Need Time Off From a Demanding Fundraising Job? Know Your Options



Michael Morsberger, the former chief fundraiser at George Washington University, lost three close relatives, including his father, to cancer in a single year. With his children distraught and his mother suffering grief and depression—and at the same time requiring a move—Morsberger wanted to take a leave of absence to help his family.

Yet his institution had just entered the public phase of its first billion-dollar fundraising drive. The pressure on Morsberger to meet with donors, host evening events, manage staff, and lead other fundraising activities was enormous at a time when his family crisis was still unfolding.

As he pondered taking leave and how much time he’d need, “I didn’t know if I would be out for four weeks or four months,” he recalls. Under the circumstances, Morsberger finally decided that “it wouldn’t be fair to the university” to stay, given the demands of his position. So after consulting with university leaders who were sympathetic about his family situation, he resigned.

While Morsberger—now the lead fundraiser at the University of Central Florida—felt he had to resign, other development professionals want alternatives. Many would prefer taking an extended leave or less-demanding role, eventually returning to the former job with an employer’s blessing.

“We in the fundraising profession ought to find ways to accommodate talented and experienced people who want or need to step into a less-demanding role,” says Ron Schiller, co-founder of the Aspen Leadership Group, a recruiting company that places development professionals nationwide.

Increased Flexibility

Over the last 25 years, in fact, nonprofit employers have become more accommodating when fundraisers need a break to handle pressing issues. The increased flexibility can be traced to two main developments: The first: passage of the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993, requiring organizations with at least 50 employees to allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers who need to tend to their own or a close family member’s illness.

The second development in the last quarter century: a big shift in fundraising, with the formerly male-dominated profession a predominantly female field today. Not only do women take maternity leave; they also often assume primary responsibility when illness strikes a family.

“We are currently 70 percent female and adjusting our policies to support our demographics,” says Tahsin Alam, associate vice president for talent management at the Rutgers University Foundation, which has a fundraising staff of nearly 300. The foundation has loosened up its work week, allowing staff to work from home five days per month and flexibility about what time they come into work. And two months ago, when the foundation moved to new offices, “we built a mother’s room” to support breast-feeding women, says Alam.

Also contributing to job flexibility for fundraisers with a good track record: Skilled professionals are in such high demand that savvy nonprofit leaders are eager to retain them. They know it’s better to lose an excellent fundraiser temporarily than for good.

According to experienced fundraisers and human resources experts, there are several things (see below) that nonprofits can and should do to accommodate fundraisers, enabling them to step away for an extended period, but also ensuring as little disruption as possible for the organization.

Stepping Away For a New Career

Of course, it’s not just crises that motivate fundraisers to seek a leave of absence or a less-demanding work week. Don Wilson, a Washington, D.C.-based professional coach who guides career transitions with fundraisers and other nonprofit leaders, says that many of the 300 clients he has counseled step back because they want to make a transition—starting a new business or even taking leave to look for a new job.

“A staggering number of people over 50 are deciding to be entrepreneurs, and often, they start consulting in the arena where they’ve been working,” says Wilson.

Stepping back to hunt for a new job, he adds, is often much trickier. “It depends so much on the personality of the board or CEO they are dealing with,” says Wilson. “Some job hunts can be done openly, while others are done with confidentiality.” The latter situation is more common when the organization and fundraiser acknowledge that a current job is not a good fit.

“Certainly, some clients have had regrets about showing their hand” when cutting back on working hours to seek a new job, Wilson says. “Either colleagues saw them as a lame duck, or they were not shown appropriate deference by subordinates, or there was anger and resentment at them leaving.” That’s why, he adds, such fundraisers should carefully consider whether and how to make future career plans known to current colleagues and superiors.

Medical Leave: Issues and Concerns

In the case of requesting a months-long leave or less-demanding role because of illness or another medical emergency, fundraisers should determine how they might be affected under the Family Medical Leave Act—and their organization’s own policies, human resources experts say.

For example, the Family Medical Leave Act is designed to protect employees’ jobs while they take leave for up to three months. But fundraisers don’t realize they could be negatively affected if they are among an organization’s most generously paid people, says Beth De Lima, a consultant who advises employees and employers on the Family Medical Leave Act. Under the law, she notes, a “key employee provision” allows employers to deny reinstating jobs of people on medical leave if they’re among the top-earning 10 percent of all employees and they meet other criteria for a “key employee” under the law.

(An easy-to-read guide to family medical leave under the law for people who may need it is available free from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. A similar guide for employers, including nonprofit organizations, is also available.)

Taking unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act was not a viable option for Holly McDonough Gulden, executive director of development at Tulane University’s School of Medicine. In April, when her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in Minnesota, Gulden and her family soon learned the cancer had spread to her brain.

Gulden resolved to help her siblings care for and advocate on behalf of their terminally ill mother, who quickly opted for hospice care. But making a big move to New Orleans to work at Tulane less than two years ago with a semi-retired husband, Gulden could ill afford frequent trips back and forth to Minnesota without a paycheck.

She worked out an arrangement with Tulane, enabling her to go home roughly one week out of each month until her mother’s death in October. During her time in Minnesota, Gulden worked remotely for at least part of each visit except her last. That’s another reason she decided against family medical leave: The federal law prohibits employees from working while on leave.

Gulden says she’s grateful to Tulane for giving her precious time with her mother. That included multiple occasions when she and her siblings intervened—when their mother was overdue to receive pain medication, for example, or needed other care to maintain her comfort level. 

“I was strongly supported by the senior team, who encouraged me to go home even more than I did,” says Gulden. “Tulane made it possible. Tulane took the guilt and stress out of it for me.”

