There are ways to prepare for the role of CDO, including serving on the board of a nonprofit organization in your community, finding mentors with the skills you need, or asking your own CDO to help you gain experience in areas that fall outside your current areas of responsibility.

Excerpted from The Chief Development Officer: Beyond Fundraising, published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2013

The career path to CDO does not usually provide adequate opportunity to prepare for all the roles and responsibilities of today’s CDO. Yet there are other ways to prepare for the role of CDO, including serving on the board of a nonprofit organization in your community, finding mentors with the skills you need, or asking your CDO to help you gain experience in areas that fall outside your current areas of responsibility.

Check the box next to each question you can answer in the affirmative. Answer the questions yourself, and ask trusted colleagues—individuals who will tell you the unvarnished truth—to answer them for you as well. This is not a test; there is no grading system. However, the more you are able to answer the questions in the affirmative, the fewer steep learning curves you will face when you step into the role for the first time, and the better you’ll be able to identify areas for growth.


☐ Am I able to share stories of long-term relationships I have built, with supervisors, peers, staff members who have reported to me, and donors?

☐ Can I give an example of a long-term relationship I have fostered between an organization I’ve served and a donor who has made that organization a philanthropic priority?

☐ Am I a good listener?

☐ Have I replaced any urge to fire off unpleasant emails with a commitment to addressing difficult situations in person? Am I known by my colleagues to have such a commitment?

☐ Would my colleagues say that I am someone who defuses tension? Would they say that I am someone who puts out fires, rather than fanning flames?

☐ Am I comfortable facing challenges with difficult donors and difficult colleagues head-on, not shying away from conflict?

☐ Do I value others who challenge my assumptions, allowing them to correct my mistakes and sharpen my arguments?

☐ Am I practiced in the art of negotiation?

☐ Am I known as someone who freely shares credit with others?

☐ Do I know how other key parts of nonprofit organizations work, so that I’m prepared to establish effective collaboration between my development team members and staff members in other departments?

☐ Have I served on a nonprofit board, so that I can more easily understand and talk about the experiences and responsibilities of board membership with my organization’s board members?

☐ Am I prepared to remove underperformers from my team, fairly but without delay, in order to keep performers motivated?

☐ Do I have peers and mentors to whom I can turn for support and for candid advice—even when that advice is hard to hear?

☐ Do I understand what key colleagues will need from me, and what they will offer me, especially the CEO, the CFO, and board leaders?

☐ Am I known to be responsive, returning calls and emails promptly?

☐ Am I known as someone who follows through on promises?

☐ Do I know what I need and want in a CEO partner, so that I choose wisely, willing to walk away from salary and title if I haven’t found the right partner?


☐ Do I use the language of partnership, talking about prospective donors rather than “prospects” or “suspects”, and fostering a culture in which donors are viewed as insiders rather than outsiders?

☐ Am I honest, and do I insist on honesty as a higher priority than hitting financial goals? Will I tell a donor when the gift they are proposing is not going to be successful, if my organization is not prepared to use and steward the gift because it is not an internal priority?

☐ Have I built and supported partnerships between an organization I’ve served and a major donor—partnerships that involved at least one other donor and one other organizational leader, rather than partnerships that depended on me?

☐ Am I a student of philanthropy? Do I know the principal motivations among donors making annual, campaign, and deferred gifts, and how these motivations are shifting?

☐ Can I tell stories of philanthropists who have inspired me and who have shown me the joy of giving?


☐ Am I fluent in the language and practice of business, both in the for-profit sector and the social-profit, or nonprofit, sector?

☐ Do I understand how gift revenue appears on operating reports, long-term asset reports, and other financial reports, beyond fundraising reports produced by the development office?

☐ Do I understand the principal responsibilities of a finance committee, an investment committee, and an audit committee?

☐ Am I ready to manage a budget on the scale required by the organization I wish to serve?

☐ Have I used data to make a case for appropriate levels of investment in development? Do I know the right data to use for such a case?

☐ Am I prepared to discuss how I would evaluate an organization’s potential and build the right staff and program to maximize performance against that potential?

☐ Am I prepared to contribute to financial planning for the organization as a whole, and to integrate development planning into those financial plans?

☐ Am I prepared to evaluate an organization’s cost centers and revenue centers and help other leaders strike the right balance of investment in each?


☐ Am I prepared to spend significant time focused on the board—my boss’s bosses?

☐ Am I prepared to navigate potentially tricky waters, given the level of access I will have to both CEO and board? Do I have a trusted advisor who will help me avoid pitfalls?

☐ Have I served on a board or otherwise gained experience in nonprofit governance, sufficient to understand how boards work and think?

☐ Do I understand how to measure a board’s engagement in and commitment to fundraising, and an organization’s and board’s readiness for change if needed, before taking a CDO role in that organization?

☐ Am I aware of successful models for board engagement in fundraising, including how the best development committees, campaign committees, and other advisors and advisory groups function?


