1. 5 Important Lessons I Learned in 9 Years as a Chief Philanthropy Officer

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In today’s show, I’m going to share 5 important lessons I learned in 9 years as a Chief Philanthropy Officer.

If you've attended a conference where I've spoken in the last several years, you've likely heard me talk about The Children's Center in Detroit. I've had the pleasure of working with The Children's Center for nearly 20 years. First as a fundraising trainer and coach. Then as a part-time contractor to cover staffing gaps. Then a few years later, I became an employee - and served as Chief Philanthropy Officer for 9 years.

  • It was there that we tripled fundraising results in the first three years
  • Emerged from the great recession in 2012
  • And like you, began a pandemic journey we didn't see coming

I resigned from The Children's Center six months ago to devote my full attention to my company, Fundraising Transformed. It's only now... six months later... that insights from those 9 years are emerging. As they say, you can't see the forest when you're in the trees.

Today, I want to share five important lessons I learned in 9 years as a Chief Philanthropy Officer. Insights that I hope will help you be a more intentional, resilient, and effective fundraiser and leader.

Lesson #1: Don't lose your fundraising superpower when you join the c-suite.

It's an honor to sit at the c-suite table. As a Chief Philanthropy Officer, you're in a position to truly influence the impact on those your mission serves. It's on you to lead the fundraising strategy and the team that executes that strategic fundraising plan. It's on you to engage your CEO, Board, and Development Committee - to mobilize volunteer leadership to support fundraising. And you undoubtedly have your own top donor portfolio to manage as well. No problem, this is what you were made for. It was your fundraising success and passion for philanthropy that got you to the c-suite, in the first place. You got this!

But I confess, nothing prepared me for the management accountabilities. Two or three-hour weekly executive leadership team meetings, half and full-day monthly meetings. Meetings about space planning. Meetings about real estate. Meetings about accreditation. Meetings about financials. Meetings about staff, systems, protocols, policies, and programs.

Sometimes we had meetings about upcoming meetings. And this is NOT a condemnation against The Children's Center. This is part of being in the c-suite, and it happens everywhere. Organizations do not run themselves. This is the glamorous work at the top! Even as I joke about it, I recognize having a seat at the executive leadership table is a privilege. And I'm grateful to have had it for 9 years.

But THIS part of being a Chief Philanthropy Officer shouldn't consume more time and energy than your primary role - raising money, building relationships, developing your team, equipping your CEO and Board to engage supporters or likely supporters. This is your unique value proposition. Your subject matter expertise. This is what your organization, (and certainly those you serve) are counting on YOU to deliver.

Notice I said organizational management shouldn't consume more time and energy than philanthropy-related activities. Time and energy are two distinct things. Let's break down the distinction between time and energy:

Time: the actual number of hours spent on organizational management compared to your time engaged in philanthropy-related priorities. This can be assessed quickly simply by color-coding your electronic calendar and committing to putting EVERYTHING in your calendar. This can be an 'aha moment for many.

When you find the ratio of time spent on organizational management vs fundraising is out of balance, or the scale is tipping further than you like, you can self-correct or talk with your CEO about your time and priorities.

You could suggest adjusting the executive leadership meeting agenda so that items you need to be present for are at the beginning of the meeting, and you can excuse yourself after those items are covered. Maybe you can share your point of view about a specific topic before the meeting in lieu of attending and read the post-meeting action items. It might be mildly annoying to your c-suite colleagues at times, but they'll forgive you when you close those five, six, or seven-figure gifts.

Energy: This one is a little tougher. Do you ever leave a one- or two-hour meeting, and feel so emotionally drained that it's hard to pick up the phone and make those ten donor calls that are on your calendar? Maybe it was a meeting where you didn't feel heard. People talked over you. You felt dismissed. You strongly disagreed with the direction the group is going. You're feeling the pressure to raise even more money to overcome an unplanned reduction in programmatic revenue, earned income, or government reimbursements. The weight can be immobilizing at times.

You need a mechanism to shift your mindset, your mood, your energy so you can do the work you were born to do - the work people are counting on you to do. Our donors and probable donors deserve the best of us! For me, at The Children's Center that might mean grabbing a children's book and going to the lobby to read with children while they wait for their therapist or psychiatrist. It might mean walking around the block in the fresh air and feeling the sun on your face. It could be taking five minutes to read something that inspires you. And then get after it!

Victor Frankel, the author of Man's Search for Meaning and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, said "Between stimulus and response there is a space. That space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

You need a powerful context to inspire you when your spirit is low.


Lesson #2 The safe path isn't that safe.

Playing it safe is seriously over-rated. At my first board meeting at The Children's Center, I said we would approach budgeting conservatively, but I believed we could triple fundraising revenue in three years. I'll never forget the silence that fell over the room. The eyes darting up over their reading glasses. Some wondering if they heard me correctly. And some saying without a word, hell yeah!

Was that safe? Was it safe to speak such an audacious goal out loud? No, of course not. But I had the data. I had done the homework and calculated the impact of:

  • reducing dependency on event-based fundraising
  • increasing our donor retention incrementally each year
  • developing a major donor program
  • expanding relationship-based institutional fundraising
  • applying donor-centric best practices to our multichannel campaign strategy

Thankfully, I had the trust of my CEO and the board (or at least a majority of board members). Trust built over time by consistently delivering excellence no matter the role.

