Whether you refer to your senior staff fundraiser as the development director, chief development officer, or vice president of external relations, this one position has the greatest influence over the economic engine that drives your non-profit organization. For the Successful Nonprofits Podcast, we recently interviewed Emma Kieran of PilotPeak Consulting about specific steps CEOs and their organizations can take to increase the effectiveness (and retain) their chief development officer (CDO). If you would rather listen to this interview, you can download it here.
Dolph: Hey Emma thanks for joining us today. . . . what got you interested in the CEO - CDO relationship.
Emma: That's a great question. Like you, I have been in a lot of different fundraising positions in the past and what I've noticed is that the turnover is really high. And unfortunately, it takes a long time for a CDO to develop really deep relationships with board members and donors and that turnover is really hurting their performance. . . . From my formal and informal research, I found that the number one reason fundraisers leave is because they can't stand the management. They can't really find a great relationship with their executive director or their CEO and they can't find that synergy that's necessary to make the fundraising mechanism really strong.
Dolph: So, tell me a little bit about both the formal and informal research you did.
Emma: The informal research is me having a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with a colleague and asking why they are choosing to leave. And I've helped a lot of organizations fill positions both at the CDO level and also other fundraising levels. Major gift officers moving into the CDO level or similar experiences. Then the formal side is just reading good blogs good white papers and really understanding what the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Through all of this, I’ve also learned that this turnover occurs somewhere between 16th and 20th month.
Dolph: It's also interesting that part of your informal research is working with candidates because clearly you are working with someone who is looking at leaving their job. When you're acting as a search consultant you probably are having the conversation with them about why they want to leave.
Emma: That's exactly right and that's one of the questions I always ask. And you know sometimes people are a little hesitant to answer that question because they don't want to seem like they're giving their current organization a bad rap or that they're really saying anything negative about a manager or leader. But what I really like to do is dig into the reason they feel like they can't stay at their current job and develop those deep relationships. Because ultimately those relationships are what make fundraising successful. So, if you're leaving in 16 or 20 months you don't have the capacity to develop those long-term relationships that ultimately result in great big gifts for your organization that are transformational.
Dolph: It's interesting you say that because I've had this conversation multiple times with my alma mater. It feels like every two years I have a new development director assigned to me. This has happened three or four times, and I just had a frank conversation with the dean about it – explaining that this is an issue because, just as I start to develop a relationship with this person, they get poached by a bigger fundraising shop somewhere else.
Emma: That's right. And then the donor ends up having to tell your story over again. And so then there's a disconnect. You've just developed a relationship with a fundraiser and you've poured your heart and soul into that relationship a little bit. Remember the relationship between a donor and a fundraiser is a little bit like dating. And so you spent two years as a fund raiser courting that donor and you've really gotten to know them and what makes them tick and how they want to make a difference and what mission really drives them. And then the donor has to start all over again. It can be very frustrating for a donor and not really results oriented for the organization. It really can be harmful.
Dolph: Clearly, I can see how that's super harmful in major gifts. But talk to me about special events and annual campaigns. How is that detrimental to the organization on an annual campaign if most of it is done by mail or by volunteer solicitors?
Emma: You end up coming into a two-year cycle where the letter looks like X or Y for a couple of years and you start to develop a theme and a voice and donors really get interested in that and then they start really listening. Remember that donors need to hear you say your message seven, eight, nine, ten times sometimes before they really hear it. If they hear one voice for two years and followed by a break with another voice for two years, it really can interrupt the way that you're reaching your donors. It interrupts that message because the clarity and the uniformity and the theme disappears.
Dolph: So, what can the CEO do to help build that relationship?
Emma: So, the first thing is to avoid having expectations that are too high. This is the first thing that I often see with people who are leaving their CDO role. They're leaving because they say, “Oh the CEO doesn't really understand fundraising; they don't understand that it takes 9 – 18 months to develop relationships and really see donations come in. So as a CEO you really need to educate yourself become educated about how to set expectations for fundraising and work with your CDO to create those expectations so that the CDO isn't over promising and the CEO isn't over expecting.
Dolph: That’s an interesting observation. I was recently working with an organization that wanted to hire a development director starting in July and was hoping to see results by December. There's a lot of managing expectations, helping them understand they are likely not going to see a fundraising windfall happen after five or six months.
