Foundations of Consequence: First 100 Days of a Foundation CEO

By Laura Wilcox    //    Volume 31,  Number 6   //    November/December 2023

Action Items for Your First 100 Days

1. Go on a listening tour.
Meet early and regularly with the institution’s president/chancellor. Get to know your staff. Meet individually with the foundation’s directors; selected former board members; the institution’s governing board members; community leaders; and government officials. Get to know the institution’s leaders: president’s/chancellor’s cabinet members; vice presidents; deans; athletic director; student government leaders. Meet external consultants, corporate partners, key vendors, sponsors, service providers. Meet with key donors and those currently being cultivated for significant philanthropic investments.

2. Review foundational documents.
These include articles of incorporation; MOUs; bylaws; policies; leases; contracts, etc.

3. Get a baseline read on the foundation’s fundamentals.
Review the foundation’s budget; prior year’s audited financial statements; staff performance assessments and compensation; board and committee meeting minutes; annual reports; key correspondence; insurance policies; risk matrix, etc.

4. Get a list of any outstanding commitments to the foundation.
Determine which professional associations, clubs, and civic organizations will be important for you to join on behalf of the foundation and obtain memberships.

5. Create a calendar for the next 12 to 18 months.
Identify events where the foundation should be represented and determine who should attend.

6. Establish clear communication channels and protocols.
This includes communication with the board chair and the president/chancellor of the host institution, as well as communication between the foundation and university administrative and board leadership.

7. Make unrestricted gifts to the institution.
These gifts might be for the academic enterprise and the athletics program, for example.

How does a new foundation CEO ensure long-term success? The first 100 days in office are critical to a successful tenure and depend on the CEO establishing candid, trusting relationships with the institution president, the foundation board, and internal and external stakeholders. Success also depends on the new CEO’s ability to understand the entire gamut of the position’s responsibilities, the corresponding gaps in their experience and expertise, and the means to address limitations.

Five current and former foundation CEOs—J. Michael Goodwin, Rickey N. McCurry, Jane DiFolco Parker, Betheny L. Reid, and Kimera K. Way—offered their insights and expertise on the foundation CEO’s first 100 days during interviews for this article.

Goodwin is former CEO of the Oregon State University Foundation, where he served for 18 years, and is a senior consultant for AGB. McCurry is president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Foundation and vice president of philanthropy and alumni engagement, overseeing all fundraising and alumni engagement for the university. He serves on the AGB Council of Foundation Leaders. Parker is a senior consultant for AGB, former vice president for development at Auburn University, and president of the Auburn University Foundation and Auburn’s Real Estate Foundation. Reid is CEO of Betheny L. Reid & Associates, LLC/eAdvancement Consulting, and is working with AGB on a series of online seminars for community college leaders. Earlier, she was associate vice chancellor for development and president of the Foundation for Dallas County Community College District. Way is CEO of the University of Wisconsin Eau Clair Foundation, an AGB consultant, and serves on the AGB Council of Foundation Leaders.

Tackling the First 100 Days

New foundation CEOs set the tone for a successful tenure early by making good first impressions, asking questions, identifying opportunities, and sharing ideas for possible programs and priorities and means for implementing them, establishing strong relationships, and addressing any issues or challenges within the organization, said Goodwin. “Good working relationships with the board chair, executive committee, and institutional president will help you move your agenda forward,” Goodwin noted. “New CEOs must invest a serious amount of time building those relationships and also getting to know the top donors to the institution.”

Parker called this effort a listening tour and said, “It is vitally important to developing a strong sense of the culture of the institution, how people value it, and also their perceptions of the foundation.” Importantly, this activity can help “create the road map for where you want to go as the foundation CEO,” she added. To develop trust, the new CEO needs to “clearly articulate expectations and to acknowledge past successes. … If you don’t do that coming out of the gate, it becomes more difficult to do so effectively later on,” Parker said. “Clarifying expectations is essential.”

Way also stressed the importance of relationship-building. “If you don’t know who the key influence agents are in terms of your board and donors, and if you don’t understand what your chancellor or president wants for the institution, and especially if you have both the institution’s president and chair of the foundation dictating and directing priorities, you really won’t understand their expectations,” she said.

Beyond building relationships, added McCurry, new foundation CEOs need to understand from the outset that “foundations today have become an integral part of the existence of universities, and their future success—and in some sense the survival of our public universities—is dependent upon our ability to generate financial resources.”

Taking Specific First Steps

Reid noted additional steps a new foundation CEO should take within the first 100 days, among them, she said: “Read and understand all foundation documents, budgets, et cetera; spend formal and informal time with your staff—listen to their needs, wants, and desires; have staff sit in on foundation board meetings to listen to the discussion; debrief with them afterwards asking, ‘What did you hear and understand? How do you think what the president and board are discussing impacts our work?’” Further, Reid advised, “Meet with the college president and foundation board chair together to build relationships and establish the practice of regular communications, planning, priority-setting, discussing what’s working and what’s not working, and common messaging about the foundation and the college.”

