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.