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A three-legged stool

Neil Rowe Miller

Nine years ago, Neil Rowe Miller came to World Hunger Relief, Inc. (WHRI) and found out there was a development officer on staff. “Great,” he thought, “I can just focus on developing the organization and won’t have to be out knocking on doors.” He soon learned it wasn’t that easy–that people want to talk to the executive director. By now, WHRI has actually reconfigured its staff to not include a separate development officer. Neil was one of the respondents in an informal AAI survey of CEOs, and had this to say about his role in development.

“Unless a stool has at least three legs, it doesn’t stand. That’s how I feel about my role in development too. Here are three ways I contribute to development as a CEO.

1. By helping the organization to implement excellence in programming. That might not be something you think of as “development,” but if you have a product you believe in, it’s easy to get others involved.

2. By guiding the overall approach to development. By that, I mean striking the right balance and the right tone for development efforts, including grant writing, donor acquisition and donor relations. For a larger organization, that might not be part of the CEO’s job; in our case, it is.

3. By building relationships with foundation reps and with individual donors. We have basically three income streams, one of which is individual donations. Over my nine years here, the other two sources of income have increased consistently and significantly. For years I scratched my head wondering why our donor income stayed mostly flat. Rich [Gerig] assured me that we had good programs, that we were telling the story, that it would happen. Now, at a time when a lot of organizations have struggled, each of the last two fiscal years our donor income has increased by 10-20%. I ascribe that to two things.

First, finally, working on developing program and telling our story is beginning to pay off. There may have been a lag time for people to figure out they could and should help us to achieve financially what they already believed in philosophically.

Second, a trend that keeps surfacing in my reading is that, if donors are giving to numerous causes, a tough economy will push them to make some decisions. Rather than cutting back on their giving across the board, they’ll keep supporting those they feel are most critical and drop the ones they feel are more marginal. We have worked hard at raising people’s respect for and support of what we do so that when we go into tough times, having done that ground work, people stick with us. For me that’s been very satisfying because, more than getting dollars, we also get the message from our donors that they support what we’re doing and what we’re about.”