• April 17, 2014

High Expectations Cause Many Top Fundraisers to Be Fired, Book Says

High Expectations Cause Many Top Fundraisers to Be Fired, Book Says 2

Ronald Schiller, who has raised money for NPR and elsewhere, says chief fundraisers need to be involved in setting strategy.

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Ronald Schiller, who has raised money for NPR and elsewhere, says chief fundraisers need to be involved in setting strategy.

The job of chief charity fundraiser has been sharply transformed by the bad economy. Chief development officers are now doing a lot more than raising money—increasingly they are part of the top leadership team, working with chief executives, board members, and others to shape the course of the entire organization.

But that means they need new skills that weren’t required of them in the past, says Ronald Schiller. The longtime fundraiser and executive recruiter has just written a guidebook for those navigating or aspiring to the new role, The Chief Development Officer: Beyond Fundraising.

Mr. Schiller says his research for the book showed him just how unprepared many chief fundraisers are for the demands they face today. After speaking with 69 seasoned fundraisers, wealthy donors, and other nonprofit leaders to get advice to include in the book, he says he identified more than 200 chief development officers who were asked to step down.

Facing Controversies

Mr. Schiller himself is no stranger to the growing pressures of the lead fundraising job. As he recounts in the book, he was the victim of a video sting in 2011 while working as the chief development officer at the NPR Foundation.

His professional accomplishments, which include leading a $2.4-billion campaign at the University of Chicago, were suddenly overshadowed by the video, in which he appeared to make disparaging comments about Republicans to people posing as representatives of a Muslim group that turned out to be a sham. He left the organization soon after the video was released, as did the head of NPR, Vivian Schiller, who is not related to Mr. Schiller.

While experts later concluded that the video was unfairly edited to make Mr. Schiller look bad, he uses the story to illustrate how important it is for top fundraisers to have colleagues they can turn to for support.

“I made headlines for a day, but thanks to the breadth and depth of my network and an outpouring of affirmation, I remained confident as the truth slowly emerged, buried as it was in the fine print,” he writes.

The most successful chief development officers, he adds, “are known for staying in touch with their best hires for life, well beyond their professional relationships in any given organization.”

Central Players

At big institutions, chief development officers now play such an important role in an organization’s strategy and operations that their ability to win large gifts is almost secondary, he says.

Cecile Richards, head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told Mr. Schiller for the book that being a good fundraiser “has almost become 'nice to have’ more than 'critical.’” Fundraising ability, she says, “is not nearly important as leadership and strategic partnership skills.”

What’s also important, as fundraisers work with board members, chief executives, and others, is that they must know how to “manage up, sideways, and down at the same time,” Mr. Schiller writes.

Although his main goal in writing the book was to help chief development officers thrive, Mr. Schiller says, he also wants boards and CEOs to get better at picking people who will succeed. His chapter titles show the range of skills he thinks people need, to be effective in roles such as relationship builder, shaper of philanthropic culture, and visionary.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Schiller talked more about the evolving fundraising profession.

What experiences led you to write this book?

It started with being a senior fundraising leader at several institutions and seeing the top role change. Then working in executive search and consulting, I was seeing more and more chief development officers being asked to step down, and boards and presidents who were frustrated they couldn’t find qualified people. As I talked to more aspiring chief development officers, they expressed desire for more information and support in preparing for and taking the role. And as I talked to presidents and board chairs who’d served on search committees for chief development officers, many said, “We wish we had more information on what we should be looking for.”

What outcome do you want your book to have?

New chief development officers can get quickly overwhelmed and never recover. I’ve heard people coming up through the ranks say they’re not sure they want the role.

But we need people to want this job. It is a wonderful position, but it has become a different position. I get a lot of head nodding when I say that the number of zeros on the résumé of someone who’s raised a lot of money is not a predictor of success in the top role.

We have to make sure everyone has the right expectations—those hiring for the job and those working alongside the chief development officer and those who want the job.

Gone are the days when other leaders make plans and tell chief development officers to raise the money. Now the chief development officer is at the table and gets to help shape the plans and see the way the institution as a whole is working. People who succeed in this job love having the responsibility that comes with it in most institutions today, including working more closely with the board and CEO and playing an institutionwide leadership role. It is no longer just about fundraising and managing other development officers.

For the right person, this job is even more interesting and exciting now than it was in the past.

Just how bad is turnover?

A certain amount of turnover can be healthy when it is because a rising star is moving up the ranks.

Ideally, institutions make it possible for their best people to rise within the institution.

A lot of turnover in fundraising has been in the major gift officer role, and it’s true there is more turnover there than is healthy.

But the reason for the book is that I became concerned with increasing turnover among chief development officers. It used to be that more chief development officer vacancies were caused by retirement or decisions on the part of chief development officers to move to larger programs. But more and more, chief development officers are being asked or forced to leave.

What do you think about the future for chief development officers?

I feel optimistic because the role is more important than ever. The amount of funding from non-private sources is on the wane, and there will continue to be demand for increased fundraising.

There is a lot of philanthropy available to organizations that have strong plans and excellent leadership. If we can do a better job preparing people and articulating what the role is, so that the right people are inspired to seek it, it is an extremely exciting and rewarding time to be a chief development officer.

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