Initial Findings of Higher Education Chief Development Officer Retention - Better Than National Average

CDO Retention in Higher EducationThe issue of shorter tenures among chief development officers (CDOs) has become a national discussion. Recent studies show that tenures for chief development officers are becoming notably shorter.  A nationwide survey conducted in 2012 by Campbell & Company, a nonprofit consulting and executive search firm for nonprofits suggests that the retention rate for CDOs is now around one to two years. Overwhelmingly, CDOs (75%) and CEOs (61%) cited “unrealistic expectations” as the driving factor behind CDO turnover. 

But are these findings true among different sectors?

In order to understand if these national findings are parallel to specific sectors, Campbell & Company recently conducted a survey in the higher education sector. Initial findings were released during a panel presentation at the 2013 CASE District V Annual Conference in Chicago, IL. For purposes of this article, we refer to the Chief Advancement Officer (CAO) as the Chief Development Officer (CDO).

The presentation, led by Campbell & Company Executive Search Consultant, Andrew Smerczak-Zorza, included panelists Tom Wick, Chief Advancement Officer, University of Chicago Urban Education Institute; Dan Peterson, Vice Chancellor, Institutional Advancement, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Kim Motes, Vice President, Institutional Advancement, College of Saint Benedict.

Initial Results from the Higher Education SurveyCDO Retention in Higher Education

Initial findings from the higher education sector CDO survey seem to be more optimistic. Fifty-one percent (51%) of CDO respondents had tenures of six or more years with twenty-one percent (21%) less than two years. When asked about fundraising goals ninety-four percent (94%) of higher education presidents “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that their CDOs feel their institution has realistic fundraising goals. Eighty two percent (82%) of CDOs in the higher education sector believe their institution has realistic fundraising goals. However, CDO respondents cited poor relationship with CEOs/boards as a key factor for their departure. Seventy percent (70%) of higher education CDOs felt they did not have the resources to do their job effectively. 

While initial results show that retention among CDOs is generally longer in the higher education sector than in other sectors, utilizing vital interviewing and onboarding strategies is essential for a successful partnership between the institution and the CDO across all industries.

During the CASE V presentation, the panel discussed various tactics and effective hiring and onboarding strategies specific to the higher education sector.

Preparation and Tips for Interviewing

Dan Peterson, Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, shared his own interview experience. The first time the University of Illinois approached Mr. Peterson, he asked: “Why would I leave the West Coast to come to the middle of the cornfields?” However, after conducting additional research and talking with friends in the industry, Mr. Peterson decided this role was the perfect fit based on two factors:  his belief in the mission of the institution, and the quality of the leadership at the University of Illinois.

CDO Retention in Higher Education

Mr. Peterson recommends the following for CDOs considering a job change and advancement professionals looking for career advancement:

  • Do Your Own Research: Don’t rely solely on the information you get from the institution and search consultants. The information you receive will be filtered, and potentially could be biased. Talk to trusted people within your industry and sector, and if possible, make time to speak with future colleagues from the institution and make sure the brand has value.  

  • Make Sure You Meet with the President: If the president is too busy to meet with you during your interview, this could be a red flag. Involvement of the president in the recruitment of the potential CDO is essential to the success of the institution’s performance.  

  • Ask Important Questions: Make sure to have purposeful conversations with the president and board members. When drafting your questions, consider issues you experienced with the most recent board you worked with, draw on the challenges your potential board may have had and the solutions at which they arrived, and ask questions which really interest you and are truly important for the success of your role and the institution.

  • Meet Your Peers: Learn where to get help within the institution and who you can leverage as a resource once you are on board.

Tom Wick, Chief Advancement Officer at the University of Chicago, Urban Education Institute, has learned from his past mistakes. Listening, asking questions, and conducting your own “feasibility study” before accepting the new position are a must for Mr. Wick. “Fifteen minutes into my first meeting with my then-new President at Harvard University (his previous institution), I knew it was not going to work”, recalls Mr. Wick. He still wonders, “How did I miss our incompatibility during the interview process? We were on completely different pages, and it was evident we were not a good match.”

In addition to Mr. Peterson’s recommendations, Mr. Wick adds that potential CDOs must:

  • Pay Attention to “We” Language: Listen for inclusive language, for example “We are going to raise money” versus “You have to raise money.”

  • Befriend the Board: Having successful relationships with the board is critical to the success of a CDO. If possible, meet with board members during your interview process. Make an inquiry if the board members and provost are willing to participate in fundraising.

Kim Motes, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at the College of Saint Benedict was in a unique position before accepting her current role. She had been a trustee for two years before taking the role of chief development officer. Given her philosophy that the development role is a relational business, Ms. Motes recommends that interviewees: 

CDO Retention in Higher Education

  • Determine Culture Fit: Since the president and the CDO are meant to work closely together, it is important to define the chemistry between CDO candidates and the president. Take your time after the interview to determine if the culture of the organization is congruous with your own.

  • Prepare for Challenging Times: Make sure to understand how the institution performed during the latest recession. Find out what measures were taken and who was involved in the decision-making process.  It’s important to determine the level of support you can expect from the President if similar challenges arise in the future.

  • Make Sure the Connection is there: Fundraising requires a considerable amount of traveling with the president. Ask yourself if your potential president is someone you feel you could travel with.

