Board chairs expect the CDO to think both short-term and long-term and to set goals and create fundraising programs that appropriately balance short and long-term objectives.

Board chairs view the CDO as one of the key leaders of their organizations and expect them to think, with the board, CEO, and other key leaders, about the organization’s potential and future in broad, strategic terms. They expect the CDO to think both short-term and long-term and to set goals and create fundraising programs that appropriately balance short and long-term objectives. In the words of one board chair:

“If you don’t know, as board chair, what the real fundraising potential of the organization is, including the potential yield of the organization’s entire community over the next decade, I don’t see how you can perform the basic stewardship of the organization required of your role.”

The CDO is a key strategic partner in measuring potential and in building a development program and a culture that allow the organization to reach that potential.

The CDO’s relationship with the board chair requires great care, for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the board chair is usually the CDO’s boss’s boss. The CDO must shoulder much of the responsibility for making sure that direct communication between the CDO and the board chair never puts the CEO or board chair in a compromised or uncomfortable situation.

Board chairs pointed out that CEOs need to feel secure about direct contact between the board chair and the CDO. A CEO unwilling to trust a CDO with this contact hinders success in fundraising. A CEO unable to trust a CDO with this contact needs to find a trusted CDO.

In the course of writing this article, I had the opportunity to interview several highly accomplished board chairs, each with substantial experience working with CDOs, and collectively bringing experience from across the country and from a range of nonprofit organizations.

What about the Board Chair does today’s CDO most need to know?

    • The board chair’s principal responsibilities are to set strategy, choose the leadership required to adjust and implement the strategy, get the right people on the board, provide and rally financial support for the strategy, monitor progress, and be available to assist administration, particularly the CEO and CDO.
    • Central to all of this is ensuring the financial health of the organization, and in most organizations, this depends on excellence in fundraising. The board chair, CEO, and CDO all bear significant responsibility for development; each donor’s perspective can vary as to whom they consider to be the organization’s chief fundraiser. The board chair may play the lead fundraising role with many if not most of an organization’s top donors. Especially in such cases, the CDO-board chair partnership is critically important.
    • The board chair may have relationships with board members and other top donors that the CEO and CDO do not have, including relationships that stem from professional interaction, service on other boards, and membership in the same social circles. CDOs should exercise care in the stewardship of these relationships, not doing anything to damage relationships that are bigger than the specific relationship involving the organization.
    • The board chair’s position carries authority, hence the board chair can ask things of board members that the CEO, CDO, and others may not be in as strong a position to ask. Furthermore, “by dint of their leadership role, they have a special position where they speak for both the board and the institution,” says one board chair.
    • The board chair wants and needs a close working relationship with the CDO, and most board chairs keep CEOs updated on their interactions with other senior officers. But board chairs rely on CDOs to assist in keeping the CEO in the loop, when CDOs and board chairs communicate without the CEO present.
  • The board chair has relationships with many constituents and is often navigating in a sea of conflicting opinions. CDOs and CEOs may not understand the full picture when wishing a board chair would take one action or another. It is critical that board chair, CEO, and CDO regularly share what they are hearing, so they can together and individually proceed based on the most complete information possible.

What can the Board Chair offer today’s CDO, with respect to strengthening the following:

Identification of potential donors?

    • Board chairs move in circles that may not be open to the CEO and/or CDO. The board chair can help the CEO and CDO identify those with potential to support the organization, can advise on steps for initial engagement, and can often personally open doors to initial conversations.
  • Board chairs help ensure that appropriate expectations are set and met for board members. Clear expectations allow the organization to attract people with the capacity and capabilities required for the board to fulfill its responsibilities, including leadership in giving.

Interest, belief, and confidence of potential donors?

    • Board chairs play a key role in raising sights and aspirations for the whole organization. They demonstrate—through words and actions, including giving—strong belief and confidence in the organization, its leaders, and its future outlook. Their confidence inspires confidence in others.
  • The board chair reminds everyone involved that the organization is bigger than its problems. This sometimes requires giving and maintaining engagement of key donors when organizations are facing financial or other challenges. “I’ve had doubts about specific CEOs, or about specific strategies, but that doubt never translated into withheld giving. Leadership requires maintained, if not increased investment, even as the board works through difficult issues.”

Engagement and involvement of potential donors?