I've found that when you leverage your data, to inform strategy and can project a return on investment.... and can explain that data-informed logic to your CEO and Board, you inspire trust. You establish your expertise. And you can use that data to justify investment in your philanthropy program.

Perhaps this is the year to invest in your philanthropy program. To take a risk. To set budget dollars aside for testing, to pilot a new fundraising idea.

Investment may look like adding staff or enhancing infrastructure. A new donor database management system, wealth screening or prospect research tools, team training, and consulting expertise. As one of my consulting clients said, "Give our team a dollar, we'll turn it into five dollars back to our organization."

You must spend money to raise money. Yes, aspirational growth is risky. Complacency is even riskier.

Lesson #3 Grow your people, and you’ll grow your fundraising results.

My learning curve was huge when it came to the day-to-day management of a team. I've been the entrepreneur, the individual performer. Even in high school sports, I was on the gymnastics team - an individual performer contributing to an overall team score.

For decades, I've been the conference keynote speaker, the workshop trainer, the board retreat facilitator... You see the trend here: I come in to deliver some inspiration, turn-around strategy, and practical 'how-to tactics' to take fundraising to the next level, and then I'm gone until you need me again. A fundraising Mary-Poppins of sorts. It really takes something to live together as a team day-in and day-out.

I've always thought of myself as a great leader and an "okay" manager. To be completely transparent, most days, I didn't find the day-to-day management of people very life-giving - even though I really liked my staff as individuals. Some of you can relate. If you're a Strength Finders fan, my top 5 strengths are Strategic, Futuristic, Activator, Focus, and Achiever. If you're a DISC fan, I'm a high Influencer & Driver/ Low S & C. Day-to-day activities and maintenance mode is not my jam.

Come to me when you don't know how to move a donor relationship forward when you can't get the visit. Come to me when you want to talk through an automated process workflow for monthly giving or create a donor journey. Or when you want to create a 3-year strategic fundraising plan. Let me lead in-house training on donor development or gratitude campaigns. Oh yeah baby, bring it on!!!
But when some staff struggle to consistently get their payroll timesheets in on time or are having a conflict with a peer who is late with agreed-upon deliverables. When staff has a hard time saying 'no thank you to well-intentioned people who want to host a t-shirt fundraiser to benefit your agency, with little to no return on investment.... it sucks the very life out of me to intervene or coach these day-to-day management issues. All necessary issues to be managed, just not issues I enjoy managing.

In hindsight, six months out of the woods, I can see the opportunity to invest more time developing staff to solve their own issues, to source their own solutions, to take a 360-degree view of a given issue or challenge. The time invested in growing the skills, confidence, and competence of staff is almost always the right choice.

Staff yearns to grow and develop themselves, and to share their own expertise and experiences with others. No matter how seasoned a fundraiser you are, there is always more to learn. Including learning fresh perspectives from newer fundraising pros on your team and team members with niche expertise such as peer-to-peer fundraising or institutional fundraising.... the list goes on and on.

Sometimes it feels easier to say, "It's faster to do it myself than to train an already busy staff member in a new fundraising skill or coach them in navigating team dynamics or opportunity evaluation." And that's true from a short-term lens. But the investment of time to train and develop staff in the short-term pays immeasurable long-term benefits:

  • More money raised.
  • Staff satisfaction and retention.
  • Increased donor trust and congruency.
  • Team succession benefits and more.

This reminds me of the African Proverb:

If you want to go fast - go alone.
If you want to go far - go together.

I'm still unpacking this lesson.


Lesson #4 Find your Board Champions.

You won't always have the will and support of the entire board. But you absolutely must find your board champions. The board members who believe in you, who have your back. The board member you can count on to lift up your fundraising achievements and rally the board when fundraising times are tough.

This unicorn of a Board Member is not a 'yes' person who blindly supports you, but rather the person or persons who take the time to understand your strategy. To constructively poke-holes in it. To ask the tough questions, not to make you wrong, but to strengthen the plan or affirm you've done your due diligence. They ask questions so they can get behind the plan, explain it to others, lean into it. And then when the course is set, they're among the first to step up to participate in a manner that leverages their unique expertise, passion, and influence. And THAT is a GAME-CHANGER!

They may or may not also serve on the development committee, and that’s a good thing. One of my biggest board champions was Dan, who chaired the finance and investment committees. A seasoned financial advisor by profession, he understood investment and ROI. He also understood long-term strategy. And no one was more passionate about helping children become the amazing people they were born to be than Dan and his amazing wife, Patricia. They consistently walked the talk:

  • Arrived at board meetings prepared for the consent agenda
  • Served on a Committee (in Dan's case Chaired two committees)
  • Both introduced others to our organization
  • They hosted tables at fundraising events and/or purchased tickets, bid on auction items
  • They gave a personally significant gift every year which was also matched by Dan's employer
  • Both were tremendous champions for the cause of philanthropy

Finding your Board Champions shouldn't be left to luck or good fortune. It's a two-part process that begins with recruitment. Finding people who are passionate about your work, and you've witnessed that passion firsthand in your fundraising efforts and through committee service. They're the people who attend your events, give to your year-end campaign, attend and bring others to your tours, sponsor your programs through their companies or employers. And hopefully, you're recruiting new Board Members from your active committees! That's part II: adhering to a practice that board nominees must have a minimum of demonstrated service on a committee.