Strategies for Your New Position

When Mr. Peterson joined the University of Illinois, his boss, the Chancellor of Phyllis Wise, was in the final days of what she called “the listening and learning tour.” It resulted in the creation of the document called “Visioning Future Excellence,” the framework under which the strategic plan of the university is now working. Mr. Peterson later used the existing model and conducted a tour of his own, during which he identified the institution’s deans as key partners - a finding he was later able to capitalize on. To ensure a strong start at your new position, Mr. Peterson suggests taking the following steps:

  • Understand Internal Politics: Every organization has its own internal politics. Knowing the players, and understanding the relationships among your colleagues can help ease the relationship management process. Holding face-to-face meetings with your colleagues and listening to their opinions, suggestions and concerns is key.

  • Identify and Build Your Team: Key stakeholders can hold various positions within different institutions. At some institutions your main team might be the president and the board, while at others the deans might be leading the fundraising effort. Taking time to identify the major players is a must as you build your fundraising strategy. Intentional and purposeful conversation is a good starting point.

  • Establish Effective Workflow: Regardless of your predecessor’s performance and established work processes, signal the beginning of a new management by reiterating key timelines, setting fresh and realistic goals and establishing team spirit.

Inspired by Stephen Covey's the Emotional Bank Account, Ms. Motes wanted to establish a personal connection with her team. Ms. Motes took the time to meet with every single institutional advancement team member, from gift officers to the vice president of advancement. “I wanted an opportunity to hear from everyone in a confidential manner,” explains Ms. Motes.

The ability to have an open conversation with members of the cabinet can be a challenge. However, the importance of establishing an environment where information can be shared freely is vital. “Talking to my colleagues about where we were was of huge value because that helped establish the “we” language,” notes Ms. Motes. 

CDO Retention in Higher Education

Based on her experiences, Ms. Motes suggests CDOs:

  • Educate Your Cabinet: Giving your key audience well-constructed information provides a platform for all to work in unison. Be clear in explaining details and providing some background information.  At the time it may seem a cumbersome and ineffective use of your board’s valuable time; however the strategy will pay off in the long run.

  • Check Your Books: Coming in to a new position, it is always tempting to request a hefty budget. However, in a recovering economy it is important to be diligent and look at departmental expenses. There might be ways to raise efficiency, and to channel funds in the right direction.

  • Score Early Wins: Announcing success early on is an effective way to communicate a strong and aggressive future. Strategies to achieve early results may differ from institution to institution. One of the possible strategies to consider is a fresh look at existing major donors who you can approach with a suggestion to challenge a fund. Consider  looking for donors with significant wealth who do not have a documented gift plan. An early win will also set a healthy morale for your team and stakeholders.

How to Craft a Case to Get Resources

Mr. Peterson worked to harness the horsepower of his team first and foremost. “I have a lot more credibility when I can demonstrate good results with the people I already have in the advancement positions,” states Mr. Peterson. “We can later be strategic in deploying the new talent.”  

Two of the strategic steps Mr. Peterson took to turn things around included creating an accountability-based environment and establishing a set of performance metrics.

He told his team: “This is not about meeting every one of these set goals. Let’s apply as much effort as we can towards the set goal and if we need to step back and adjust, we can do that.”

Like Mr. Peterson, Ms. Motes chose not to add new staff members at the beginning of her tenure. She wanted to make sure her team was working as optimally as possible. It was only after meeting their annual goal in her first full fiscal year and establishing a culture of success that Ms. Motes identified key pressure points and decided to add new staff members.

When the time came to expand her crew, Ms. Motes deployed what she calls “internal fundraising”. Together with her team, they conducted a benchmarking study, measuring against the institutions of similar size, staffing levels, and fundraising trends. Ms. Motes then shared the findings with her cabinet and made a successful case to add four new staff members. 

CDO Retention in Higher Education


Other interesting findings from our survey included:

  • 51% of higher education CDOs had tenures of six or more years with 21% less than two years.

  • 50% of higher education CDOs left because of a poor relationship with their presidents. An additional 25% left their positions because of a poor relationship with their board while 25% cited inadequate appreciation for their efforts as a key factor in their departure.

  • 65% of higher education CDOs feel unrealistic expectations by the management team contributes to turnover, while only 42% of presidents see it that way.

  • 82% of higher education CDOs believe their institution has realistic fundraising goals. 94% of higher education presidents ”strongly agree” or “agree” that their CDOs would say their institution has realistic fundraising goals.

  • 70% of higher education CDOs felt that they did not have the resources to do their job effectively.

  • 35% of higher education CDOs feel they have “excellent” or “good” support from their board, 38% of CDOs feel they have “adequate” support from their board and 27% indicated “poor” support.

  • 58% of higher education presidents feel they have “excellent” or “good” support from their board, 26% feel they have “adequate” support from their board with 16% feeling they have “poor” support.

Next Steps

Campbell & Company is excited to continue this conversation at a series of upcoming events and within new publications. Please explore our previous nationwide CDO Retention Study and follow our events calendar to learn more about the issue.


About the Campbell & Company Higher Education Practice

The Campbell & Company Higher Education Team understands the context in which higher education institutions operate, and create a structure and process within that context, tailored to your community, that allows philanthropy to grow. For 37 years, we have successfully partnered with a range of higher education institutions, including large public universities, mid-majors, private liberal arts colleges and community colleges. We also draw on our staffs’ experience to develop initiatives for specific higher education segments including Historically Black Colleges and Universities and professional schools.

Campbell & Company maintains offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Washington, DC. For more information, please telephone (877) 957-0000 toll free, email or visit