Goodwin also emphasized the importance of developing strong messaging early on. New CEOs need to ask, “What are the messages I want to convey? How can I get my messages out? Who do I need to be sure receives the messages?” He advised new CEOs to “get into situations on campus and off where you’re able to talk about the program, where you hope to take it, and what the vision is for the program.” He said being hands-on and learning about the foundation’s committees, how they are staffed, and what the programs are, as well as meeting the academic leadership of the host institution, are essential.

Achieving Alignment

Equipping new foundation CEOs with the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively advance the mission of the host institution requires alignment between the foundation CEO and the president and board of the host institution, Parker emphasized. “The foundation exists only to advance the mission of the host institution,” she said. “Ensuring that the foundation remains in alignment with the host institution is crucial.”

Kimera Way agreed that alignment is necessary so that priorities and expectations are in sync. According to Way, “You can’t have the board chair expecting the foundation CEO to raise money to build buildings while the university president’s highest priority is to raise money for scholarships to recruit and retain students.”

A key to that alignment is for the CEO to develop a deep understanding of the foundation’s structure: Is it completely independent from the host institution or interdependent with it? “Regardless of the structure,” Parker stated, “the CEO must remain in alignment with the institution, but at the same time recognize that it’s a separate legal entity.”

Ensuring alignment between the strategic plans of the host institution and foundation requires working very closely with the academic leadership and devoting time at every board meeting to planning and strategy, Goodwin said. “The optimal situation is when the two organizations talk closely and frequently about their strategic direction and the university provides feedback to the foundation about its organization and priorities, ensuring that the foundation has the tools, people, and financial resources in place to deliver at an anticipated level for the university.”

In the community college setting, Reid explained that the foundation CEO usually also serves as the university’s chief advancement officer and plays the vital role of ensuring alignment between the university and foundation. “The CEO is the linchpin who makes sure that the college president and the foundation board chair are always on the same page.” She added, “the CEO also brings clarity of purpose and focus on the key initiatives and priorities, lays out the plan of action, knows how to bring the right people in at the right time in the right way, and then acknowledges everybody’s contributions.”

Confronting Campaign Challenges

New foundation CEOs are frequently charged with launching and conducting comprehensive capital campaigns. Or they may be stepping into the middle of an ongoing campaign. Cautions Parker, “These campaigns often hinge on the vision of the university president because the strategic goals in the president’s vision or strategic plan typically determine the priorities of a fundraising campaign.” In these situations, understanding the strategic vision of the institution and its established priorities is vital for the foundation CEO’s ability to “develop plans to execute those priorities and raise money to support them,” McCurry added.

Difficulties can arise when academic leaders make decisions about fundraising priorities in the absence of fundraising leadership. “The institution may instruct the foundation to raise money for a particular [project] … without your having been involved in that conversation,” said Parker. “Being involved in the decision-making process about philanthropic priorities is critical.”

While the university president articulates the vision for capital campaigns and is the chief fundraiser and the face of the campaign, the foundation CEO must have executive presence as well. “They have to have gravitas so that when they walk into a room or onto a stage, they make a positive impact, and they are a meaningful face for the institution and for the foundation,” said Parker.

Interviewing Effectively

What should candidates for the CEO position be thinking about as they enter the interview process? What kinds of questions should they be asking? Careful self-discovery and self-evaluation are the first priorities, according to Parker. “The most important questions a candidate should ask him or herself before asking other people questions are: Am I comfortable with ambiguity? Am I comfortable in a situation in which there are going to be multiple people affecting my priorities? Am I comfortable knowing this is not about me?” Parker asserted that successful foundation CEOs are “able to set their egos aside and recognize that there will be competing demands on their time, attention, and aspirations for the institution and to be comfortable with that.”

In addition, the candidates should ask direct questions about the relationship between the university and the foundation: How often does the university president meet with the foundation CEO? Is the CEO a member of the president’s cabinet? Does the CEO have a seat at the president’s table? Who will evaluate the CEO’s performance? Does the CEO have input into the factors that play into that performance assessment? “I think it’s really important that the CEO be involved in those conversations and not just have those factors imposed on him or her,” Parker stressed.

McCurry said that during the interview process, candidates should “dig deep into expectations, CEO roles, the legal standing of the foundation within a particular state, and whether the foundation is subject to open meetings laws or freedom of information requests.”

Way urged candidates to ask, “To whom am I most accountable?” and “What are the expectations of the university and are they realistic?” That way, having accepted the position, “the new CEO is not caught in a power struggle between the university president and foundation board chair.”

Relying on the Foundation Board

During the new CEO’s first 100 days, foundation board members should make sure they have a robust onboarding process in place that will help to position a new foundation CEO for long-term success. Members need to be supportive, make introductions, and be candid about areas where the foundation has been particularly successful or where they see room for improvement or opportunities for success. The board needs to be very clear about expectations, said Way. “Clarity and intentionality about expectations for the new CEO are absolutely essential. … This is a job where you’re measured by your success and failures.”

