Creative Approaches to Rewarding High-Performing Advancement Staff

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In a difficult budget climate, it’s all the more important to find creative and authentic ways to reward and recognize your advancement shop’s highest performers and foster a culture of healthy competition and high performance across the shop. A few institutions have established rigorous systems for measuring staff performance and awarding bonuses to high performers. (For one model on how to approach bonusing with transparency and rigor, see our article on “Getting Started with Advancement Staff Metrics”).

Yet during a slow economic recovery, most shops will see limited options for establishing a slush fund for staff bonuses. We turned this week to Chris Groff, executive director of corporate and foundation relations at Fairleigh Dickinson University, to learn more about how advancement leaders can take a whole-picture look at practices for rewarding, motivating, and retaining high-performing fundraisers.

Thinking through Non-Cash Rewards

The standard in human resources is to identify opportunities for rewarding high performers with increased recognition, resources, or professional development. Practices such as recognizing individual achievements with gift cards, certificates, thank-you letters, thank-you lunches, and plaques have become increasingly common in the corporate sector. In higher ed fundraising, Groff recommends trying these additional ideas:

  • A recognition lunch not just commending the high performer to other members of the team, but to institutional leaders -– can you bring the employee’s work to the eye of the president, the provost, and the cabinet?
  • Appointment to an institution-wide committee –- let your high performers serve as representatives of your unit on key task forces to which they may be able to bring valuable input, rewarding them with trust

Rewarding the Star Performer

What about cases in which a particular gift officer (or other staff member) is performing far beyond expectation? Beyond financial bonuses, Groff suggests three approaches to rewarding those occasional officers who operate at a far superior level:

  • Offer increased professional exposure
  • Extend increased flexibility and professional courtesy
  • Get them invitations to private functions

“Make sure their work and their prowess at their job is well-shared among the higher-ups,” Groff advises. “Get them access to a level of mentoring that may be above what’s generally offered to your direct reports. Allow them to work beyond their grade, bypassing protocols to get things done. If they’ve earned the trust, allow them to interface with the provost without first going through the vice president. Give them more rope and show that you trust them to succeed. And then recognize their work at the highest level –- give them a private dinner with the president, one on one, at the president’s house, or an invitation to a special function.”

The key to rewarding and retaining a star performer is to let them know you’re invested in advancing their career and helping them succeed. That in turn invites their continued investment in the institution.

Rewarding the High-Performing Team

“You’ll want to recognize not just star performers but also exceptionally high-performing teams. Often it’s a team effort to secure a gift or a new relationship, cultivate a corporation, or bring in a new grant.”
Chris Groff, Fairleigh Dickinson University

“It can be a small gesture,” Groff adds, “as long as it’s meaningful. If you’ve had a good month, buy a $50 lunch and celebrate. Sit and talk and enjoy each other’s company; invest in a feel-good moment.” If a particular project was successful, Groff advises adopting the “employee of the month” approach to awards and awarding teams for particular projects.

On a grander, long-term scale, Groff suggests approaching stewardship of your relationship with your key performers in ways not dissimilar to donor stewardship. Like donors, they are contributors to your institution’s success. “Unlike donors, it’s their job,” Groff notes, “and they are expected to work with excellence behind the scenes. Yet public recognition of an exceptional team achievement can be a key way for the university to say thank you to its own staff.”


Suppose the campaign team went above and beyond in their efforts to secure funds for a new facility. “Just as the donor receives a $10,000 brick in the courtyard,” Groff suggests, “the president of the institution could honor the campaign team with a plaque in the building. Now the staff, too, are part of the institution’s history and lore.”

Handling Performance Rewards Appropriately and Transparently

Rewarding a star performer can be fraught with difficulties both political and cultural. You need to ensure that you can both cultivate your rising stars in ways commensurate with the level of their work and communicate those rewards to the rest of the team in ways that limit possible friction.

Handled well, a system of consistent and creative rewards for high performance can foster a competitive atmosphere that is also productive by incentivizing a performance culture across the entire team. Groff notes that there’s a fine line to walk, and recommends approaching that line with this philosophy:

  • Clearly and transparently communicate the level of work that’s being awarded. The most effective way to do this is to tie all rewards to concrete, quantitative metrics – but make sure that these metrics are more sophisticated than simply a measure of dollars raised. (See our article on “Getting Started with Advancement Staff Metrics.”)
  • Ensure consistency in rewards for performance. Across a given level of achievement, you need parity in rewards. “Don’t throw a dinner for Susie and then just a breakfast for Bob,” Groff quips.

“Good employees are hard to get and hard to keep. You want to keep your human resources and motivate them to their fullest potential. Incentivize superior performance by setting clear expectations about the rewards for it. Let your staff know, up front, what rewards are on the table.”
Chris Groff, Fairleigh Dickinson University