From CDO to CEO – Why Fundraisers Make the Best Chief Executives

Amy Schiffman
April 6, 2021

This Thursday, April 8, 2021, we will be speaking with five nonprofit executives who have made the leap from fundraising professional to chief executive officer or executive director. If you have not done so already, you can register here.  We are curious not only about what they have in common, but about why so many of today’s nonprofit leaders seem to have a resume that includes development, advancement and/or fundraising. Care for a few thoughts and observations to whet your appetite? Good. 

When we consider the skills sets necessary for success in the top spot, we unsurprisingly discover that an experienced director of development shares many of the same qualities and areas of expertise as an effective executive director. Here are a few reasons why fundraising is such great training for the CEO role:

  • Much of a CEO's job revolves around relationship building – with donors, staff, board and community members. The same is true for a fundraiser. Therefore, an externally facing role in advancement is great training ground for the future executive director. The closer we get to our donors and board members, we strengthen our ability to support our mission via long terms partnerships with key stakeholders.
  • A focus on communication- fundraisers spend a lot of time learning to communicate clearly and use storytelling to help prospects and donors understand gift impact. Strong communication skills are critical to the success of any CEO – whether we’re considering public speaking, external communications, internal dialogues, or even just a staff meeting, the chief executive seat is a daily exercise in clearly and effectively communicating with stakeholders and team members.  
  • Understanding the numbers – great fundraisers not only tell the organization’s story with detailed information about programs and clients, they must also answer donors’ questions about financial resilience, budget, and again, gift impact. So too must a strong CEO be well versed in the numbers, familiar with the budget and budgetary goals, and maintain a strong grasp of the organization’s financial picture.  A career in development provides excellent training in financial literacy. 
  • The importance of strong teams – as a director of development, I was keenly aware that I was only as good as the team around me. Fundraisers are very much dependent on program staff, teachers, board members, CFOs and CEOs to help provide information, stories and data that can be shared with donors and prospects. Like a chief advancement officer, a CEO is highly dependent on a strong team of lay and professional leadership to serve clients, raise money, share messaging, ensure financial sustainability and develop a healthy team. Executive directors who surround themselves with exceptional individuals make the best leaders. And those who are willing to be questioned and challenged (in an appropriate way) by their teams tend to grow their organizations in exciting, innovative ways.      
  • It’s all about confidence and vision- the best fundraisers I know are self-assured, well-read, willing to take risks, confident, hire great teams, and develop excellent relationships with their board members. The same can be said for a strong CEO. Executive directors who are constantly second guessing their teams, or themselves, do not inspire the confidence of others. Both lay and professional teams are motivated by a visionary leader – one with self-esteem (but not too much ego!) and a plan to achieve a future vision.  We all experience a little imposter syndrome every now and then, but confidence is key. Great fundraisers and executive directors are skilled not only at positioning donors as partners in achieving the organization’s vision but also inspire others to follow. 

We hope you will join us this week as we speak with five panelists in the Chicago area whose professional journeys brought them from fundraising to the chief executive seat. We look forward to your thoughts and questions.