CEO-CDO-CFO Trifecta: Working Together to Improve Philanthropy

By Andrew Smerczak-Zorza

We sometimes work with organizations that have developed a culture of conflict rather than a culture of philanthropy, creating tensions between the CEO, the CDO and the CFO. Perhaps the CEO has a vision for growth that is unrealistic for the CDO to achieve. Or a CDO plans for a donation that doesn’t come in until the following fiscal year, throwing off the CFO’s projections and budget. Or the CFO demands clear outcome metrics from the CDO’s monthly efforts, without considering that long-term relationship building is an investment that is difficult to measure.

Whether arising out of different perspectives, different objectives, different philosophies or different personalities, such conflict between the CEO, CDO and CFO can stifle an organization.

Is there a way to overcome or avoid the C-suite conflict? We advise clients to be optimistic yet realistic and to keep the lines of communication flowing.

Avoid overpromising

A recent Campbell & Company study revealed that nearly two-thirds of CDO dissatisfaction arises out of unrealistic expectations from management. In other words, the CEO (or Board) may set forth lofty goals and may even pressure the CDO into agreeing to outcomes that are unattainable. Yet these projected outcomes are then used by the CFO to budget for income that has little chance of being realized, setting the stage for further conflict between the CDO and the CFO.

The solution: the CDO can be optimistic about his or her team’s abilities, but should still agree only one what is achievable with available resources, even if this falls short of the CEO’s numbers. Achievable outcomes will help support the CFO’s goal of hitting fiscal targets, too.

Back it up with numbers

Many CDOs feel that their credibility is being questioned because they can’t back up their efforts with hard data. The CFO may want to see results attached to every development dollar, while development expenses often are an investment toward a future donation.

In addition, the CFO may not understand the unpredictable nature of philanthropic development. The CFO may want to see income that matches projections, yet the CDO can’t always predict when a donation will come in. The ask for large gifts may span fiscal years, or a potential donor might have all the best intentions of making a large gift when suddenly his or her fortunes change.

The solution: While there are many aspects of philanthropy that cannot be quantified, our industry is moving toward strategic use of benchmarks and statistics. The CDO should work with the CFO to establish metrics that can be gathered and reported on. This will help to support accomplishments as well as allay concerns that resources are not being squandered.

Additionally, the CDO needs to be cautiously optimistic when a large gift is imminent, keeping the CFO apprised of changes in a donor’s intentions as soon as they become apparent. This is particularly critical if losing the donation will have a significant impact on the budget.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

The CEO, CDO and CFO all have different definitions of success, with targets that may seem in opposition with each. The CDO may feel entitled to whatever resources it takes to close the ask. The CFO probably will want to place limits on those resources.

The solution: develop a sense of understanding and respect for each other’s roles, and learn to work as a partnership within a culture of philanthropy. Communicate about your progress often and openly, perhaps with monthly status recaps. Regular and honest communication goes a long way toward fostering a framework of trust.

How do your CDO, CEO and CFO work together to create a culture of philanthropy? Any recommendations you can share? Please leave a note below.

Andrew Smerczak-Zorza is an Executive Search Consultant at Campbell & Company.