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Searching for a CEO? A Development Leader Might be your Best Bet

Leader Shows Direction.jpgOver the past 40 years, our firm has developed a deep understanding of what it takes to lead an organization: the vision, drive, temperament, and experiences necessary to set strategy and define direction. Through our partnerships with thousands of organizations, we know that nonprofit CEOs need a diverse set of skills, and fundraising expertise is a critical component of that skill set. During the last 10 years, every head of organization search conducted by our Executive Search practice has included fundraising as a major requirement. 

Given the importance of philanthropy, all nonprofits hiring a new CEO should recognize the potential for Chief Development Officers (CDOs) to become organizational leaders. We have extensively studied the path from CDO to CEO, and though programs, finance, and operations are more traditional launching pads, development also provides a strong foundation. While CDOs are fundraising experts, they bring much more to the table than their philanthropy credentials. CDOs manage teams, build relationships with donors and volunteers, work with Boards and their constituents, act as a public face for the organization, and align strategy with mission. These experiences mirror the CEO’s responsibilities, preparing CDOs to advance.

“In many ways, leading a development department is a dress rehearsal for heading an organization,” explains Marian Alexander DeBerry, Director of Executive Search at Campbell & Company. “The CDO works across the organization. They collaborate with programs to communicate the importance of each initiative, build a relationship with finance to understand how development will impact the budget, and help implement the organization’s strategic priorities.”

CDO-CEO Call Out.jpgWhen considering a development leader for a CEO role, focus on candidates who have gone the extra mile to build up substantive experience with other departments. While all CDOs collaborate with other areas of their organization, the best CEO candidates make an effort to sit on organizational taskforces or committees and build relationships with other department heads. CDOs who have what it takes to ascend to a CEO role will reference specific experience with human resources, operations, programs, technology, and finance. Search committees also need to assess whether a CDO has the necessary financial acumen to synthesize information and make complicated fiscal decisions.

Overall, look for CDOs who are able to demonstrate the breadth of their professional background. By widening the field to include development leaders, nonprofits can open up their CEO searches to exceptional candidates with the ability to drive strategy, mission, and vision.

For more information on this topic, please contact our Director of Executive Search Marian Alexander Deberry.