The No. 1 Way to Destroy Your Chief Development Officer

“I felt disappointed.”

That is what one chief development officer (CDO) said when questioned about the budget he had been assigned. We were in conference, and I was part of the audience.

This disappointment meant, “My leadership doesn’t see me as successful. They don’t believe what I say. Maybe I’m not that good. What am I missing? They must be looking for someone new. I should start looking.”

This CDO had presented a revenue budget to his CEO that was reality-based, taking into account what was in the pipeline and measures for growth. What he got back was a number that was more than two-and-a-half times the 10 percent growth the organization had attained in the prior year, which the organization considered a failure. This is a real-life example of the No. 1 way to destroy a CDO.

Why would a CEO assign a revenue budget that the person in charge of revenue feels is unrealistic? How do these two people get to that place? Here are some possibilities:

  1. The CEO thinks the CDO is under-promising in order to over-deliver.
  2. The CEO has been presented with an unrealistic goal from the board. In this case, the CEO and CDO are in the same bed, though the CDO may not know it.
  3. The CEO has blown smoke up the board members’ skirts, making it believe the number is attainable. The CEO believes it himself or herself. It is a not a hard story to sell to a board that wants to be heroic, and there is no one in the room to refute it.

What will happen next? When presented with unrealistic (perceived or otherwise) goals, humans react in predictable fashion. Most are not able to “Captain Kirk” their way around it. (Reference Kobayashi Maru test for the uninitiated.) Something has to give, and sometimes it gives in strange ways that have massive, long-lasting and negative impacts.

In the nonprofit world, here is what I see happening in response to unrealistic goals:

  • Incredibly capable CDOs are ousted. People, who may not have been given true pictures of expectations and resources, are put in their places. These incomers are sometimes victimized by misinformation as much as the CDO who was ousted. Sometimes those people have an unrealistic view of their own abilities or believe, “It’s a nonprofit. How hard can it be?”
  • Field staff and middle management begin to manipulate income to meet goals. Sometimes they leave event books open for longer than the year before, borrowing from next year to make a goal this year. Sometimes they put major gifts in other columns. Regardless of how the money moves around, it makes realistic revenue and expense projection almost impossible. If you don’t know where the skeletons are (which you only would know if you were part of manipulating the past budget), you’ll be victimized unless you go to zero-based budgeting, which almost never happens.
  • In the face of highly probable failure, sometimes field staff and middle management quit, whether they physically leave the job or not.
  • CDOs quit talking to their CEOs and boards in meaningful ways, having been told with the unsubstantiated-by-reality budget-revenue assignment, “We don’t believe what you say.”

A revenue goal that is not tied to a logical plan to achieve it is just a hope. A revenue goal perceived as unrealistic by those charged with raising it, delivered as a response to a budget negotiation instead of being built into a strategic session with important stakeholders, is just hope. It is a basketball shot from the far foul line, a spiral from the far 5-yard line, a bet on a hole-in-one on a par 5.

In an industry built on hope, it’s ironic that poorly directed hope can destroy important people. “I felt disappointed.” Destructive hope. Hope is not a plan.