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No Laughing Matter

Our firm recently hosted a group of recently minted chief development officers for a one-day conference designed to assist them in their adjustment to the corner fundraising office. The day was spent hearing from experts in the field, individuals who ran non-profits, who had served in top fundraising positions, even a search professional who recruited chief development officers. Feedback on the session was extremely positive and we intend to offer this conference again in the near future.

One of the speakers was a chief financial officer for a major non-profit in the Chicago-area. As someone who over the years has had a bit of a love-hate relationship with other CFOs, I was eager to hear the thoughts of this particular individual regarding the relationship between his position and the chief development officer position. I have to admit that I was really impressed with what I heard.

Perhaps a bit of background is in order. In reality, I have gotten along pretty well with CFOs in the past. Well, with some of them at least. There was the CFO of a major non-profit where I had just been hired, who rejected my request for a copy of the “Wall Street Journal” on my very first day on the job. His rationale was that the institution was already receiving a copy of the WSJ. Now, we all know where that one copy of the Journal was sent, don’t we? To the CFO’s office. So, he suggested, we in the development office could wait a few days to learn what was going on in the world of business while he and his business office colleagues read through the Journal first. Never mind that in those days, the only way to value contributions of stock was to consult the pages of the “Wall Street Journal” for that day’s stock quote. These were in the days before the Internet, before we all had computers on our desk, before we had our stock quotes sent to us electronically. In those days (I feel like a history teacher here), you would see businessmen on the train squinting to read the stock quotes from the day before, to try to keep an eye on their portfolios.

Anyway, for that reason and others, the development office at this institution had a very specific need for its own copy of the “Wall Street Journal,” and I was not about to wait a few days for a used copy to arrive by interoffice mail! Perhaps it was not the best way to start my relationship with this particular CFO, but I simply went over his head to my (and his) boss and made my case. The Journal began arriving the next day, but my relationship with that particular CFO was never particularly pleasant after that. It didn’t really matter, however, as he left the organization soon thereafter. I stayed in my position and watched as three additional individuals were recruited to serve as CFO over the next five-years. And they say that development officers move around a lot!

That brings me back to the discussion at our recent conference. What I heard from our CFO speaker was truly enlightening. He described an organization in which the development office and the financial office worked together to ensure overall institutional success. He described an organization in which fundraising goals were set with realistic expectations, where the CFO wanted to ensure that fundraising goals were met and exceeded every year, where everyone had an equal stake in achieving the organization’s fundraising goals. Talk like this brings tears to my eyes!

I wish more non-profit CFOs shared this enlightened attitude regarding fundraising. Too often in my role as a consultant, I observe adversarial relationships between Chief Development Officers and Chief Financial Officers. These organizations are set-up in silos so clearly defined that it is almost impossible to share successes or failures.  In some of these organizations, it seems that the goal of the CFO is to take full credit if the organization balances its budget and shift full blame if it doesn’t. Where to shift that blame? To the Development Office, of course.

There was that CFO in my first years as a chief development officer, who used to joke about our College’s capital campaign by wondering aloud if it was “a five-year campaign for $25 million or a 25-year campaign for $5 million. We laughed along, because we knew that he was mostly just kidding. Let’s face it, however. The relationship between the Chief Development Officer and the Chief Financial Officer is really no laughing matter.

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