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Solicitations: CEOs & CDOs Powerful Relationship

We all know that the nonprofit CEO or Executive Director typically plays a pivotal role in gift solicitations from key donors and funders. But what exactly that role looks like depends on a number of factors.

  • Which staff member is the primary relationship holder with the prospective donor?

  • What is the CEO’s level of experience, comfort and training as it relates to philanthropy?

  • What role should the CEO play that is most likely to yield a positive response from the prospect donor?

These questions, as well as numerous other tidbits gleaned during the cultivation process, help inform the best approach for a solicitation.

But as a VP of Development or Development Director, how best can you support your CEO in the period leading up to the solicitation? We asked a few CEOs from our family of clients what helps them be most effective in a solicitation setting.

Woman wearing stunning red blazer with a welcoming smile and in a lively setting.
Jennifer Pace Robinson

“Preparation and personal touches are key components of a successful solicitation. Making the time to create a strategy for an intentional conversation helps everyone involved with the ask feel confident of the goals and outcomes. It’s also important for those asking for donations to pay attention to body language and responses from the donor and adjust accordingly. That way, the donor knows they’re being heard and will have more confidence in a relationship moving forward,” said Jennifer Pace Robinson, president and CEO, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Although some solicitations materialize seemingly overnight, providing limited time for preparation, the majority of major, planned, and transformative gifts develop over a period of multiple months and even years. Investing ample preparation time for the solicitation not only helps the donor know they are heard, it helps your CEO live into their critical role.

Woman with brown hair, black professional attire, and a welcoming demeanor.
Jennifer Bartenbach

“The relationship between CEO and the development team is critical to the success of any nonprofit organization,” states Central Indiana Community Foundation CEO Jennifer Bartenbach. 

“Preparation, an authentic relationship and meeting the donor where they are make the right mix for success in a significant solicitation.  My development staff recognizes the importance of personalization and tailors the solicitation approach to resonate with the donor's interests and philanthropic priorities. They identify specific aspects of an initiative that aligns with the donor's passions and values and ensure we make the connection most meaningful to the donor(s).” 

But development shouldn’t live on an island. And it’s incredibly more sustainable to build a lasting culture of philanthropy that permeates the entire organization.

Man with a grey suit and pink tie, almost inviting the read to join him in making a difference.
Larry Smith

“In my view, it is important to think about the development function differently than most executives – whether CEOs or CDOs – currently do,” states Fathers & Families Center President & CEO Larry Smith. 

“Specifically, development is often viewed as an ancillary function as opposed to one that is intrinsically strategic. Development professionals should be thought leaders who view their role as being broader than securing resources; they should view their role as helping to shape the destinies of the people their organization serves.” 

Although it’s critical to keep our development team focused on generating contributed revenue, they also bring a unique perspective to organizational dialogue given the often external-focused nature of their positions. 

To that point, Smith adds, “CEOs would do well to think of CDOs as thought partners. This speaks to their role as a leader, part of which involves inculcating a particular culture in their organization.”

As you begin more intentionally involving your CEO in philanthropy, we recommend the chief development person at an organization:

  • Allocate time each week for you and the CEO to meet (approximately 1 hour) and discuss each of the upcoming solicitations or donor interactions the CEO will encounter. Note: Protect this time; it cannot be a third-tier priority. 

  • Check-in with the CEO every few months to see what they need to feel prepared for solicitations, recognizing that those needs will evolve over time. Consider doing this over a coffee or a unique moment that says “this matters and I want to support your success.”

  • Approach gift solicitations involving the CEO as a team experience, including a post-solicitation discussion to see how each might like to refine the approach for future solicitations.

We encourage you to leverage the special opportunity that exists when the CEO is part of a gift solicitation. With thoughtful planning, all parties – the development staffer, the CEO, and especially the prospective donor – can walk away from the solicitation with a pride of being involved in the organization’s impact-filled mission. 

Michael Pettry

Cape Fletcher Associates

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