Emma: That's exactly right. I mean it takes us five or six months to be able to say the mission without a hiccup. If you're new to an organization, seeing results does take a full year if not up to two years because you've got to meet the donors and start developing those relationships. And I say again that it's like dating. You wouldn't expect to get engaged after five months probably. You've got to think the same thing with your donors; they are not going to make a bigger gift or stretch a little bit more until they really understand the person that they're working with.
Dolph: So what responsibility does the CDO have in building a good strong relationship with their CEO?
Emma: The first thing is frequent communication as fundraisers. We get our blinders on, look inward at our team and we say, “OK I need to raise five million dollars” or whatever the goal is and you get laser focused on how that's going to happen. Getting into the nuts and bolts of raising that money, CDOs often forget to have that open communication on a daily basis with their CEO. And so the CEO is out of the loop. . . . . right from that first day on the job, CDOs need to establish that trust with their CEO and that open line of communication.
Dolph: So daily communication. Tell me what that looks like. You know face to face, phone, e-mail etc. - what is that supposed to look like.
Emma: I once worked for an organization where we killed ourselves with meetings, to the ridiculous point where we could never get any work done. However, I will tell you there was no communication that slipped through the cracks. We were always on top of it as a team. Instead of killing yourself with meetings, I recommend daily communication of some sort. Maybe it's a weekly email to your CEO that says, “Hey I wanted you to know what's happening. These are the donors that moved forward. These are the donors that we’re stalled on. These are the things that we're deciding for the event of the annual campaign and putting that in writing. Then I also recommend a weekly sit down in person, not on the phone. Because there is something that you get from the personal face to face interaction that you can't get from the phone or from an e-mail. And then in the interim in between those two things there should be regular e-mails or phone calls or texts - - - whatever is your style. But we do need to remember that we often communicate in a style that's best for us.
Emma: But we need to really communicate in the style that's best for the other person. So if your CEO is a phone person call him or her on the phone; if they are text person do that instead. You really need to understand how your CEO needs to communicate and that's a two-way street.
Dolph: The weekly face-to-face meeting with my supervisor was one of the things that I did both as a development director and as a CEO. At my first development director gig, this concept was new to the CEO and I had introduced it to them. I’ve always believed in that weekly supervision meeting, with the person being supervised putting together the agenda ahead of time. The agenda doesn’t have to be in-depth, and is more frequently bullet points with just two or three sentences describing each. Of course, my CEO could add to that agenda if they wanted. But for me, drafting the agenda allowed me to really sit down and think about what I wanted to get out of that meeting, and it also gave my boss an opportunity to think about the topics we were going to discuss. This way, I could have the expectation to not often here, “Well let me think about X Y Z and get back to you next week.” You know I'd given them some core information upfront, and I was going to give them some more information in the meeting. Consequently, I was kind of expecting a decision either in the meeting or shortly after the meeting.
Emma: That's a great way to train yourself and to train your supervisor to be able to make decisions in meetings. After all, the problem with meetings is that often nothing happens and there's nothing worse than a terrible meeting where you just talk at one another and there's no decision and you just say, “OK well we'll meet again next week”. So I love that idea of an agenda, and I often encourage folks to do it by e-mail. You know you don't have to create a fancy word document or anything like that. Just put a couple of bullet points down and you know often the best CDOs are the ones who keep that as a running list. They add to the list all week long, so by the time they meet with the CEO they're not forgetting about things.
Dolph: I’ve often done it in excel, so each week is a new tab. Then I would send the entire excel spreadsheet to my boss, and they could see prior weeks’ tabs if they had forgotten something. It also made creating the next week's agenda easy because I would copy the last tab starting point. Let me share one of the things that I found really useful as an executive director, and I would love your feedback on whether this is an effective thing to do with CDO’s. As an executive director, we ended each meeting with a written meeting summary. It was quick and dirty, and we literally spent just the last five minutes of the meeting on it. This summary outlined decisions we made, action to be taken, who was going to do it, and the deadline. Part of what I loved about the meeting summary is that it allowed for mutual accountability. So often a supervisor tells their direct report, “I'm going to talk to Emma by next week”, but next week rolls around and the CEO just says, “oh sorry I forgot to do it.” But there's such a sense of accountability when your name is on a line and there's a deadline.
Emma: And then the person who reports to you can hold you accountable by saying, “I can't do this next step until you talk to Emma.” Accountability is the most important thing between a CEO and a CDO because, as C-suite positions, both are responsible for things that are very important and that impact the rest of the team. Making a list at the end of the meeting is a great idea. I've also done it in a Google document so that people can go in and make updates on their own. So that's another great way of implementing a good tool for a meeting.
