The Chief Development Officer 'Turnaround Specialist'
Recently I wrote about the shortest path to crushing your chief development officer’s morale. Now, I’m writing about how a well-regarded and successful CDO can get cut from the team.
Struggling professional sports franchises are well-known for seeking out coaches who are “turnaround specialists.” These individuals have a track record of coming into an organization and implementing a system that results in some significant level of improvement, measured in wins. Their system succeeds in getting better performance out of the talent on hand. Team owners love this, because they are getting more wins for the same dollars—the same player salaries.
What happens next is usually predictable. Without investing in additional resources, (player talent), the team plateaus. Management—and fans—eventually become dissatisfied with the new normal. Players become disgruntled and often look to be traded to other organizations. Without investment in talent and a long-term strategy to build on short-term gains, the program stalls—which is when management gets rid of the old turnaround specialist and starts shopping for a new silver bullet.
I’d love you to believe those last two paragraphs were my own, but if you know me, you also know I am married to a 6-foot-10-inch former University of Virginia basketball player, Otis Fulton. Since meeting Otis, I can now identify a zone versus man-to-man defense on the basketball floor, and when it changes (insert your gasp of surprise). Since Otis is also our psych specialist, the worlds of nonprofit, sports and psychology often collide in our work at Turnkey.
When he shared what happens to turnaround specialists in the sports world, I knew that I saw the same thing in nonprofit. And it happens a lot.
To speak to my own peer-to-peer world more specifically, organizations bring in a new CDO or national event vice president. The newbie accomplishes a turnaround, raising income with no additional investment but through sheer “I’m good at this-ness.”
Then, the board and CEO stare expectantly, waiting for the next lovely golden egg, but putting no resources into the equation. Even with the benefit of hindsight, boards and CEOs often forget that the turnaround specialist already found the waste, the poor methods, the under-performing employees, the hard-to-use online tool, the bad organizational structure, the poorly negotiated contracts. They found it all and fixed the majority. And now, with all that fixed, it is time to fuel the new and better machine. Instead, no fuel (in the form of budget) is given, the revenue plateaus and the CDO is blamed.
The employee merry-go-round starts afresh, with people landing in a new job with all the same issues as the old job. And the place they just left? They think they have a rock star, but what they actually have is a survivor of the same merry-go-round delivery from another nonprofit. While occasionally employees leave or are encouraged to leave for good reasons, most often we are playing “grass is greener” games looking for “exponential growth,” a phrase that is the hallmark of every conversation leading to “goodbye.”
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.