The members of the executive committee of the foundation board are the most influential in terms of the foundation’s direction and priorities, but also in holding the CEO and staff accountable. “They ensure that we are utilizing the resources that they provide for us to run the operation in an efficient, effective way. They ensure that we’re accountable to our donors and are using money in the way they’ve asked it to be used. They ensure that we are accountable in our investments and that we balance the needs of today with the long-term needs of tomorrow,” said McCurry.

Volunteer board members today can be very different from earlier generations of board members, noted Goodwin, and the new foundation CEO needs to understand that. Whereas two decades ago, he said, “there was a sense that volunteers would want to hear a few presentations at a board meeting, ask a few questions, and have a reception afterwards, today’s volunteers want to devote their time and energy to meaningful activities. They want to be engaged.”

Another difference between boards today and those of yesteryear is the intense focus on risk management. “Squeaky clean financial operations are an imperative in risk management today, which was not an issue for foundations even a decade ago,” Goodwin explained. “There’s a level of sophistication and business acumen that is required today that was not expected previously.”

Reid noted that the single most important role for a community college foundation board is to focus intently on fundraising. The chair of the foundation board “needs to keep the directors focused on what only they can do, which is activating major influential people on behalf of the college, to give a major gift, get a major gift, and bring their network to the table.” Every board meeting should focus on, Reid said, “How can [the board] support the initiatives and the priorities of the college with our philanthropy? Foundation board directors can effect wide positive change for the college with gifts and relationships and bond funding and partnerships and contracts.”

Addressing Cultural Issues

If a new foundation CEO enters an unhealthy culture or an unsuccessful foundation, “it is incumbent upon you to change it,” said Parker, “to do what you can to effect positive change. A good leader is able to assess the health of the organizational culture and then determine how best to change it—to make it a healthier, more welcoming, more productive, more effective culture. The leader sets the tone for the culture in the way he or she operates, interacts with people, sets expectations, dresses, and talks—all of these set the tone for the organization.”

McCurry understood when he began his tenure at the University Nevada Las Vegas Foundation that the organization had been through several leadership transitions and that he had to address a culture of mistrust and a silo mentality. He focused the staff on core values and launched a six-month facilitated process to define five core values, develop a one-sentence statement that reflected each of them, and define a set of behaviors that represented those values. “Then we institutionalized the process,” he explained, “by posting those core values everywhere and establishing a program of recognition in the form of chips [since they are in Las Vegas] to be distributed to staff members who displayed the behavior or core value. By doing this in such a broad way, we laid the foundation for success,” McCurry said.

In addition to focusing on core values, McCurry established a culture of transparency and communication that encouraged asking questions to ensure the staff and other stakeholders know that “nothing is off-limits.” He added, “This helps me to understand what’s on the mind of staff members, what’s driving them, and it lets other staff members understand what their colleagues are thinking about.”

Avoiding Missteps

New foundation CEOs need to be aware of missteps that potentially could hinder success early on. Way urged new foundation CEOs to avoid immediate and rapid change unless there are major challenges or failures in the organization that need to be addressed quickly. “I think you need to try to really understand the culture of the organization, the priorities, the nature of everything before you try to make change,” Way said. Another common misstep, she added, is “not understanding the financial status of the organization” and spending money recklessly. Foundation CEOs “do have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the assets of the foundation.”

Parker also cautioned against changing too much too quickly. “Don’t hit the ground sending emails about all the changes you plan to make. Hit the ground listening, because you don’t necessarily know what you don’t know when you come into this situation. …Don’t let excitement and honest enthusiasm overtake you so that you make bad choices early on.”

McCurry related an early misstep of his own when asked by others, “What is your vision for the foundation?” He answered that question by stating “My vision is this …” and he later realized that was the wrong answer. “I now answer that question by saying, ‘I don’t have a vision’—we will develop a vision together and then work together to create it so that it becomes our vision. If it’s our vision, then we’re more likely to be successful.”

Demonstrating Success

At the end of the 100 days, Way said the CEO “should be able to sit down with the board chair and the chancellor or president of the institution and very quickly articulate the university’s strategic plans and initiatives; the organizational structure and investments of the foundation; proposals for short- and long-term priorities and initiatives; and they should have made a number of good donor calls by then too.” She added, “You can’t be an effective foundation leader if you don’t lead by example, and one of the ways you lead by example is by showing that you can raise money.”

McCurry stressed that managing expectations and establishing timelines and metrics for measuring success are critical. “If at the end of 100 days you know your people and understand your culture and can identify challenges and opportunities, and if you can explain the ways in which you have succeeded—and also what still needs to be accomplished and how to move that goal forward—that is success.”

“Being a successful foundation CEO is like being a symphony conductor,” Reid said, and the individual needs “to own that role from the beginning. What I look for in terms of success is whether the CEO is conducting all of the players—bringing in the president when needed, working with the staff and leadership, working with donors. And it has to be done in a way in which all the players really see themselves as being critical to creating the music. As CEO, I’m helping us get on the same sheet of music—teaching when I need to teach, coaching, advising—and making every one of them realize how critical and valuable they are in creating this whole symphony.”

Laura Wilcox is a communications executive experienced in media relations, project and event management, marketing, strategic communications, and publications.

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