The Executive Director and the Director of Development

Five Ideas for Creating a Successful Partnership

by Susan Fields, CFRE

AFP-NYC EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM, July 18, 2019, Scandinavia House, New York City

“Recruiting a CEO is a highly instructional process for a Board, especially when an organization seeks to become increasingly donor focused.”

Rick Martin, Director of Development
Ronald McDonald House

“Collaborate with the CEO in targeting the hardest working  members of the team and validate them for their efforts.

Jennifer Beirne, Chief Development Officer
New York Cares

“The greatest challenge of the Executive Director is 
defining  the chain of command within the organizational structure."  

Susan Newman, Vice Chair
New York Edge

“The CEO and Director of Development need to be strategic in sharing the institutional knowledge of the organization.”

Gary Bagley, Executive Director
New York Cares


The work of a fundraiser can be enormously difficult. There are many factors that contribute to this, but the one that has the most potential for generating stress is the relationship between the CEO/Executive Director and the Director of Development. This can be a marriage made in heaven or hell depending up the capacity and willingness of both individuals to accept the challenges of creative communication and collaboration. This partnership, when functioning optimally, will extend to all the organization’s constituencies, create profoundly positive change, and dramatically increase fundraising revenues.  People come to their jobs with distinctly different personalities, skills, and capacities, and there is no one recipe for building and maintaining a successful working relationship. For that reason, it is important to treat the ideas and concepts listed below as guideposts to understanding and avoiding the most common pitfalls and moving toward boundless professional growth.

1.        Accepting and working with imperfect situations. We have all heard about boards that contribute millions to their organizations as well as CEO’s who are eager to spend a lion’s share of their time soliciting major gifts. It is easy to wonder why these things aren’t happening in your organization and you may even accuse yourself of failing in some inexplicable way. Whether you are new at your job or have considerable experience, keep in mind that you do not have control over the culture and structure of your organization. What you can do, however, is define the barriers that stand between your nonprofit and successful fundraising, and take incremental steps in creating change where possible. You might also consider that some organizations are more apt to raise major gifts due to their history, the constituencies they represent, and the appeal of their mission.

2.        The source of conflict between the CEO and Director of Development. The structure of a nonprofit is inherently unique in that it requires leadership to manage and motivate a broad range of constituents and staff members, all with different goals and agendas: program staff, volunteers, board of directors, donors, community, and fundraising staff. While it is the prime responsibility of the CEO to direct the overall functioning of the nonprofit, the role of the Development Director is that of chief revenue generator. The former is the protector of the entire institution, with the latter serving primarily as advocate for the organization’s donors. When the CEO views fundraising as a necessary evil, spends limited time cultivating donors, and is reluctant to ask for money, the Development Director can easily feel unsupported in their role. On the other hand the CEO may justifiably feel torn in terms of priorities.

3.        Dealing with the “miracle worker” syndrome.  Often a Director of Development is hired to “save” an organization in financial distress. This unfortunate state of affairs is most usually a symptom of poor management and neglect of the fundraising process by the CEO and Board of Directors. For this reason it is important for job candidates to ask questions during the hiring process regarding the CEO and Board of Director’s commitment to fundraising. If you find yourself working in such an environment, accept the fact that you will be toiling long hours. At the same time this scenario can prove as a training ground for leadership and an opportunity to create substantial change in a nonprofit’s future. It is likely that during a crisis the CEO and board chair will be more amenable to accept counsel from the new Director of Development as to what needs to change. This can be fertile ground for building a relationship with the CEO in re-harnessing the power of the organization’s constituencies.

4.        The CEO as advocate for fundraising.  As the chief administrative officer, one of the most important roles of the CEO is to integrate the work of development team within in the organizational structure. This means educating the board and staff regarding the importance of fundraising.  As part of this process the CEO encourages the Program Director and Director of Development to work together in supporting one another’s goals. It is also the responsibility of the CEO to work with the Board Chair to create a document which defines the role of the board in fundraising which should include give/get expectations, attendance at events, and establishing a Board Development Committee. In support of the Director of Development the CEO also helps secure funding for the human and material resources needed to fulfill his/her responsibilities. Annual evaluation of the Director of Development allows for feedback and validation regarding performance as well as collaborative goal setting for the coming year.

5.        Personality Traits of the Director of Development. We all come into this life with a unique of combination abilities and a distinct style of relating to others. Because the leader of a fundraising team works with divergently different constituencies it is necessary to have the ability to switch communication styles with each group based upon their unique needs. This means possessing the intuitive skills to read the mindset and expectations of a major donor as opposed to a member of the program staff. A temperament of patience, flexibility, and the proclivity to create a calm and accepting work environment are paramount. This includes the willingness to work behind the scenes while giving others center stage to receive accolades for their achievements. Nothing is more important than bringing these personality traits to bear in working with the CEO in creating and maintaining a partnership that will best serve the mission of the organization that they represent.

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