    • Board chairs can provide a sounding board to the CDO when it comes to developing activities and approaches designed to get donors more engaged, especially board members and other top donors.
  • The board chair’s example of giving carries a different kind of weight; it is critically important that they take a leadership position in giving, both in timing and in degree of stretch. If the board chair is not among the organization’s wealthiest donors, the board chair still needs to be seen as making the organization a priority in their giving, and the board chair should also engage another, wealthier board member or other top donor who is willing to assist with cultivation of others with substantial capacity. If the board chair has stretched, the chair’s position of authority may give them the leverage they need for this engagement.

Success of fundraising solicitations?

    • “My spouse and I feel that wealth should solicit wealth. We recently solicited another couple, and their first question was what we had given. They gave the same amount. If we had given less, their gift would have been less.”
  • After making their own commitment, board chairs can play a critical role in the solicitation of other board members and top donors.

Belief and confidence of organizational leaders in the CDO and the development program?

    • Board chairs must choose development committee chairs capable of effective partnership with the CDO. The right development committee will provide critical feedback when needed, help shape development strategies, then own them and support the CDO and development program with the rest of the board. CDOs should not be shy about giving input to the board chair on the selection of this key CDO partner.
  • Board chairs get to know the CDO better than most other board members. If they don’t have confidence in the CDO, they need to work with the CEO to improve confidence or make a change. When they have it, they should be a vocal supporter of the CDO and the development program, especially with the board.

Infrastructure, staff, and volunteers required to manage the business of fundraising?

    • Board chairs must understand, and be able to explain in persuasive terms to the board, the level of investment required to realize an organization’s potential in fundraising. The board chair can be among the CDO’s greatest allies in making the case for investment.
  • If the board chair has been involved in setting goals and setting appropriate levels of investment, the board chair “can also provide cover when things don’t go as planned,” in the words of one board chair.

Culture of philanthropy, including a widespread appreciation for the impact of philanthropy on the organization?

    • The board chair ensures that the CEO and other senior leaders, including board leaders, embrace development, assist with fundraising, and contribute to a healthy environment for fundraising.
    • Effective board chairs lead by example, setting the tone and setting the pace for fundraising, both in the annual fund and in campaigns.
  • The board chair’s role in setting expectations of board members and recruiting board members gives the board chair more influence than most in raising sights and ensuring strong, pace-setting leadership giving.

What does the Board Chair most need from the CDO?

    • Ambitious but achievable goals grounded in research and expert analysis. “Strong skills in the art of the possible:” a good, clear idea of what can be done.
    • Partnership in setting appropriate expectations for board members and making sure expectations are clearly communicated, including in the board recruitment process.
    • Excellent organizational skills, including the ability to keep track of what the board chair needs and when.
    • Timely and clear reports for the board chair and the full board.
    • Confidence that the CDO will follow through on everything, without the board chair having to double-check or ask twice.
    • Honesty at all times—don’t hide bad news.
    • Candor about how various constituents are feeling about the organization. “The CDO can provide early warnings about concerns on the part of board members, other major donors, and other key constituents,” says one board chair. “They are out and about more than most, and they will hear about problems before others. Among other things, early warnings allow board chairs and other leaders to correct misinformation before it leads to larger problems.”
    • Identification of opportunities. Just as CDOs, on the front lines, are among the earliest to learn of problems, they may also be among the earliest to learn of opportunities upon which the board chair or other leaders should act.
    • Willingness to push and prod combined with wise use of a board chair’s valuable time.
  • Creativity in framing the case for support: board members know they have a responsibility to make leadership gifts, but they also want to be excited about those gifts. Those outside the board likely need even more creative engagement.


Success in the CDO-Board Chair partnership requires:

    • Empathy: an ability and willingness to understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives;
    • Give and take in regular open and frank discussion, in person and not just by email;
    • Relentless transparency and accountability on the part of the CDO;
    • A desire to participate in building a strong culture of philanthropy on the part of both CDO and board chair; and
  • Mutual trust and respect.

Ron Schiller, Founding Partner of the Aspen Leadership Group, interviewed the following individuals in connection with this article:

Andrew Alper, Board Chair, University of Chicago

Jerrold Eberhardt, Former Board Chair, Los Angeles Philharmonic

Robert Hurst, Board Chair, Aspen Music Festival and School; Board Co-Chair and Campaign Chair, Whitney Museum of American Art

Ann Korologos, Board Chair, Anderson Ranch Arts Center; Former Board Chair, RAND Corporation; Former Board Chair, Aspen Institute

Robert Steel, Board Chair, Aspen Institute; Former Board Chair, Duke University; Former Board Chair, The After-School Corporation.

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