The President as Fundraiser in Chief

By Greg Duyck

As an individual executive considers a new CEO opportunity at an institution supported by philanthropy, or even as a search committee considers presidential candidates, they may see fundraising as a key part of the position. But as a new president settles in and realizes the time and effort needed for successful philanthropy, development may slide down the list of priorities behind seemingly larger issues with greater consequences. Allowing this tendency to happen is a mistake.

Regardless of a president’s experience level, interest level or comfort level with philanthropy, the inescapable fact is that the chief executive of an organization is also the chief fundraiser. This fact is unalterable for three primary reasons:

  1. There is no better storyteller. Even if the CEO doesn’t possess the organization’s best communications, public speaking or conversation skills, no one understands the organization as deeply or broadly as the president. That knowledge base allows the leader to engage with potential donors through any number of doorways, from university sports teams to hospital mobile clinics to endowment returns.
  2. There is no better door opener. The president title is also a remarkable master key, opening a wide range of stakeholder doors that would not be open to anyone else. Even if those doors lead to dead ends, a president must take full advantage of the office to create as many opportunities as possible, because no one else in the organization has quite the same ability to do so.
  3. There is no better magnet. In an era that values individualism and strong leaders, the symbolism of the CEO’s office is extremely powerful. It attracts other singular and successful individuals who want to be a part of the president’s universe, share similar experiences and discuss the world from a parallel viewpoint. This attraction offers a clear opportunity to begin philanthropic conversations that may someday result in alignment of a donor’s philanthropic vision with the president’s institutional vision.

To help ensure that presidents embrace fundraising, they should keep in mind three things:

  1. Recruit and then rely on key development staff. Presidents should identify advancement professionals who are experts in their fields and in whom they can trust. They should then partner with those professionals to develop clear, thoughtful plans to engage high-level donors and other constituents in the work of the institution.
  2. Continue their own professional development. Excellence in fundraising is achieved like many things in life, by training well and practicing often. Training can take the form of a peer mentor, fundraising conference or fundraising counsel. Practicing means meeting with donors and prospective donors regularly.
  3. Build fundraising in to the strategic plan and the work plan. To ensure development success, make it a part of the overall strategic vision of the institution and the daily execution of that vision. This integration will lead to a mutually reinforcing upward spiral that leads to long-term success.
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