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The 14 traits of an effective chief development officer

By Erin Lanahan

February 28, 2023

    Recently, my good friend Betsy Rigby — a longtime philanthropy leader with deep experience in fundraising talent development — recommended a book to me. Making the Case for Leadership: Profiles of Chief Advancement Officers in Higher Education has become my bedside table reading. In it, Jon Derek Croteau and Zachary A. Smith clearly and persuasively depict a crisis of leadership in higher education advancement. They outline several worrying trends:

    • Too often, fundraisers are promoted into management and leadership positions for which they have not been prepared, either formally or through mentoring and modeling
    • Succession planning is considered a luxury, leaving programs vulnerable
    • Too few advancement professionals are in the pipeline to meet (seemingly insatiable!) current and future staffing needs

    To me, this rings equally true for healthcare development executives. In my conversations with chief development officers (CDOs), development staff, consultants, and headhunters in the field, I often hear concern about a pending wave of retirements and the pervasive challenge of finding skilled major gifts officers — let alone experienced and inspiring CDOs. Crouteau and Smith provide an analysis of how this transpired in higher education. 

    • Advancement program growth exploded and with it, the demand for fundraisers
    • With more positions than experienced development staff, organizations hired inexperienced and ill-prepared fundraisers
    • Within a short period of years, those same fundraisers were too soon offered jobs in management and leadership
    • But these individuals were rarely offered effective leadership training, either formal or informal. And, as the authors write, "On-the-job training is an inadequate model for a leadership position that has such tremendous responsibility." 

    Again, the parallels for hospital development are clear. Because higher education's hiring boom came years prior to healthcare's, we can learn from the experience of this similarly complex field. And, there are no signs of this trend reversing. In 2022, the Chronicle of Philanthropy surveyed 685 fundraisers across multiple industries. They uncovered widespread concerns about high pressure to succeed (94%), vacancies causing unsustainable workloads (92%), feelings of underappreciation (82%) and the sense that it takes longer to fill fundraising jobs than it did two years ago (81%). 

    Dissatisfaction and burnout among fundraisers isn't new; seemingly every year, another survey finds that a significant percent of development talent intend to quit their current jobs within the next 1-2 years — or leave the field altogether. Yet, even if this threatened exodus never fully materializes, the presence of so many disengaged team members can have a hugely dampening effect on organizational morale.

    Clearly, there could not be a more critical time for inspiring leadership. It's also vital to understand what makes a best-in-class development leader. If we better understand the hallmarks of great leadership in our field, as Crouteau and Smith argue, then we can more easily identify individuals who might be terrific current or future leaders. 

    The 14 key competencies for best-in-class development leadership

    Crouteau and Smith interview 10 highly respected chief advancement officers about their professional background and career path; the competencies they believe to be important for success in the position; and leadership development and training programs, as well as thoughts on how to prepare the next generation of leaders.

    While each chief advancement officer's story is unique, the researchers draw out 14 key competencies that they believe are universally required to be an effective chief fundraiser in higher education. Presented in no particular order, these competencies are:

    • Intellectual curiosity
    • Effective communication skills
    • Self-awareness
    • An ability to think critically
    • Tenacity 
    • Thoughtfulness about organizational culture
    • A focus on excellence
    • An ability to inspire, motivate, and influence
    • An ability to tolerate ambiguity 
    • An ability to accept responsibility and lead by example
    • A belief that talent management should be a high priority
    • A passion for the mission of their organization
    • Strong interpersonal skills
    • An ability to think strategically

    As the authors recognize, many of these competencies relate to social skills. However, great development executives must also possess intellectual curiosity and strong critical thinking skills. In our current research, my colleagues and I are exploring this model as it applies to chief development officers in healthcare, both current and aspiring.

    It's time to pressure-test this framework for healthcare philanthropy. I'm linking to a very short, six-question survey on leadership competencies for CDOs. Two questions ask you to rate or rank these fourteen leadership competencies. Then, we ask four multiple-choice questions about your fundraising background, to better understand your perspective when answering. The survey should take no more than 5-7 minutes to complete, and we'll be delighted to share the results. 

    Kindly complete this short survey by Friday, March 17th.

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