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Development Dilemma: Getting your CEO to Plan

In our weekly column, consultants with decades of nonprofit experience answer your questions about fundraising, boards, strategy and more. To ask a question and be featured (anonymously!) in the column, email your questions to info@twbfundraising.com.

This week’s question will be answered by Clyde Watkins.

The Dilemma

I am a chief development officer for a substantial nonprofit institution, though not a huge one.  Our CEO, who has been here for a decade and has been working as a manager in institutions in our field for several decades, is very skeptical about strategic planning.  The result is that we go from year to year without any long-range goals – we are very reactive.  I’m getting frustrated. So what can I do?

Clyde’s Response

This is a real challenge, as you already are aware. Because you already understand the value of long-range planning for the positive impact it can have on your development program, beginning with the substance it can add to your case statement, I won’t focus on the more general issue here, except insofar as it affects some of the tactics for engaging your CEO.

The easiest way to get your CEO to accept the necessity of planning is to get his/her Board members to demand it. But this obviously has not happened on its own, for whatever reason. It’s ironic, because most of them work at institutions – whether for-profit or not-for-profit – that do their own strategic planning, so you would hope that they would have asked for one by now. Nevertheless, for you to go over your boss’s head this way to the Board, even to your chair of advancement, is a risky thing and could permanently affect your relationship with your CEO, if not end it prematurely.

Let’s begin with the assumption that you have a strong enough relationship now so that you can sit down and raise the subject with him/her one more time without getting thrown out of the Executive Suite. Ask for an opportunity to discuss an important issue and have your case ready to present. Explain that you have recently been to a professional meeting at which a seasoned veteran laid out all kinds of benefits to having a well-developed institutional strategic plan. Then ask if you may review some of the most relevant points of the presentation.

You may have some really good thoughts of your own, but here is a starter list:

  • If Board members are involved in the planning, then they will take ownership and will be motivated to:
    • Attend more meetings because they understand what is at stake and want to know how things are going
    • Provide greater service in a whole variety of ways from committee assignments to making strategic introductions, to helping more with fundraising and even contributing more money themselves
  • It’s a good opportunity to establish coordinated and mutually supportive management objectives throughout the organization
  • It may even help identify future staff leaders through which mid-level managers participate effectively in the process
  • It will enhance employee empowerment through involvement and engagement – it’s good for morale
  • Some important donors want to see evidence of good planning, especially institutional donors like foundations
  • The case statement used in fundraising will be strengthened substantially by being based on a sound institutional strategy as opposed to simply the mission statement; it will make our solicitations more effective
  • You already must have at least this many others, based on your own considerations over the months and years.

Now, what can you do if you don’t think your CEO will listen to you on this subject? Don’t give up! Do you know someone else who is not on the Board and can carry this torch? Someone who the President might welcome for a meeting? Someone like a donor? Do you have the kind of relationship with that donor such that a) you already know that they believe in strategic planning, and b) they will plan with you to be ready and effective in a meeting with your CEO? If so, then you can go to your CEO and say, “Gee, boss, Mrs. X, who is one of our most thoughtful and generous donors, keeps telling me that we need a strategic plan, and she has asked for a meeting with the two of us to make her case. May I arrange such a meeting?”

While you are trying to figure out the best way to arrange for a dialogue with your CEO, be on the lookout for articles making the case for planning, and even better, listen carefully for statements by your stakeholders about this, being ready to take advantage of the opportunity to get them involved in the discussion. It’s worth the effort!

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