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3 Ways for CDOs to Engage CEOs in Philanthropy

Samantha Hunter
Published:  10/26/2021

Two women executives at a table
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash
The average tenure of a Chief Development Officer (CDO) is about two to three years. Sometimes called the “two-year itch,” there are several theories on why the CDO tenure is so short. Some attribute it to the change in duties when moving from prior development roles to CDO. Others cite unreasonable expectations and insufficient recognition by other executives, including the Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

Whatever the case is, this is a crucial time for healthcare philanthropy. Fundraising professionals are leading their organizations amid changes in the very nature of philanthropy and evolving donor expectations. Development leaders need buy-in, institutional support, and foster meaningful partnerships with hospital executive to successfully navigate these fundamental changes. 

Organizational buy-in and support for philanthropy come from the top, so a strong relationship with your CEO is crucial. More specifically, it’s critical for your CEO to understand philanthropy's role in securing your organization’s vision.

To position philanthropy as critical to an organization’s success, your CEO needs more than a passing knowledge of philanthropy and the processes involved in securing contributions. When CEOs have a deeper understanding of the process, they tend to have a higher regard for philanthropy as a whole.

Here are three steps you can take to increase your CEO’s knowledge of the important work you do.

1. Demonstrate that the fundraising process is strategic.

Start by building their knowledge of the overall process. CEOs often work on high-level strategic initiatives, so they need to see the strategy behind your philanthropic process. Even if they already understand how philanthropy benefits the organization, they will still appreciate the strategy breakdown. 

Similar to how you work with prospective donors, use storytelling to enhance your case to your CEO. Share examples when a well-thought-out strategy resulted in philanthropic success or, in the case of a less-than-successful endeavor, how the process could have benefited from strategy. Think about a story you can share with your CEO to strengthen their regard for the power of philanthropy. How can you highlight the strategy in the story?

2. Ensure that expectations of philanthropy are realistic.

Demonstrating the strategic nature of fundraising goes hand-in-hand with helping your CEO set realistic expectations. If they don’t understand how fundraising works, they might expect either too little or too much from you. 

As CDO, you have a responsibility to represent philanthropy in a realistic light. Just as donors give small test gifts to see how they will be stewarded, CEOs might do the same with you by engaging you first for smaller strategic initiatives. Consider what strategic initiatives are important to the CEO and align philanthropy to help achieve those goals.

3. Encourage your CEO to participate in the philanthropic process.

One of the best ways to deepen your CEO’s appreciation of philanthropy and the work your team does is to involve them in the process. However, since CEOs have a lot of demands on their time, be selective about the activities or donor relationships you ask them to be involved with. It’s also important to keep your CEO's personality type in mind and look for activities best suited to them. 

Fundraising and philanthropy don’t come naturally to everyone, so you should be prepared to mentor your CEO through the process. Make sure to thoroughly prepare your CEO, no matter how simple the task seems. By making them a partner in the process, you can collaborate in setting strategic goals in the future. 

Read the Advancement Resources and AHP report on philanthropy leadership essentials for more insights and tactics to establish effective working relationships in the executive suite. 

NEWS  /02/03/20
130 CDOs weighed in on tips for improving the CEO-CDO relationship. Here's what they said.

Meet The Author

Sam Hunter headshot
Samantha Hunter
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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