☐ Do I make time for reading the most important and relevant philanthropic literature, nonprofit literature, journals relevant to the missions of the organizations I want to serve, and other books and articles that will help me succeed in the CDO role?

☐ Do I read enough current literature to make me an interesting, engaging colleague and dinner guest?

☐ Have I read everything my potential employer has published about itself, so that I’m prepared to engage in thoughtful discussion about the future of the organization, even in the interview process?

☐ Do I know enough philanthropists, or read enough of what leading donors say, to be able to educate my colleagues, especially the CEO, about philanthropic motivation?

☐ Am I prepared to serve as strategic thought partner to the CEO, not only in philanthropy, but in thinking through a variety of challenges and opportunities facing the organization?

☐ Am I practiced in anticipating my boss’s needs, getting out in front of them, and staying in front of them?

☐ Do I have the experience and wisdom to know when to take a stand, when to push back, when to compromise, and when simply to let go?

☐ Am I an “organizational sociologist,” someone curious about the culture of an organization, prepared to be not only knowledgeable, but also engagingly conversant?

☐ Am I intellectually curious, ready to learn, willing to ask and not fake it?

☐ Am I known to be empathetic, interested in others’ perspectives and motivations, quick to seek understanding, and slow to criticize?

☐ Do I have sufficient knowledge of what a high-functioning development program looks like—one that is relevant to the organization I wish to serve—so that I can describe to its leaders my vision for that organization’s program?


☐ Am I philanthropic myself? Am I prepared to talk about my own giving decisions—in gifts of time and treasure—and the impact I’ve had through that giving?

☐ Can I tell stories of organizations and leaders who have inspired me, so that I can demonstrate my ability to serve as an effective spokesperson?

☐ Do I know what missions are most compelling to me, and do I have the discipline to focus my search on those organizations that have such a mission, so that I will truly own the mission when taking the CDO role? Am I prepared to eat, sleep, and breathe the mission of the organization to which I’m applying?

☐ Do I know enough about the organization’s leaders to know that I can also enthusiastically and unhesitatingly bear the flag for them?

☐ Am I experienced in shaping vision, adopting vision, translating vision into words I can own and sell, and promoting vision? Can I give a compelling example?

☐ Am I practiced in positioning my supervisor for success?

☐ Have I identified flag bearers I admire, so that I can learn from them? Can I tell a story about one of them?


☐ Am I known by my colleagues to be someone who focuses on the positive?

☐ Am I known to be someone who rallies the troops, when energy wanes or optimism fades?

☐ Do I set ambitious goals for myself and my team?

☐ Am I prepared to push back on goals I do not believe to be achievable?

☐ Am I practiced in bringing well-researched potential solutions to my supervisor, rather than presenting problems without solutions?

☐ Do I resist WADITWAs (we’ve always done it that way) and challenge the status-quo?

☐ Do I have an entrepreneurial nature, ready to take risks, and ready to lead a team that will inevitably include risk-averse members?

☐ Am I open to making and learning from mistakes?

☐ Do I know successful change agents, whose advice and help I might enlist when my organization needs change?

☐ Will I know the right questions to ask, so that I can confirm high levels of my own belief and confidence in the organization, its leaders, and their vision and planning?


☐ Do I have a proven track record of followership—staff members whose loyalty and dedication I’ve inspired?

☐ Have I learned how to hire? Have I learned which qualities can be taught, vs. those that, when lacking, are unlikely to be gained?

☐ Do I know my own weaknesses and strengths well enough to know how to assemble the best team for me—those who will complement my strengths and help me overcome weaknesses?

☐ Can I share stories of successful hires? Can I talk about successful transitions, where I’ve helped someone find a better fit within the organization, and others where I’ve helped someone leave my organization due to poor fit?

☐ Am I known for being someone who has to be the smartest person in the room, or am I willing to let others shine, and to learn from people who are smarter than me, even when they report to me?

☐ Have I built a network of support within the organizations I’ve served, and within the larger profession?

☐ Am I known to lead by example, in both word and deed?

☐ Do I defend my staff, even when they’re wrong, and deal with their mistakes privately, or do I throw people under the bus?

☐ Can I give an example of leading a team through a challenge, when others doubted them, or they doubted themselves?

☐ Am I known for investing in the careers of those who’ve reported to me, including helping them secure a new job when that is the best thing for them, even if creates a temporary inconvenience for me?

☐ Am I known for sharing credit with my team members?

☐ Do others see me as compassionate and caring?

☐ Am I invested in the personal as well as professional well-being of my staff?


☐ Can I tell the story of someone who has been a valued mentor to me?

☐ Am I ready to mentor others? Can I demonstrate to others that I’m ready?


☐ Am I seeking this role because I’m prepared to play an organization-wide leadership role, or would I be happier, and serve philanthropy better, by staying in a front-line fundraising role?

☐ Do I have sufficient experience in the breadth of development areas to provide effective oversight of those areas?

☐ Will I have a leadership team, and do I know of others upon whom I will call to fill open positions in my leadership team?

☐ Am I prepared to interview potential employers, not only be interviewed by them?

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