Designing Powerful Partnerships II: From the CEO's Corner. Why Me?

Written By: Susan Holt

Written By: Susan Holt

(This is the second in a series of three blogs on designing internal and external partnerships for development staff and institutional executives.)

A past blog (Design Partnerships:  What do your philanthropic partnerships look like?) focused on the Chief Development Officers’ role in creating powerful internal partnerships to support philanthropy.  In this article, I want to turn our focus to the CEO’s unique role in building effective philanthropic partnerships.  Although this blog is written with health care institutions in mind, many of the concepts may creatively be applied to other nonprofit institutions.

Our health care landscape continues to be faced with unprecedented challenges and uncertainty.  The demands placed on CEO’s to navigate this ever-changing territory are similarly unparalleled.  Losing sight of the power philanthropy plays in achieving vision and mission, even as external demands mount, may come at an enormous opportunity cost.

One of the most critical determinants to successful philanthropic partnerships is leadership. Leadership provides vision.  It sets the institutional tone and influences culture. Great leaders have the potential to inspire, motivating even the most contrary.   Great leaders are a trusted guide through difficult times, seeing beyond the immediate challenge.  They can imbue confidence and communicate optimism towards achieving shared goals. And, great leaders understand the power of consultative partnerships, internally and externally to their institution, and seek out powerful partnerships and alliances.

As worthy as it may be, this blog is not going to spend time examining the many different leadership styles.  Instead, I want to focus on practical approaches the healthcare CEO can take to build strong internal partnerships that will strengthen external relationships.

Many partnerships.  One agenda.

Before looking at external partnerships, we have to make sure our internal partnerships are in order.  Otherwise, the result will be confusion, a lack of alignment and lost opportunities.

In high performing fundraising programs, the CEO, in partnership with the board and Chief Development Officer, sets the philanthropic agenda and affirms it as one of the institutional priorities.  The CEO sets the tone for philanthropy and contributes significantly to the philanthropic culture.  The CEO play a leadership role in articulating the vision for philanthropy’s impact – hopefully through thoughtful storytelling - and demonstrates a commitment to its success coupled with an optimism that will inspire others.  It is critical that the CEO lead by example, demonstrating a strong partnership with the CDO as a valued member of the institution’s executive team. 

Too often, institutional agendas and budgets are vetted and finalized without the participation and input of the philanthropy leader and staff.  It is important the CEO assures the CDO’s seat at the table including the board’s long range or strategic planning, regular board meetings or town hall meetings that engage physicians.  In each case, the CEO has the opportunity to make sure that philanthropy is not an after thought, but instead is valued as one of the pillars of the institution. The physicians, executive leadership group and other staff will be influenced by the CEO’s cues, however overt or nuanced.  The confidence expressed by the CEO in the philanthropic enterprise and the strength of the partnerships he or she forges will set the stage for partnerships to develop throughout the organization.

Ultimately, the CEO, board chair and CDO must be aligned to assure that each is able to leverage the other’s unique role with a goal of maximizing philanthropic performance.  When the CEO demonstrates a true partnership with the CDO, and the philanthropy team, it inspires others, especially board members, physicians and others on the executive team, who may be less comfortable with their role in philanthropy but who are critical partners in the process.  Forming a strong partnership between the CEO and CDO, and ultimately with the board chair, takes intentional work.  At the end of the day, the three­ – CEO, CDO and Chair of the Board – need to be able to articulate how they are working together, while acting individually, to advance the most meaningful and the most significant gifts to the institution.

Five practical tips for CEO’s in designing strong internal philanthropic partnerships that support your philanthropic culture:

1.   Assess how you are contributing to the philanthropic culture:  Make a habit each quarter, with the CDO, to evaluate the philanthropic fund performance and the position of philanthropy in the institution’s daily affairs.  Is the CDO not only attending the senior executive meetings, but also participating in the agenda and engaging other executive leaders?  How is philanthropy represented at regular staff and physician meetings? Is the team being educated about philanthropy?  Where and how are you communicating your vision for philanthropy?  For a practical guide for measuring your hospital’s philanthropic health, refer to VPG’s “Measuring Your Philanthropic Culture”.

2.     Provide regular access:  Good partnerships are built on regular and trusted communication.  With the CDO, agree to a dependable schedule of regular face-to-face communication that is based on a productive agenda and identified outcomes. Include the CDO in a regular schedule of meetings with the board chair, specifically with a goal of maximizing donor relationships, their giving and stewardship. A greater degree of interaction will be needed between the CEO and CDO to assure productive outcomes with the board chair.

3.     Make a place for philanthropy at the planning table:  With the CDO, examine how he or she can both participate in and contribute to the institution’s strategic planning process. As philanthropy plays an increasing role in not only sustaining critical operations but enabling strategic growth, the CDO can provide valuable insight on fund projections and donor resonance as well as opportunity.  The CDO’s appropriate participation in this process also positions the CDO to build important alliances within the institution while promoting communication.

4.     Examine philanthropy’s presence at board meetings: Is philanthropy and importantly philanthropic stories regularly a part of the board meetings?  Is the CDO positioned, with the development chair, to present at these meetings? With the CDO, determine the desired outcomes that position your philanthropic agenda with your board and at board meetings and retreats.

Doctors in Surgery.jpg

5.     Support and foster collaboration with physicians:  A robust relationship between your philanthropy team and the physicians is tantamount to the success of the philanthropic enterprise. It is also an area most physicians typically shy away from.  Ultimately, it is up to the CDO and the team to develop these relationships.  However, the CEO can play an important leadership role, endorsing the CDO, and promoting and positioning philanthropy as an essential activity.  Identify highly visible opportunities, such as town hall meetings, regular physician/staff meetings, or other events, to involve the CDO as a partner and presenter.  Leading by example, modeling behavior and inspiring participation in the philanthropy enterprise through your own participation, helps to uniquely position the CDO and the team to do their best job. 

Please watch for our final blog in this series, “Winning Partnerships that Maximize Philanthropy”.  It will discuss how to use these powerful internal partnerships to build highly effective external ones.

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