Dolph: Are there other tools that you recommend CEOs and CEOs use.
Emma: So I am a big fan of a work plan. I often ask my clients to put into place some sort of work plan for the development function as a whole with then some tabs that are a little bit more granular. For example, the main tab has all the things we're going to accomplish this year as a development team. We have four events, three solicitations of capital gifts, major donor solicitations, etc. All of that is now together as a snapshot that a board member or executive director can look at and understand what's happening. So that's the first thing I'd recommend - updated weekly by the CDO weekly and by other team members.
Then additional tabs I the spreadsheet for in-depth detail of each goal. For the full benefit of the example, the in-depth tab might list all of the things that we need to do or decide on an event: location, linens, flowers, meal, etc. If somebody wants more granular information, it will be in the spreadsheet. And, again, I really like the idea of a shared to drive where everyone has access and can update it real time.
Dolph: Obviously, a strong and trusting relationship is important to ensuring that your CDO sticks around, but what else can CEOs and organizations do to break out of that cycle of CDOs resigning every 16 to 20 months?
Emma: The CEO's really needs to talk to the board about fundraising and advocate on behalf of the development team. The CEO needs to be that front line between the fundraising staff and the board. They really need to be there front and center and say here's what we're doing and why. Here's what's going well here's what's not going well. And here's how you board members need to help with fundraising.
Dolph: But so we've all seen board members say “We're going to step up to the plate. We're going to help with fundraising and folks might even take five names each.” Then six weeks later, none of those people have been called. No coffee has been poured. No meetings have occurred. So what happens from there?
Emma: It's so true and boy we see it all the time. I think I've seen it with almost every client that I've had and it's not because there's a lack of interest in trying on behalf of the board members or on behalf of the staff. Like I said, the CEO's job is to be that intermediary between their development staff and the board, and it's the CDO’s job to manage those individual tasks with the board members. To call me and say, “Emma you're a board member and said you're going to have coffee with Dolph. What have you done so far? How can I help you? Do you want me to set it up? Can I give you talking points?” The CDO’s role is to interface with those board members and be a taskmaster. Because I think often the struggle is that board members don't really feel like they have the tools and the tricks to do what they need to do. So they just avoid it, and it's easier to do that because they're volunteers. So CDO’s also often leave because they feel like the board isn't supporting them. But sometimes it's because the CDO really needs to understand how they need to support the board in order to make that work.
Dolph: That's what I was going to ask. Do you think most CDO’s fully understand that if a board member is not following through on fundraising tasks, they should call the person ask what help they need or offer to schedule the meeting?
Emma: I think CDOs often have so many things to do. They forget that volunteer board members are not immersed in the day-to-day of the nonprofit. They understand the mission; they're passionate; they’re donors (probably, hopefully). But they often still don't have everything they need to really get the job done. And I've found that the best way to approach a board member who isn't following through on commitments is to make a phone call or a coffee date with them to ask “What's keeping you from doing the things that you say you're going to do? Is it time? Is it tools? Is it me?” Board members may feel nervous, scared or don't feel trained and that is the CDO’s job for sure.
Dolph: Is there anything else that organizations can do to help increase that retention rate?
Emma: Two things. The first is celebrating success. Fundraising is really rewarding work but getting to those numbers year after year is really hard work. I recommend CEOs really celebrate any success small or large of your fundraising team. And I say that for CDOs as well. There's a lot of great energy that comes from celebrating the success of your team whether it's a team of one or a team of 20. So celebrate success in a way that works for your organization - whether it's a group lunch, a bell that you ring, small gifts, or days off or whatever. There are lots of different ways to motivate your staff to stick around. So that's the first thing. And then the second thing is professional development. Often CEOs forget that CDO’s while they're in a chief fundraising seat still have lots to learn. All of us have lots to learn. Fundraising is changing every day.
And there are new things every year that come out that we as fundraisers need to know about. So CEOs giving the CDOs a little bit of room to grow room to learn.
Dolph: I think it’s really critical to take the time to go to seminars, webinars and conferences. I certainly do this my own practice: I set aside about $5,000 a year for continuing education. And I find some of my most creative moments come because I'm sitting in a room with other colleagues and I start to get great ideas. Sometimes I even get ideas that aren’t even aligned with the topic of the conference or presentation. So I do think continuing education is really important for CDOs because they’re going to get great ideas and bring them back.
