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Abilities and Traits of Leading Chief Advancement Officers

University Business, May 2012

Whether it’s facing a modest or mega fundraising campaign, or an institution is between campaigns, having the most effective person leading the advancement effort is important for success. But, until now, there’s been little research on the characteristics of an effective chief advancement officer.

That’s what led Jon Derek Croteau, a senior consultant at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, and Zachary A. Smith, assistant vice chancellor of development at the University of California, Riverside, to create the Advancement Leadership Competency Model. This model, featured in their book Making the Case for Leadership: Profiles of Chief Advancement Officers in Higher Education (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2012), identifies the strengths shared by accomplished advancement executives.

“Notable CAOs across the country share core qualities that help them lead their organization in successful outreach,” said Croteau. “Current executives can use the Advancement Leadership Competency Model to hone their skills, while higher education institutions can use them to guide the hiring and development of the position.”

The 14 characteristics and abilities/skills, collected from in-depth interviews with fundraising leaders and analysis of industry data, are:

  • Intellectual curiosity

  • Effective communication skills

  • Self-awareness

  • An ability to think critically

  • Tenacity

  • Thoughtfulness about organizational culture

  • A focus on excellence

  • An ability to motivate, inspire, and influence

  • An ability to tolerate ambiguity

  • An ability to accept responsibility and lead by example

  • A belief that talent management should be a high priority

  • A passion for the mission of the organization

  • Strong interpersonal skills

  • An ability to think strategically

In an interview via email, Croteau and Smith said that, with fundraising more data driven and analytical than in the past, the abilities to think critically and strategically are especially important today. And with the need to develop high-performing organizations to reach “stretch campaign goals,” thoughtfulness about organizational culture and a belief in prioritizing talent management are also key right now.

When asked about which of the characteristics apply most specifically to chief advancement officers, Croteau and Smith replied that the ability to tolerate ambiguity as well as strong interpersonal skills were especially relevant to CAOs.

Further research will explore the above leadership competencies and their relevance to the CAO position.