Jeff Immelt was a sales guy

Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, was a sales guy.  So was Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM, and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft.  In fact, Steve Ballmer started in sales at Proctor and Gamble, selling something called the “Coldsnap Freezer Dessert Maker.”   Better yet, while selling the Coldsnap, Steve shared an office with Jeff Immelt, another entry-level sales guy.

When you’re a Fortune 50 company looking for your next CEO, you often pull from the ranks of your top salespeople.  Why?  Because they spend all their time talking to your top customers, who are, in turn, the lifeblood of your business, not just today but into the future.

What about in the nonprofit sector?  A friend of mine who is a very successful nonprofit fundraiser describes fundraising jobs as “the best-paid unfilled jobs in the world,” and while I don’t know all the data, every time I check out the Chronicle of Philanthropy job site I see more unfilled “fund raising” [sic] jobs than any other (today’s count: 233 fundraising, 151 Executive, 98 program, 82 administrative.)  It strikes me that if nonprofit fundraising jobs (sales jobs, right?) were where nonprofit Boards looked for their next CEOs, then this wouldn’t be the case.

My chicken-and-egg question is: why isn’t the “Head of Development” job the proving ground for future nonprofit Executive Directors and CEOs?  Successful EDs and CEOs spend most of their time in external-facing roles (representing the organization, raising funds, working with the Board, creating strategy and positioning and owning the brand and thinking about organizational growth), so shouldn’t at least a typical stepping stone to the CEO role be the top fundraising job?

It isn’t and I wonder if this is because:

  1. Fundraising jobs are confined to the proverbial “boiler room” in the organization – not seen or heard from, with most organizations actively insulating these people from the “important stuff” (including, ironically, interaction with the Board, which is the Executive Director’s job)?
  2. The low status of fundraising self-perpetuates the problem – status is low, so it is hard to get the best people into these roles and harder still to keep them.  As a result, the development staff often isn’t positioned to be the next crop of nonprofit CEOs?
  3. Fundraising professionals, over the years, get so disconnected from the program work that they don’t make good CEOs?
  4. I’m just flat-out wrong – lots and lots of nonprofit CEOs came from careers in nonprofit fundraising?
  5. Something else

This matters because in order to have growth and large-scale impact, nonprofits need to mobilize resources.  And if we could find a way to bring the best people into fundraising roles (however broadly conceived), and if we could groom them to become world-class at mobilizing capital and at creating the best deep, innovative, lasting partnerships, we would take a huge step forward in cultivating a different kind of leader for our sector.

6 thoughts on “Jeff Immelt was a sales guy

  1. re your twit: ‘but why is it either/or – programme vs development staff close to “the real work” ?

    In practical terms I think the breakdown happens at the next rung above country director level. CDs in my experience (the good ones anyway!) have a watching brief on internal functions, but fundamentally spend their time facing outward, representing the org, in fundraising, media and policy/advocacy contexts. Curiously, above that, the jobs seem to get more internally focused; more about issues concerning spending resources than securing them, about managerial efficiency and change/reform, before popping out at the top to the CEO who is externally oriented on a daily basis. Which for most I think breeds the perception amongst the top management team is that f/raising can and is done as a sub-critical function.

    Perhaps more fundamentally though, “sales” (fraising) in NGOs is just a means to the end — regardless of all the invovlement in strategy, brand and orgn development — due to the customer/consumer disjunction; whereas in business sales IS the end, and therefore given due prominence at senior levels?

  2. Cynan, what you’re saying makes sense to me but then I got lost along the way. Are you saying the Country Director job becomes internally focused and then that person becomes CEO and is outwardly focused again? And can you connect the dots from that to fundraising as sub-critical?

    I’m intrigued by the customer/consumer disjunction, but admit I’m not convinced yet. I think one either thinks of funders as “just money” or not, and given the overlap between funders and nonprofit Boards of Directors (let alone that even non-Board top funders are obviously deep strategic partners), how can we (artificially) separate out the people (dev director) who have such significant interaction with those who have ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the organization (Board) from the leadership track of most nonprofits?

  3. No sorry, was saying that the roles in senior management which sandwich inbetween the CD and the CEO (excluding both) are the ones that get more internally focused and/or policy focused.

    And so everyone in top management roles, who has come up through international experience, bar the actual CEO at the top and the Marketing/Dev Director, remember fraising as something they did in a more junior role earlier in their career — and therefore its seems subcritical now that now they’ve moved on upwards to obviously more important things.

    To your second para in last comment — I agree! But I wonder if the answer is that many Dev directors in large NGOs today come in sideways – either from orgs working in a different sector, or from private sector marketing backgrounds, and so are seen more as hired guns than people with a deep understanding of the orgn’s strategy and how to implement it, achieve it (as well as fund it).

    Suspect I’m being explanatory rather than providing particular insight!

  4. Yes this makes sense and an interesting point you make about where Dev directors come from (“hired guns [rather] than people with a deep understanding of the orgn’s strategy and how to implement it….”). Would be curious to hear more from others. Thanks for your comments.

  5. This is completely anecdotal, based on my own experience:

    The ultimate goal in the business sector is profit. The ultimate goal in the nonprofit world is fulfilling a mission. A salesperson rakes in the money and directly creates the profit. In a nonprofit it’s the programmers, not the fundraisers, who fulfill the mission. So it’s flipped: in business, product supports the money; in nonprofits, money supports the product.

    With that in mind, many people with ties to a cause often worry that business-minded people in executive positions will become more concerned with bottom line than fulfilling a mission. For example, the trend of science museums curating Harry Potter exhibitions. The exhibitions bring in lots of money, but their link to the mission is dubious.

    Many disagree on this issue, but that’s often the concern I see, particularly with people involved in cultural institutions. Right or wrong, the perception is that an MBA will sacrifice mission for money and that a curator/social worker/activist will keep the focus on the impact the organization has.

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