I wish you all a Board full of Champions!!


Lesson #5 Find your million-dollar idea.

The Children's Center was founded in 1929, by Senator James Couzens. At the peak of the great depression, the stock market was plummeting, some were so distraught that they were ending their own lives and leaving behind children to fend for themselves. The Children's Center was created to meet the needs of orphaned and abandoned children in need of mental health services.

Fast forward 92 years, nearly 7,500 children and families receive mental and behavioral health services, trauma-informed treatment for abuse and neglect, foster care management, adoption, and independent living - in addition to getting access to the basics like clothing, food, homework help, and enrichment programming.

Whether your organization has been around 92 years or longer, or you're a brand new organization - the board must cast an aspirational - dare I say audacious vision. As fundraising legend, Jerold Panas always said, "People give to the magic of an idea. To change or save lives." You can never lose sight of that. Complacency is the kiss of death to a fundraising program.

It reminds me of a story about a fundraiser - I'll call him John.
John was good at developing relationships with people who cared about his cause. He was fortunate to have a very generous donor named Tom who became his 'go-to' donor. Anytime there was a special need or a fundraising gap, John would call Tom and he would write a check. $5,000 here, $10,000 there. Whatever you need, John - I'm happy to do it!

Our fundraiser John opened the paper one day and saw a photo of his donor Tom. And a headline announcing that Tom had made a $1M gift to another organization. He was gobsmacked! And more than a little hurt. He pouted around his office the entire morning, and by early afternoon he mustered up the nerve to call his donor.

Tom answered on the first ring. "Hi Tom, I saw the paper today. Congratulations, how wonderful for you and for... THEM. But I have to ask, why them? I know you care deeply about our work. Why not us?" To which Tom replied without hesitation, "John, it's very simple, You've never brought me a million-dollar idea."

I shared that story at a Board Retreat The Children's Center hosted in an attempt to shake things up a bit. At that time, our big hairy audacious goal was to, "Be recognized as the best children's mental and behavioral health agency in the nation." Evidence of achievement would include being recognized with a coveted Malcolm Baldrige Award of Excellence.

While aspirational, it's not directly connected to changing or saving lives. Would your donors give so that you can be recognized nationally? Arguably, to be recognized with such a well-respected award does imply that you are excellent at meeting your mission. But I believe the most powerful and compelling aspirations are clear, simple, human, and relevant.

Fast forward four years, the Chief Clinical Officer at Children's Center leaned into the "million-dollar-idea" call to action and set the table for what is now the Crisis to Connection Imperative for our Black Boys. A five-year, $10M dollar trauma-informed approach to dismantling systemic racism and generational poverty that left unaddressed puts Black boys on a fast track to prison, and a lifetime of suffering. Because we believe that when you heal children (and Black boys in particular) you heal Detroit.

What's your million-dollar idea? What transformational, audacious calling would you answer if you knew you could not fail? That, my friends, is your key to the castle. That is the magic of an idea, that will inspire your donors and forever change your community... and dare I say, change the world. DO THAT!

Those are the FIVE most important lessons I learned in 9 years as a Chief Philanthropy Officer. I hope you found them helpful and thought-provoking on your fundraising journey.



About the podcast

Tammy Zonker is the host of The Intentional Fundraiser podcast, and Founder and President of Fundraising Transformed.

This is the podcast where Tammy equips and empowers amazing nonprofit fundraising pros just like you to transform your fundraising so you can transform the world. She'll be sharing fundraising insights, strategies, and inspiration you can use to skyrocket your fundraising results!


About Tammy Zonker

Recognized as one of America’s Top 20 Fundraising Experts, Tammy is an inspiring international speaker and trainer in the discipline of transformational philanthropy. She has led, trained, and coached nonprofit social service organizations, private schools, colleges and universities, and healthcare organizations to raise more than a half-billion dollars, including a single gift of $27.1M.

Tammy is a masterful storyteller, major gifts strategist, and fundraising expert. She’s also a certified AFP Master Trainer. Her passion for donor development and mission impact is contagious, inspiring, and transformational. She pours all of this expertise and passion into her training and speaking to equip and empower others to skyrocket their fundraising results.

She and her partner, brand & marketing strategist R. Trent Thompson, were awarded the “Multichannel Campaign of the Year” and “Campaign of the Year” Gold Awards by Fundraising Success Magazine. She has served as adjunct faculty at Indiana University, technical editor for Wiley Publishing’s “Fundraising for Dummies” third edition, and served on Nonprofit Quarterly’s editorial advisory board.

When Tammy is not speaking at conferences or fundraising, she’s leading webinars, online masterclasses, board, and development team retreats or training, workshops, and coaching her online membership community of Fundraising Transformers.



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