Fundraising and the Executive Suite

Good, bad or ugly (err…otherwise), Executive Directors set the tone for philanthropy in any nonprofit.  For many organizations, this is wonderful news.  There are some amazingly talented executives who are adept at leading both the operational and philanthropic efforts of nonprofits.

There are others, however, who are less capable (or comfortable/interested) in building organizational capacity through fund development.

I get it.  Some people are naturally less inclined toward asking for money.  Some lack experience, they don’t enjoy it, or maybe think they shouldn’t have to rely on philanthropy to fund their organization.  Who knows.  There are probably dozens of factors at work in situations like these.

There are two challenges with this approach though.  First, your development staff (in fact, all your staff) need you to be a strong advocate for philanthropy.  And second, donors don’t much care about your personal hang-ups.

Let me dig a little deeper here on both issues.  In my opinion, these both come down to a question of leadership.

The internal challenge

As an Executive Director, are you leader of the entire organization, or just some of the departments in the organization?  I assume you’ve answered that you are a leader of the entire organization.  I wouldn’t have expected anything different.  So here’s the rub… if you want to lead the entire organization, then you’ve got to lead the entire organization.

Even if you HATE fundraising, you owe it to your staff never to let them know that.  Here’s why.  Your job is to empower, motivate and lead people who work for your nonprofit.  Not some of the people.  Not just the program and administrative staff.  The entire staff.  Including the fundraisers.  How can you be an authentic leader if you refuse to participate in a significant aspect of your business?

The answer is…you can’t.

I’m not suggesting you have to do all the work when it comes to fundraising.  But you should expect to be intimately involved in setting the strategy and objectives, and in being a key relationship builder (if not a top solicitor) with the organization’s most important current and potential donors (individuals, corporations, foundations and government officials).

Beyond that, you owe it to your organization, your staff and the people you serve, to be an ADVOCATE for philanthropy.  Like it or not, philanthropy is the life blood of most nonprofit organizations.  You, as the leader of the organization, need not only to tolerate fundraising — you need to embrace it as a core aspect of what makes you successful.  After all, what would you realistically be able to accomplish tomorrow if you had no donors and no philanthropic revenue?

Too often (very, very often) I meet Executive Directors who for one reason or another don’t believe they have a role to play in fund development.  That’s why I hired a Chief Development Officer — so I didn’t have to ask for money.

The challenge with this line of thought is it sends some very negative signals to your development staff.  Your desire to avoid fundraising tells your staff you think it is below you (you may not even think this, but trust me, they will).  Fundraisers are people pleasers.  They’re going to internalize this and can feel maligned, unappreciated and like you don’t support them if you aren’t involved in the raising of the organization’s funds.

I’ve had more Development Directors and Major Gift Officers than I can count tell me that they feel like second class citizens in their organization because their Executive Director doesn’t support what they do, doesn’t get involved in philanthropy and (their perception), doesn’t appreciate what they do.

The external challenge

There’s an equally compelling external reason that you, as the Executive Director, need to be actively involved in your organization’s fundraising activity.

Quite simply, donors expect your involvement in fundraising.  You are the organization’s Chief Executive.  The public expects you also to be the chief spokesperson.  Chief strategist.  Chief evangelist.  Donors (especially major donors) expect to have access to you.  They want to engage with the person steering the ship.  If you were planning to give away a large sum of money to an organization, wouldn’t you want this kind of access too?

I’ve personally seen the outcome of an Executive Director who refused to meet with donors.  It wasn’t pretty.  Donors are people too.  If you don’t make time for them, they’ll feel unappreciated (even if you genuinely appreciate them), and might take their larger gifts (and significant connections) elsewhere.

While you might find it uncomfortable or undesirable, if you occupy the corner office in your organization, fundraising (and establishing/cultivating a culture of philanthropy) is your responsibility.  It’s time you embrace the challenge!


Photo courtesy of: Image: mack2happy /

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