Emma: That's exactly right. Actually, that happened to me very recently I was at a great conference here in Pittsburgh. I was listening to this really powerful keynote speaker. And an idea came to me for my business that had nothing to do with what the keynote speaker. I mean you go out and it was really great creative space. We don't give ourselves time to do that. And a CDO often doesn't have time in their day to day to do that because you're managing teams and donors and managing up and out and over. So it's really great to create that space.
Dolph: Can I throw in one other idea that I think is really important to CDO retention. And it's a dirty word. It's a dirty word in the nonprofit sector but that word is “money”. While I don't really do searches, I help with succession planning for everybody in the C suite; and I'm always shocked when I talk to an organization that says, “We want a development director who can solicit six figure gifts, understands annual campaigns, and supervise a grant writer and a special events coordinator. We want to pay them $59,000 a year.” I'm always shocked because the organization essentially wants a high-end sales executive but pay for an entry level professional.
Emma: Right. That happens all the time. And this is also another dirty secret that nobody likes to talk about in nonprofits: You have to spend money to make money and to find a great professional. You need to really understand how to meet their needs salary-wise and benefits package. You need to really figure out how to do that so that they are rewarded for the hard work they do. There's a reason why in the AFP [Association of Fundraising Professionals] code of ethics you can't pay a consultant just for the money that they bring in. The CDO is working round the clock and often it's not a 9 to 5 job. And so you do need to compensate for that. I agree 100 percent.
Dolph: I recently had a breakfast conversation with a development director who had been at the same institution for a little more than 20 months. He said, “I'm currently being heavily recruited by this other organization which honestly pays their fundraisers 50 percent more.” He asked for my career advice whether to change jobs or stay with his current organization. I'm a major donor to his current employer, but I had to advise him to seriously consider the offer. I essentially said, “You're a young professional and you need to be thinking about your career. If you can get a 50 percent jump in salary now in your early 30s, that is going to pay dividends for the next 35 years. Especially if they have training and promotion opportunities that are as good or better than your current organization.” He ultimately decided to accept the job, and his former lost a really promising young development professional because they just weren't willing to pay what the market demands.
Emma: I think paying what the market demands is really important. And I think some nonprofits forget to do their homework. They forget to look at what their sister and brother organizations are doing (their competitors, their peers). You really need to look at this because it's easy to jump in development with skills transferring easily. And there are lots of opportunities for jumping up both in seniority and also in salary. And so really thinking about these two things: how do you professionally develop somebody (whether it's through adding more responsibilities, giving them opportunities to go to conferences, etc.) but then also the salary.
Dolph: Those two things are critical to keeping fundraisers. My number-one favorite objection I hear from nonprofits about paying their development officer more is this: if we pay our development director more, they'll make more than our executive director. We’ll have to pay our executive director more too. I just find that objection really funny because they’re expecting a lot from their executive director, too, and probably underpaying them as well.
Dolph: Thank you so much for being our first guest of the new year, Emma. The podcast is starting the year off with a bang because you are on this episode. Here’s a warning to everybody who's coming on the podcast after you. You have set the bar high, and I am excited that you have set the bar high. Thanks to all.
Dolph: I'm especially grateful that you shared ways to help increase the retention of CDO’s because I think that's critical to the success of nonprofits. Now if an organization is interested in working with you - whether it's around CDOs, coaching, or some other consulting need, they can find you at PilotPeakConsulting.com and here’s the last question that I knew I wanted to ask you. PilotPeak Consulting is an interesting name for a consulting firm. Most of us are not so creative; we have things like Goldenburg Group or Smith Consulting & Associates. What is the story behind PilotPeak Consulting.
Emma: I really love the state of Wyoming, and I spent my childhood summers there. My favorite mountain in northwest Wyoming is called Pilot Peak, which is a mountain that served as a beacon because of its very pointy and specific profile. It served as a beacon for pioneers that were seeking a path through the uncharted wilderness that is now Yellowstone National Park. For me, when I think about consulting, I think about myself as sort of a mountaineering guide: You have a place you want to get to, and I'm someone who can lead you there. So that's how Pilot Peak came about.
Dolph: I love it! That is a great origin story. Well thank you again for being on the podcast.
Emma: Thank you so much I really enjoyed it.
Nota Bene: Since this was originally published as an audio podcast, we have lightly edited the transcript. You can hear the entire interview at the Successful Nonprofits Podcast Website.