The No. 1 Way to Destroy Your Chief Development Officer
“I felt disappointed.”
That is what one chief development officer (CDO) said when questioned about the budget he had been assigned. We were in conference, and I was part of the audience.
This disappointment meant, “My leadership doesn’t see me as successful. They don’t believe what I say. Maybe I’m not that good. What am I missing? They must be looking for someone new. I should start looking.”
This CDO had presented a revenue budget to his CEO that was reality-based, taking into account what was in the pipeline and measures for growth. What he got back was a number that was more than two-and-a-half times the 10 percent growth the organization had attained in the prior year, which the organization considered a failure. This is a real-life example of the No. 1 way to destroy a CDO.
Why would a CEO assign a revenue budget that the person in charge of revenue feels is unrealistic? How do these two people get to that place? Here are some possibilities:
- The CEO thinks the CDO is under-promising in order to over-deliver.
- The CEO has been presented with an unrealistic goal from the board. In this case, the CEO and CDO are in the same bed, though the CDO may not know it.
- The CEO has blown smoke up the board members' skirts, making it believe the number is attainable. The CEO believes it himself or herself. It is a not a hard story to sell to a board that wants to be heroic, and there is no one in the room to refute it.
What will happen next? When presented with unrealistic (perceived or otherwise) goals, humans react in predictable fashion. Most are not able to “Captain Kirk” their way around it. (Reference Kobayashi Maru test for the uninitiated.) Something has to give, and sometimes it gives in strange ways that have massive, long-lasting and negative impacts.
In the nonprofit world, here is what I see happening in response to unrealistic goals:
- Incredibly capable CDOs are ousted. People, who may not have been given true pictures of expectations and resources, are put in their places. These incomers are sometimes victimized by misinformation as much as the CDO who was ousted. Sometimes those people have an unrealistic view of their own abilities or believe, “It’s a nonprofit. How hard can it be?”
- Field staff and middle management begin to manipulate income to meet goals. Sometimes they leave event books open for longer than the year before, borrowing from next year to make a goal this year. Sometimes they put major gifts in other columns. Regardless of how the money moves around, it makes realistic revenue and expense projection almost impossible. If you don’t know where the skeletons are (which you only would know if you were part of manipulating the past budget), you’ll be victimized unless you go to zero-based budgeting, which almost never happens.
- In the face of highly probable failure, sometimes field staff and middle management quit, whether they physically leave the job or not.
- CDOs quit talking to their CEOs and boards in meaningful ways, having been told with the unsubstantiated-by-reality budget-revenue assignment, “We don’t believe what you say.”
A revenue goal that is not tied to a logical plan to achieve it is just a hope. A revenue goal perceived as unrealistic by those charged with raising it, delivered as a response to a budget negotiation instead of being built into a strategic session with important stakeholders, is just hope. It is a basketball shot from the far foul line, a spiral from the far 5-yard line, a bet on a hole-in-one on a par 5.
In an industry built on hope, it’s ironic that poorly directed hope can destroy important people. “I felt disappointed.” Destructive hope. Hope is not a plan.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.