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The Big Misconception: Reporting to the CEO

As health care philanthropy executives, we are frequently told that to be successful, we need to report directly to the CEO. It’s not rocket science to know that if a strong and effective relationship is formed with our CEO, our work becomes an extended and parallel vision of the CEO throughout the community. We also need to fully understand the strategic direction of the organization in order to create alignment and build a compelling case for philanthropic support. More importantly, we must be aware of the overall strategic plan, why it’s relevant to the organization’s future success, as well as how it will be implemented. The optics of reporting to the CEO not only elevates the importance of philanthropy internally among the C-Suite and broader organization, it also sends a powerful message that philanthropy is a critical component to the overall strategy and long-term strength of the health care organization.

However, many CEOs are reluctant to expand their slate of direct reports due to time constraints and concerns of not providing substantial time to philanthropy leaders. Hesitancy is also due to C-Suite meeting agendas burdened with operational issues, which may seem irrelevant and wasted time for philanthropy leaders. These are valid reasons to ponder and may be the reason for a different reporting structure. But does reporting structure really impact success?

What if we took an alternative route by reporting to another executive leader, one who can mentor us, support us and be our champion throughout the organization?

Are we doing our profession a disservice by continually touting what may truly just be a misconception—that to be successful we must report to the CEO? Are we fixating on the wrong objective while potentially sending the message to our fellow health care executives that if we don’t report to the CEO, we can’t be effective? What if we took an alternative route by reporting to another executive leader, one who can mentor us, support us and be our champion throughout the organization? Might this be a more effective structure as opposed to the perception that value and impact only exists when philanthropy leaders report directly to the CEO? How can we have a rich and trusting relationship with the CEO, especially if we aren’t a direct report?

Let’s shift the narrative from ideal to strategic. Let’s start by asking ourselves some questions. Who can help and guide me…

…to cultivate a robust culture of philanthropy?

…to ensure I have a seat at the table when strategic discussions are taking place?

…to assist in navigating our complex health care environment?

…by investing in my abilities for continual growth?

…by being an inspirational leader, sharing their experiences and knowledge as a mentor, leader and coach?

Unfortunately, reporting structures often impact the perceived value of a philanthropy executive, but it shouldn’t prevent the philanthropy leader from being strategic or driving impact. By aligning ourselves with key leaders, we can position ourselves to be part of strategic discussions. Our expertise as philanthropy leaders is about developing deep, trusting relationships with our donors, so we must exercise those same skills within the C-Suite to position ourselves for unparalleled success.

In John C. Maxwell’s book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, he states, “Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.” Influence is the most critical ingredient necessary to lead. What behaviors are necessary for us to develop as health care executives to strengthen our leadership skills? Improve relationship skills to be more effective health care executives by fostering the following behavior and approaches:

  • Exhibit strong expertise in the art and science of philanthropy by demonstrating how it enhances the mission of the organization, thus building trust and credibility with the C-Suite.

  • Think at the level of the enterprise rather than restricting views to just philanthropy through elevating mindset, demonstrating value and positioning ourselves as trusted partners and leaders within the system.

  • Display strong executive presence particularly through strategic voice, knowing when to sit and just listen and providing context for the desired message.

  • Position ourselves as true collaborators and partners by building positive working relationships with senior leaders, helping them to advance their areas by helping provide solutions that will help them reach their goals.

  • Learn to bend and compromise while demonstrating the ability to see an issue from another point of view beyond just our own.

  • Exude wisdom, maturity, expertise and gravitas to be perceived as indispensable, one to provide solutions with a “can do” attitude.

Philanthropy executives who don’t report to the CEO can still be viewed as critical strategic health care executives and business partners. We just need to maximize organizational influencing skills to strategically elevate philanthropy. Understanding and conveying the value and impact philanthropy can have to our business partners in the C-Suite, combined with strong trusting relationships, can be more important than the misconception that the answer lies only when reporting to the CEO.

Are we risking success if we do not report directly to the CEO? Absolutely not. Regardless of who we report to, we can thrive in our mission achievement. It is vital, however, to have regularly scheduled time with our CEOs to stay abreast of strategic initiatives while also keeping him or her apprised of current issues and trends that influence philanthropic strategy for the health care system. We also want continuous engagement between our CEOs and donors, of which we must be the coordinators and connectors. We must concentrate more on strengthening our relationships with all C-Suite executives to bridge alignment rather than focusing on what we may not have through reporting lines. It is not who we report to that matters, but how we position ourselves, as well as philanthropy alignment, within our organizations.

Accordant Perspectives_Big Misconception
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About the Author: Lori J. Counts, FAHP, CFRE, is a certified executive coach and Principal Consultant with Accordant. She specializes in executive coaching, board development and training, as well as program assessments and capital campaign fundraising. You can reach her by email at or by connecting through LinkedIn.


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The Accordant Team has published a number of books to advance the efforts of health care philanthropy and help development leaders everywhere. 

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Accordant is honored to collaborate with American Hospital Association Trustee Services to provide issue papers, templates and webinars to support the involvement of healthcare trustees and foundation board members in advancing philanthropy. These resources can also be found on the AHA Trustee website.

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