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What I needed from my director of development when I was CEO of a nonprofit organization

If you didn’t know before, you probably knew later. Seventeen years as rector of the university convinced me that I could not do everything and it would fall on my nose if I tried.

That’s a humbling leadership lesson that applies universally. But it’s especially true in Development.

As they used to say in the Old West, He needed a Director of Development “with whom to ride the river.” Back then they weren’t just talking about a partner. They spoke of a trusted partner who “had your back.”

The CEO / CDO relationship is unlike any other in a nonprofit organization. This fact does not diminish the CEO’s relationship with the CFO or other officials. It simply recognizes that CEOs and CDOs, if they are successful fundraisers, spend an inordinate amount of time together and they better be singing on the same page.

I tried to orient each of the CDOs that I was privileged to serve with. Basically, I wanted a teammate, not an independent contractor. I needed a CDO committed to the mission who was a good communicator and was crazy about raising money. But he also needed the CDO to understand a few other things.

I needed my CDO to understand that, as CEO, I was living with great pressure on my time. My calendar could be filled with every problem imaginable, except Development, without me lifting a finger to do so. This happened because people wanted to see the CEO, believing that their problem was a priori. This is true for everyone except the major donors.

Major donors don’t often call the CEO and ask for time on the calendar so they can give you a six-figure gift. Some good stories attest that this glorious event has happened, but who can count on it? I always wanted to spend more time developing, but the competition for my time was a tyranny that always threatened my good intentions.

The CDO must understand this reality of CEOs and compete for time in their schedules. CDO, we need your help to get out and about in the organization. Get us on the market.

I needed my CDO to build a Development Plan that would fund the goals and initiatives of our strategic plan. He had to be involved, of course, but he needed the CDO to lead the charge. Consider some creative solutions and print the first draft. Do not wait for me. Be proactive.

I needed my CDO to qualify potential donors. Of course, put people on my calendar. But to put it bluntly, introduce me to people who are worth my time. When I periodically pressured my CDOs to make more appointments on my calendar, they would sometimes respond with a wave of warm bodies. No, put me in touch with the right people – that is, people with the ability to give bigger gifts.

I needed my CDO to avoid perpetually entertaining a prospect and asking the question. Romance is important in the relationship, but sooner or later you have to apply to our friends. Otherwise, you are not fundraising. Only spend money on lunches, golf, gifts, airfare, etc. Be an example for Development staff in your own productivity. Be hospitable and profitable.

I needed the CDO to help me make new contacts. If we weren’t adding new names to our list, we weren’t growing. In reality, we don’t even sit still because current donors die, move, lose their jobs, develop other interests, run out of money, and more. If old friends are the backbone of a nonprofit, new friends are its soul.

I needed my CDO to manage the Development Department staff. CDOs need to inspect what they expect, provide incentives, hold staff accountable, and monitor staff introductions, not just their hustle and bustle.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, I needed the CDO to represent the organization with integrity in a way that built trust, strengthened our reputation, and supported my leadership. I got burned once and learned the hard way. CDOs who speak positively on the inside and negatively on the outside violate the basics of professional ethics. A CDO is supposed to “develop”, “advance” the organization, not bring it down or the CEO. CDOs who represent their nonprofit and its CEO well are a credit to their organization, their profession, and themselves.

I have used the word “me” a lot in this article, but my experience as a CEO of a nonprofit organization for a long time was not unique. Nonprofit CEOs need CDOs with whom to travel on the river.

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