How to Honor a Great, Lame-Duck CEO Through Fundraising

Author: Cedric Richner, CFRE

When a long-standing CEO held in high regard steps down, the role of fundraising around his/her legacy can and should be considered.  Often, non-profit boards choose to bestow a variety of “gifts” on their departing CEOs.  These gifts range from such things as cruises to framed art related to the mission.

Sometimes, non-profit boards choose to express their gratitude through the establishment of an endowment named for the departing CEO and, often, their spouse or significant other.

Typically, the endowment benefits a part of the organization for which the CEO has a deep love and commitment.  For example, a university president for whom increasing endowed scholarships to create greater access to the institution might precipitate the “Joan Doe Endowed Scholarship Fund” and might include direction around the purpose of the endowment to be a need-based scholarship fund.

If the organization wants to honor their departing CEO in this way, the next question becomes how the endowment should be funded.  Sometimes boards will choose to “seed” the fund with board designated funds.  For example, a board may choose to designate $50,000 to the fund so that it meets the minimum threshold for endowed funds under the organization’s policy.

Many organizations cannot afford to designate funds in this manner.  In these instances, a quiet fundraising “campaign” can be undertaken.  Typically, this a low-key affair, as fundraising is often most successfully handled when it is about the future, not the past. The intent is to achieve a certain number quietly and discretely.  For example, an organization might set a goal of $100,000 and seek funding from the board and a small handful of major donors.  The idea is to make sure whatever goal is set is achieved.  It won’t be special to announce that “we hoped to raise $100,000, but could only come up with $37,500 for your legacy!”

Then, at an appropriate ceremony for the outgoing CEO, the new endowed fund is unveiled: “We are proud to announce the Joan Doe Scholarship Fund and it is already endowed to the tune of $100,000 completely provided by grateful donors.”

Often, there is a public announcement and the organization will invite additional donations: “Some of you here today might wish to add to the endowed scholarship fund.  There are pledge cards on the back table.”

Sometimes, following the public announcement, a direct mail or social media campaign might be launched to allow donors with more modest capability to participate.

The benefits of this approach are numerous:

  • It is a great way to, in part, recognize a great CEO (they can still give the cruise, too!)
  • It is mission-centric
  • It provides an organization with a way to highlight an endowment that is appropriate, and that permanent funds of this kind are vitally important to the future
  • It provides a means for more modest donors to contribute to an endowment