Four essential truths about your CEO and fundraising

For many board members, a CEO’s success as a fundraiser and as a leader are one and the same. It’s little wonder then that newcomers to the top spot feel pressured to strike it big — and quick.  When the dollars don’t pour in, new leaders (and their boards) make it personal.

Burn-out resulting from out-sized expectations for fundraising is one of the leading causes of premature departures among nonprofit executives.  Yet board members seem not to get the message. Instead, they ratchet up the development goals with which they greet the next leader and then scratch their heads when burn-out hits again.

Fortunately, it is possible to break the vicious cycle if board leaders keep four essential truths in mind. These are:

1) You’ve hired a CEO, not a miracle worker. No leader, regardless how gifted, winsome, and/or ambitious, can pull major gifts out of a hat or turn around a lagging fundraising program overnight. It takes time to get to know the faithful, reconnect with the lapsed, and seek out new friends. It also takes time for that new CEO to get his or her fundraising “sea legs.”

2) If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Faced with immediate financial challenges, first-time CEOs (and first-time fundraisers) may rush into the work, leaving planning for a later, calmer time. The board needs to give the CEO permission – better yet, a mandate – to slow down long enough to develop a solid plan for the organization. Remember, money follows vision and the organizational plan is where vision resides  (or should).

3) Fundraising is an ensemble performance. There’s no denying that the CEO’s participation is essential to success in fundraising. However, the strongest development programs are the result of a team effort, with a whole host of players – staff and volunteers – pitching in on behalf of the organization. Only in exceptional instances do the efforts of one person out–perform a competent team working together toward shared goals.

4) Appropriate goal setting is key to fundraising success. Most nonprofit organizations, including those with a faith base, have good ideas galore, and as a result, struggle to set “just right” fundraising goals. It’s the blessed CEO whose board is wise in discerning the difference between fundraising targets that challenge supporters to stretch in their giving and goals that are simply beyond the ability of a constituency to achieve.

From what I’m reading and hearing, the economic climate isn’t going to turn to the better anytime soon, which means fundraising will continue to weigh heavily on CEO shoulders. That said, burn-out need not follow.

Your board holds the keys to a longer, more successful run for the man and woman you’ve recruited as CEO. Use them.


  1. Carol Lytch says:

    I appreciate this compassionate assessment of what is realistic for a new CEO.

  2. Leroy Solomon says:

    Amen to points 2 and 3! First, a plan is essential to success, coupled with a compelling vision. Second, there is nothing like a great team, valuing the contribution each make but working as a unit. Thanks for reminders.

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