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Strong Trustee-CDO Relationship Can Have Huge Impact on Fundraising

(May 9, 2005) When key players in a nonprofit--the CEO, board chair and chief development officer (CDO)--all share a common vision, the organization can function and fundraise more effectively, according to a recent research study, Exploring Nonprofit Board Trustee-Staff Relationships: Do They Influence Philanthropic Outcomes? conducted by Marcy J. Rubic, CFRE, director of development for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America in Naperville, Ill.

The research suggests that a shared vision for fundraising and teamwork among stakeholders is more important than reaching specific fundraising goals. When stakeholders share the fundraising vision, they are better able to communicate how the organization's mission is fueled by donations. In turn, they are better able to formulate strategic plans and clarify how trustees and staff will work together to reach fundraising goals. Other research findings include the following:

1. Nonprofit board-staff relationships' bearing on an organization's fundraising success

In organizations that are aligned in several categories (clarity in expectations, mutual engagement in strategic planning, board-staff relationships, common vision and perceptions of board practices), the fundraising function appears to be acknowledged as a shared activity, rather than one that rests solely on the development staff, the study implies. Also, in these instances, other members of the key constituent group are actively participating in various roles that contribute directly to the resource development function.

'Our volunteers own the [annual fundraising] goal,' noted one CDO with an organization with shared perspectives in several areas. 'Every one of our trustees is expected to participate in the giving and getting of philanthropic support.'

2. Shared and clear understanding of the distinct roles of trustees and staff members

Shared engagement occurs only when roles are accepted and enacted by both trustees and staff, according to the study. From interviews, however, a frequent finding is that only 20-30 percent of volunteer leaders take active development roles in their work with the nonprofit organization. In other words, trustees and staff can have seemingly positive relationships with each other, but their activities will be successful only if both groups accept their respective roles, the study says.

3. The board's involvement in the organization's development strategic plan

Data from the study imply that trustee involvement in creating the development strategic plan can be a motivator for fundraising ownership. While 80 percent of the nonprofit organizations in the study have strategic plans developed jointly with trustees, several respondents did not appear to revisit their plan with consistency.

The plan remains relevant especially when the CDO provides trustees with regular progress reports. The board chair of one organization that regularly refers to its development strategic plan said, 'We set goals we want to reach. We work toward [them] and assess our progress. ? If we don't reach our goals, we know why.'

4. The CEO's and CDO's 'united front' approach to philanthropy

Not all CEOs view their roles in fundraising the same way. Of the organizations studied, 60 percent of the CEOs said they participate in major gift solicitations. For the CEOs who do not participate in gift requests, they see their roles in different ways:

  • 'Supporting the CDO.'
  • 'Creating a positive image for the organization, which can be used by development to solicit funds.'
  • 'Setting the vision, telling the story and making the ask.'
  • 'I see my role as effectively communicating the case [to the prospective donor], describing how it relates to the mission and will benefit the community. The CDO's role is largely technical, developing the donor prospects and orchestrating [the gift solicitation]. The trustee role is the link to the prospect. The trustee [also] provides confidence in the solicitation.'

The CDOs appear, in most cases, to be the instrumental driver of the philanthropic vision for the organization, the study suggests. 'The difference [for our organization] is having the right development officer,' said one nonprofit's board chair.

However, there is no one way to deal with the dilemma of leading leaders. A combination of factors, including the organization's maturity, culture and congruity to mission, appear to dictate the formula that constitutes a 'fit' in leadership style for the CDO, the study says.

Rubic's research study, Exploring Nonprofit Board Trustee-Staff Relationships: Do They Influence Philanthropic Outcomes? was made possible with a grant from the AFP Research Council. For more information, contact Marcy Rubic at 847-827-0404 or email

To learn how to obtain an AFP research grant, visit the Research & Statistics section of the AFP website.

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