Over the years, Richard and I have figured out a number of barriers that prevent non-profits from having successful major gift programs. Not having the right staff, lack of support by the board, not investing sufficiently… these are a few of those barriers.
Probably the one we encounter most often is the lack of support from the CEO or Executive Director. We get emails and notes from Directors of Development, Directors of Major Gifts and MGOs weekly, telling us they wish they had a leader who not only asked donors for gifts, but who at least understood the importance of major gifts for their non-profit.
Many of the emails we get start like this: “Richard and Jeff, thanks for writing about major gifts. I secretly slip your blog posts under my CEO’s door once a week so he can get a clue…”
When we first started getting those notes, I kind of laughed. But after getting more and more of them, I realized how sad it was that non-profit leadership was not only not embracing major gifts, but fundraising professionals couldn’t even face their bosses enough to have an open discussion about it.
A few weeks ago I sat with Sarah, a Director of Development from a respected non-profit, to discuss her major gift program. While there were some aspects of her program that needed help, the one area I was impressed with was how Sarah “managed” her CEO, and over time she won her trust. I asked her how she did this.
I’m going to lay out for you what she did so brilliantly, so that if you are having similar problems with your leadership, her story can offer you insights that you can use.

  1. Confidence — Sarah began her story by telling me that in her opinion, one reason DODs cannot get their CEO or ED to engage in major gifts is because the DOD doesn’t exude confidence in the concepts and strategies of major gifts. She said,

“If I went into her office not sure about what I was doing or that I was waffling about a particular major gift strategy, nothing would have happened. When I was hired, from the beginning I said I needed to have her embrace major gifts, invest in it and have her own caseload of donors that she was responsible for. I knew upfront that if my CEO didn’t agree to this, I was not going to be successful.”

  1. Clear roles — Sarah explained to me that she also had to be absolutely clear about each person’s role in creating a successful major gift program. She said her role, in addition to leading the entire development team, was to lead on major gift strategy and to manage the CEO’s caseload. She also said that she was adamant that her two MGOs had complete access to the CEO, as appropriate, to aid in soliciting gifts from their portfolios. She said her CEO did not like her “managing up” at first. But as the weeks went by, her CEO saw how helpful it was to her because, as Sarah put it, “She didn’t have to worry about it. I did.”
  2. “Managing Up” — Probably one of the toughest things for a CEO or ED is to give up control. Not all, but many have this attitude that they are in charge, and they create a culture where everyone answers to them. This is deadly when it comes to major gifts. In her first meeting with the CEO after she was hired, Sarah told her that she was going to help her become successful with soliciting donors and gaining their confidence. But in order to do so, her CEO had to allow her to manage her. As I said above, the CEO struggled with that at first. But Sarah quickly gained her confidence and trust, and now it’s like a well-oiled machine.
  3. Consistent communication — “Managing up” means that the DOD has to be in constant communication with the CEO. As Sarah puts it, “it’s almost like a marriage. If we don’t set up good communication right away, the relationship struggles.” So Sarah, in addition to having regular meetings discussing overall goals and strategies with development, also set up a weekly meeting with the CEO just to discuss her caseload, the moves she has made, and any communication the CEO has made with donors. Sarah said that now, over the last three years, they have built the kind of relationship that if she has any issue at all, she easily brings it up to her boss… even if it needs to be a difficult discussion. Sarah said, “I don’t hold back. If I don’t think she made the right move or she needs to be guided in a certain way with a donor, I have her confidence to say what I need to say.”
  4. Praise — Sarah realized very early on that, like anyone on her team, everyone needs to be praised for a job well done… even the CEO. She told me that after the CEO solicited a particular donor for a very large seven-figure gift, Sarah went out and bought this really cheap bowling trophy for her, along with a very personal note telling her boss what an amazing job she had done with this donor. She said her boss was just beaming. I asked her why a bowling trophy. She said, “Well, I just wanted her to know it was between her and me. That made it more special.”

In all of our years of helping non-profits become successful with major gifts, we’ve become convinced that having a CEO or Executive Director who embraces his role in major gifts is critically important. If you want your CEO to be successful, take a page (or three) from Sarah’s playbook. Your following her example will help them on their way.