Dr Daniel McDiarmid outlines the ways not-for-profit organisations can minimise the risk from a change of leader during a fundraising campaign.
Change of chief executive officer during a fundraising campaign once ranked alongside institutional scandal and natural disaster as presenting a high risk to campaign success. And it is increasingly likely to happen, as campaign timelines have lengthened and the tenure of institutional leaders has shortened.
Even if you are convinced your chief executive, principal, or vice-chancellor will not be leaving during your campaign, it is wise to do a little planning just in case.
The following advice covers the issues that arise when a leader resigns to take another position. The situation is similar, with some different characteristics, after a leader’s retirement, death, dismissal or forced resignation.
1. The risks to a campaign of a change in institutional leader include:
- Surprise and disquiet in the institution’s community because the resignation is unexpected.
- Loss of attention to the campaign by the leader during the notice period.
- Lack of engagement with the leader by staff and donors during the notice period.
- Difficulty in gaining new campaign commitments and new offers of voluntary support, as people wait to see who the new leader is and what she or he will be like to work with.
- Delays in decisions about campaign resources, projects, or other aspects.
- That the new leader will lack campaign experience; may not favour the campaign name; may disagree with campaign projects; or want to emphasise their new leadership by taking the campaign in a different direction. Other risks are the newcomer not striking an immediate affinity with volunteer campaign leaders or wanting to bring in fundraising staff from a previous institution because they work well together and have a good track record.
2. Benefits of a change in leader
It is not all doom and gloom. The campaign might even benefit from a change in leader. It is to be hoped that a recruitment process during a campaign will secure a new leader with good campaign experience; genuine interest in the aim of the campaign and the campaign projects; and who can reach out to a different or broader volunteer constituency.
The new leader can refresh the campaign message (without radical change of direction).
The campaign, with its emphasis on external engagement, presents an intensive time for engagement with the institution’s community and alumni. Campaigns usually involve visiting prospects and committees in other locations, linking the leader with people in those areas earlier than might normally be the case. By providing speaking opportunities when a leader can be visionary, values-based and strategic, a campaign can help unite the community.
Also, if the new leader can deliver additional resources through completing the campaign, this will be seen positively by staff.
3. Recommended actions to reduce risk
The chair of the institution’s governing board should be ready to be key communicator in all matters regarding the leader and should expect to make the leaving announcement.
Routine planning should maintain a tiered list of people (including top donors and prospects in the high priority group) to contact with a personal visit, phone call, personal e-mail or general e-mail. It is feasible to have a standing list of the Top 20 that the chair contacts in the event of a leadership change, leadership selection, or another significant occurrence at the organisation.
The secretary of the board or director of development can effectively continue the communications once the chair makes initial contact.
Clearly the actions of the selection committee of the governing board are very important. They (or the chair) should take steps to consult leading donors on the new leader’s desired characteristics.
The selection committee should ask leadership candidates to demonstrate their experience in fundraising. They should test all claims made, by interviewing fundraising or development officers or the foundation chair at the candidate’s current and previous institution. Three donors to that institution should be canvassed about the candidate’s interest in fundraising, ability to convey a compelling case for support, and skill in communicating personally with major donors.
A lunch meeting with key donors during the selection process is a good idea (poor table manners or bad language over lunch have cruelled the chances of more than one leader, and correctly so). Key donors don’t get a vote on candidates, but their opinions are worth hearing.
Many institutions refrain from mentioning fundraising in the selection process – preferring to keep it as a surprise they spring on the new appointee. A better way is including it in the position description, the selection criteria and the performance plan for the role. If the institution offers a bonus payment within the leader’s compensation package, activity and success in fundraising should be part of the evaluation.
Perhaps, most importantly for the selection panel is to try to test whether a candidate has genuine passion for the existing projects, and the humility to run hard with a set of campaign projects set in place by a predecessor.
Dr Daniel McDiarmid
Dr Daniel McDiarmid is a principal consultant at Global Philanthropic.