Unintended Consequences

While the Family Medical Leave Act has doubtless been a godsend to many fundraisers, the law has had some unintended consequences, says one East Coast fundraiser in higher education who requested anonymity to speak candidly about her experience.

The fundraiser suddenly contracted pneumonia last year, a two-month ordeal during which she was hospitalized. Because the Family Medical Leave Act contains strong privacy restrictions, her institution could not let the fundraiser’s colleagues know why she was out. As a result, she didn’t hear from coworkers who could otherwise have provided support and encouragement during her health scare.

“Protecting privacy has, in some cases, removed compassionate team bonding, where people rally around a colleague,” the fundraiser says. “When I got back to the office, some people said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you still worked here. I thought you got another job.’” The privacy trend, she adds, “has ramped down expressions of the compassionate workplace, in my opinion.”

While most nonprofit organizations allow employees to divulge an illness or other crisis to colleagues themselves—if they so desire—that is not an option for the fundraiser and others who suddenly develop serious, possibly life-threatening conditions that leave them too impaired to reach out beyond immediate family.

Benefits of Full Disclosure

When fundraisers do experience an illness or another crisis requiring extended leave, telling colleagues about it can be beneficial beyond get-well cards, flowers, and other typical gestures, says Tulane’s Gulden.

When a member of the university’s special events team developed cancer, she says, colleagues donated one or more days of their own paid leave to help their coworker weather the financial impact of leaving work for treatment.

At Boston University, Amy Bronson is glad she’s been completely open with colleagues about her own bout with cancer. A former fundraiser, Bronson is now associate vice president of strategic talent management for the university’s large development staff. After seven months off and a 12-week chemotherapy regimen for breast cancer, Bronson resumed her job on December 1.

Thanks to Scott Nichols, the university’s top fundraiser and Bronson’s boss, colleagues who pitched in during her absence, and a generous backlog of unused leave, she has retained her position without the financial worries others in her position experience. In support groups for cancer patients, Bronson says, she knows of other less-fortunate women who resume full-time work within days of having a double mastectomy.

“People feel if they’re not there, they cannot hold their place at work,” says Bronson. “I didn’t have that anxiety or the pressure of a boss breathing down my neck. I was given the space to heal.”

There have been other benefits of being away, Bronson says. First, “my team stepped up; it gave them a chance to shine.”

Second, she says, her experience has shown her colleagues they will find similar acceptance when they need extended leave or a less-demanding job.

“We have to model that you can use the time,” she says. “I hope our team realizes they will have this kind of support too.”


Giving Fundraisers An Extended Break: The Employer’s Job

Nonprofits have become more flexible about fundraisers’ work schedules, but they have not yet fully figured out how to lighten the burden of extended leaves on fundraising colleagues and the organization as a whole, says Scott Nichols, senior vice president for development at Boston University.

Still, there are several things nonprofit organizations can do to maintain smooth operations when fundraisers are on extended leave or cutting their hours—especially if the change is unexpected, as with a sudden illness, serious accident or other unplanned emergency, says Deb Taft, a fundraiser who now heads Lois L. Lindauer Searches, an executive recruiting company.

One solution, says Taft, is actively planning for the unexpected absence of key staff and how that would be handled by the organization. “This is a weak muscle for nonprofits,” she says.

One exception to that rule is the Christian Appalachian Project, which helps people living in poverty. According to chief executive Guy Adams, rigorous succession planning has saved the charity from upheaval related to unexpected leaves. “There is a long-range plan where we put people in pools for certain positions that would be the next step for them, and we try to equip them with missing training and experience,” he explains.

When a key officer was out on family medical leave with little notice earlier this year, Adams says, “thank the Lord we had prepared and were ready to handle this. We did not miss a beat.”

Taft, the executive recruiter, says there are other ways nonprofits can lessen the fallout when fundraisers need to step back for an extended period:

Interim fundraising staff. Some consulting firms such as the Orr Group, based in New York and Washington, specialize in providing fundraising and other services as needed by “embedding” members of their firm to work alongside staff and fill the gap left by departing or absent employees.

Or, Taft says, nonprofit organizations can offer a less-senior development officer the chance to assume an absent fundraiser’s more-demanding role on an interim basis. “They can present it as as an opportunity for someone to rise to a more senior skill set,” she says.

In other cases, Taft says, nonprofits have recruited a retired fundraiser to fill in for a few months on either a full- or part-time basis. That, she says, “is so much better than using someone without the experience or skills needed.”

Cross-training. To prepare for extended absences, Taft says that more development offices should cross-train fundraisers with different primary responsibilities. For example, those who work on the annual fund could receive training in special events. Staff could be encouraged to shadow colleagues in jobs they think they might be interested in one day. Or organizations could come up with more structured ways to handle cross-training.

The important thing is that nonprofits do it, says Taft. She says that with the thorough cross-training she has done in her recruiting company, “I can redeploy people here within 24 to 48 hours.”

Open calendars. It is a good idea for nonprofits to adopt open online calendars for fundraising staff so that everyone has access to their colleagues’ meetings and other activities, Taft says.

“That way, if someone is suddenly unable to come in or enveloped in a crisis,” she says, “you can see meetings and other obligations that person has and not let things fall through the cracks with donors and other important constituents.”

Shared records. As with open calendars, nonprofits should strive for donor files and other records that can be easily shared, in case a fundraiser has to step away and cannot be immediately contacted, Taft says.

Also helpful: efforts to to standardize call reports about donor visits and other fundraising records so that their format is more-or-less uniform, so colleagues can quickly access and act the information contained in the records.