset. When they left, the respective institutions found that they couldn’t replace the individual with a single person – as no-one with that unique skill-set existed. They were forced to seek budget for more staff, which had stalled the recruitment process – leaving the programmes in limbo for 6 months or more.

The other reason this is so serious is that digital is competition for attention. When a program stops, or slows down, it becomes gradually less relevant – it generates less content and the content reaches the relevant people with less regularity, causing less of an engagement habit to form.


Fortunately, if mindful of this, there is quite a lot that organisations can do to address it. The goal is to remove all single points of failure.

  • Conduct a skills audit, and assess any technical or functional skills that only a single person knows how to do. Train these skills into at least one other staff member, and ensure that the load is evenly balanced across at least two members of the team.
  • Where vendor software is only understood by one individual in the team, get the vendor in to train others in its use; many vendors will often do this free of charge, as the more staff are trained on their software, the less likely the solution is to be cancelled.
  • Ensure a periodic “strategy refresh”, to ensure that everyone in the relevant team understands what activities the team is doing, why, and how. If everyone is aware of what their colleagues are doing and why it’s important, it’s much more likely that they will be aware of the need to up-skill, and invest time in it.

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