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Home » Fundraising, Fundraising Nightmares, NonProfits, lead story

No Strategic Plan, Unrealistic Expectations—and My Boss is Having an Affair

By Lilya Wagner on May 30, 2012No Comment

As a fundraising professional one of the only assets you truly have is your reputation.  So what would you do if you learned that your married boss, the chief development officer (CDO), was having an ongoing affair with the married chairman of the board?  When I requested a professional friend of mine to give me feedback on some leadership challenges she had encountered, she told me a story that bears repeating in its entirety—and serves once again to underline the point of “watch before you leap.” Not only did this organization have some infrastructure and management problems that she should have noticed before accepting the job (as she herself acknowledges) but these were compounded with moral issues. After hearing her account, we’ll consider how to handle these kinds of tricky and sticky situations when they involve your leadership:

“When I was asked to join an international faith-based organization to serve as the Vice President of Development, I was delighted.  It appeared that this next assignment would be the culmination of my entire professional career––I was going to practice in a field that I loved and for a cause that was very personal to me. Ideal situation for a fundraiser, right? Or so I thought. I started working immediately and was charged with raising $20 million.

Shortly after my orientation, I discovered that the organization did not have an organizational strategic plan nor a fundraising plan.  This was very confusing to me as I was told during my interview process that there was in fact a strategic plan and that it would be presented to me during my orientation.  My first reaction was, ‘surely they wouldn’t lie to me, being a Christian organization—there must be a mistake in communication.’

After my first 90 days I met with the CDO and board chairman for lunch.  It was then that I first suspected that they might be having an affair.  But how could this be, I reasoned?  After all, this was a faith-based organization. Plus, both parties were reportedly happily married.  I shrugged it off but an uneasy feeling kept nagging me.

I soon discovered the key to the CDO’s fundraising success.  The CDO was willing to travel and willing to partner with the chairman in a way that I was not.  The CDO had only one strategy for major gift solicitations and that approach did not require a strategic plan.  The CDO scheduled major donor prospect meetings for the chairman.  The chairman made the ask.  By virtue of who he was––a global icon––people would donate with very few questions asked.  It was peer-to-peer fundraising at its best.   No documentation was needed, no case for support was prepared, it was a simple straightforward request for a donation by the Chairman, “I have given $XXX,XXX and would like you to give $XXX,XXX.”  It worked, but only for the CDO and the chairman.

The rest of the staff were expected to raise cash gifts with no case for support, and no involvement from key leadership.  We had no factual or honest answer to present when asked, ‘What is the money for?  How will it be used?  What is your budget?  How do you measure success?’  The CDO could not understand why any major donor would ask such questions!  She went on to explain that the people she and the chairman met with never asked those types of questions.   I explained that, at the very least, I needed to be able to talk about and present the organization’s strategic plan.  She did not understand what I meant by a strategic plan.

Ethically, I was uncomfortable asking for money when I could not truthfully state what the money would be used for.  Nor could I support a religious organization whose leadership was morally bankrupt.  Fourteen months into the job I terminated my relationship with the organization.  The chairman and the CDO continued their relationship, both parties divorced their spouses and they are currently together.  The chairman of the board was asked to step down.  No funds have been donated since his term as chairman was terminated.  The CDO left the organization.”

My friend then went on to add, “Moral of the story:  Obtain and read the strategic plan before you join any organization.  Leave the organization immediately if you are made aware of or suspect any ethical, moral or legal issues. You are the keeper of your reputation.  No one will protect it better than you.  Trust your instincts after you’ve also faced the facts.”

I’m glad to say my friend went on to be gainfully employed elsewhere but she is still disillusioned and at least somewhat scarred by the experience. Her experience was truly a combination of the practical with the ethical and moral, and it’s hard to say what, if anything, could have been done had she stayed. Perhaps a few closing thoughts might spur your thinking and if so, we would like to hear your suggestions.

First, address the practical aspects of your possible job based on your professionalism and professional experience. Ask for the plan and don’t be put off. If there is no plan, discreetly and courteously explore why such doesn’t exist. Second, clarify what kind of a case you will make for funding. Since there is no plan, who decides and how about what funds should be raised. Not having a case to make can be a major nightmare—if your cause is worthy, donors can be found, but not if you can’t present a compelling and factual case. Third, ask to meet with some staff and board members and ask professional questions about expectations. If they hesitate, look at each other and avoid eye contact with you, or are vague in their responses, be cautious. Keep your antennae up and don’t be fooled by your own enthusiasm and confidence that you CAN tackle any job! Finally, know when to exit. There are far worse things that can happen to us besides a short-term stay in a fundraising job.

My thanks to my friend who provided this incident and experience, who of course wishes to remain anonymous.

Comments, suggestions, even arguments are most welcome. Our colleagues in nonprofit management and fundraising can always use fresh approaches, new answers to old questions, and thought-provoking ideas. Dr. Lilya Wagner, CFRE, is an experienced fundraiser, consultant, editor and author, teacher and trainer. She can be reached at

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