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Why advancement employees leave (and how leaders can fix it)

February 1, 2024

Recent turnover in higher ed is historic and expansive. From advancement to enrollment to student success, thousands of leaders in the industry are looking for ways to fill roles or restructure just to maintain operations. But beyond structure, how are we making our office culture better for those involved?

There are various methods you can use to cope with the advancement talent crisis, but addressing your workplace culture head-on can help you improve retention both immediately and over time.

Here are four strategies that you can use to retain talent and help them develop meaningful careers.


Start with equitable compensation

Compensation is employees’ most-cited reason for leaving advancement and among the top reasons for quitting jobs overall. Pay gaps and low compensation are not only frustrating; they can contribute to burnout. As a manager, it’s important to be proactive in addressing hidden pay gaps to ensure equity among your team. This not only fosters a more inclusive work environment but also increases morale. In my experience, those who receive equitable pay adjustments are thankful for the increase – but they are even more grateful that you researched and addressed it proactively.

Improving morale for even one employee can have a domino effect. In addition to base salary improvements, EAB research shows that performance-based incentives can contribute positively to employee morale and overall success. And beyond financial incentives, non-monetary incentives like flexible work schedules, remote work opportunities, additional time off, and professional development opportunities can help engage staff while rewarding them for accomplishments.

Expand performance metrics

What elements entice and encourage your team members to stay? Employees thrive where they feel valued. You can retain great talent by using formal and informal assessments to measure (and improve) your workplace culture.

Performance metrics such as the number of visits, asks, and closes are important, but they do not capture the full picture of an employee’s value to the school. Consider implementing and analyzing performance metrics that measure on-campus collaboration with colleagues, as this positively influences their experience at the university. As employees look for career longevity, you can help them map their careers and upskill with holistic talent reviews.

Example: Major Gift Officer Performance Metrics
Typical Performance Metrics Collaborative Performance Metrics
Number of Face-to-Face Visits Peer Reviews
Number of Gifts Accountability
Aggregate Value of Gifts Communication
Professional Development Goals Team Projects
Number of Volunteers Enlisted Cross-department Initiatives

Understand unique motivating factors

It’s essential to get to know your team members on a personal level. Yes, employees can feel motivated by good work outcomes—but that is only one aspect of the job, and motivation isn’t always derived from compensation (though that’s an important element). To best motivate your team, you need to listen closely in order to understand their individual motivations, goals, and aspirations.


Perhaps the most important element of effective communication is listening. It is by far the best tool you have for understanding what your staff wants and the degree to which they are getting it. Furthermore, and not incidentally, the mere act of thoughtful listening can do a lot to boost staff morale.

Listening to staff also appears to be an area in which many colleges have running room; research by the HR consulting firm Mercer has found that higher education lags the industry significantly in terms of worker attitude scores on statements such as “management makes an effort to listen to and get input from employees.”


The Primacy of Listening

Admissions Office Staffing in a Volatile Labor Market, EAB

Many managers make the mistake of leading their team members based on who they hope they’ll be, instead of who they are. Additionally, managers sometimes assess people using their own experiences as a baseline.

Your employees each have unique values, aspirations, and goals. Learning the needs and desires of your team members will help you keep them engaged and productive. Through a 30-minute conversation, you can learn if they’re intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, what helps them recharge, who they look up to, and how you can influence them to succeed.

Sample questions to assess motivations:

  • What inspires you to come to work every day?
  • Who are your role models?
  • What moments of your career are most memorable or impactful?
  • What do you need from management to feel supported?
  • When do you know you’ve succeeded?
  • Where do you go to recharge?


Celebrate the Small Stuff

Celebrating wins aids in creating a positive work environment. Failure to encourage team members over time generates feelings of apathy or disrespect. Feeling disrespected is the third most-cited reason that people quit jobs overall. Though regular Advancement tasks can feel mundane, you can make ordinary activities feel exciting and rewarding with recognition.

In advancement, make sure to recognize every team member, from major gift officers to event planners. Everyone on your team deserves recognition, especially those outside of leadership positions. But you don’t have to reserve gratitude for special occasions.

Celebrate wins publicly, in staff meetings, internal newsletters, or even in daily emails. Simple “thank you” emails that recognize employee accomplishments among key individuals are highly impactful. Cross-campus recognition in newsletters and university blogs after big events can help your team contextualize the impact of big wins.

Additionally, encourage team members to recognize wins among themselves. Mutual support strengthens the bond your employees have with each other.

For offices with remote employees, make a concerted effort to acknowledge them, too. Though their work life is different, they need to be recognized just as much as those in the office. Beyond emails, find unique and fun ways to be in-person, maybe once a quarter, to reconnect. If feasible, fly them in for a holiday party or to celebrate a big achievement.


These are a few ways you can help ensure that careers last—by addressing inequity, restructuring evaluations, listening for unique motivating factors, and frequently celebrating success with your team. These activities take time, but they result in teams that feel supported to grow in their careers. As leaders, if we are to turn the tide on turnover, we must start with the culture we create at work.

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