The Two Year Itch: Questions about CDO Tenure

In the past decade, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the average tenure of nonprofit Chief Development Officers (CDOs) has shortened to about two to three years. Nonprofit human resources and executive search professionals have grown increasingly curious about why this has been happening. Some have suggested that this presents organizations with problems; however, we could be seeing a trend that will require nonprofits to evolve.   

My colleagues in Executive Search and I are undertaking a focused project to explore this question, including a broad-based survey of nonprofit CEOs and CDOs and an extensive review of corporate models for optimal tenures of C-Suite executives. Along the way, we welcome insights from our friends in the development world. Please feel free to leave your comments and ideas down below.

An Organizational Challenge?

Many development professionals spend two to three years in a position before moving on to assume progressively greater fundraising responsibilities. The CDO position has often been construed as the highest-level development role; however, as this table from the Chronicle of Philanthropy shows, CDOs assume significant strategic responsibilities beyond fundraising. 

Chronicle of Philanthropy

Some see the CDO position as too large of a step from prior development roles, and cite a variety of potential issues with this model, including unreasonable expectations, inadequate support from leaders and Boards, and insufficient recognition 

If this is the case, then the question becomes how to better “care and feed” for CDOs to ensure that they can remain with organizations for longer periods of time.

An Emergent Trend?

But perhaps we should not assume that this is a problem. Nonprofit development professionals may be telling us two to three years is ideal for CDOs. If so, we need to determine how to maximize CDOs’ time in the position and to ensure that nonprofits are prepared for quicker turnover.

We hope that our research will help illuminate these questions.  We will be continuing this conversation through:

  • 2013 AFP International Conference
  • Campbell & Company Webinar
  • Published articles following the conference and webinar

If you have questions concerning this topic, please contact me at marian.deberry@campbellcompany.com.

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Marian Alexander DeBerry is the Director of Executive Search at Campbell & Company and has more than 14 years of search experience in the nonprofit and corporate sectors.