Job Openings >> Chief Development Officer
Chief Development Officer
Title:Chief Development Officer
Sparking compassion, curiosity, and conservation for the aquatic animal world.

Chief Development Officer
Shedd Aquarium
Chicago, Illinois

Shedd Aquarium (“Shedd” or “the aquarium”), one of the oldest and most highly respected aquariums in North America, seeks an experienced fundraising executive to serve as its chief development officer (CDO). This is a career-defining opportunity to partner with a committed president and CEO, lead an exceptional team, and guide a comprehensive development program to achieve historic levels of philanthropy. The opportunity becomes available at an urgent moment as the world faces increasing threats to aquatic life and ecosystems—and at an important milestone in the aquarium’s history. Shedd recently launched its Centennial Commitment, an ambitious Strategic Plan to mark the aquarium’s 100th birthday in 2030. While boldly planning for its future, Shedd remains anchored to its compelling strategic mission focused on compassion for animals, curiosity about animals and their ecosystems, and conservation to protect wild species and wild spaces in an increasingly urbanized world.

Reporting directly to President and CEO Bridget C. Coughlin, the CDO will direct all fundraising and membership efforts across the aquarium, and successfully lead the current campaign as well as secure annual operation funding. Working in close collaboration with senior staff and board leadership, the CDO will expand and broaden the organization’s base of individual, foundation, corporate, and government philanthropic support, as well as its general membership. Additionally, the CDO will direct special giving initiatives and partner with the president and board development committee to drive data-informed and donor-centric engagement approaches. Importantly, the CDO is part of the aquarium’s executive leadership team (ELT), a cohesive group committed to guiding the organization at the highest level and ensuring that Shedd is among the most respected and far-reaching aquariums in the world. As part of the ELT, the CDO will contribute to setting the overall organizational strategic plan, priority setting, and alignment across the entire enterprise.

The CDO will be a skilled, decisive, and inclusive fundraising leader with awareness of and interest in the conservation of aquatic environments and their inhabitants. The ideal candidate must demonstrate superb skills and success in donor cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship at major and principal gift levels; significant experience managing diverse teams and programs within a sophisticated development operation across a campaign life cycle; a record of developing and implementing effective fundraising and engagement strategies; and excellent communication and listening skills. The CDO will serve as a unifying force for the organization and excel at working in a consensus-driven, collaborative environment, while simultaneously establishing and adhering to clear expectations of accountability and quality. Finally, the CDO must be an active community member who embraces the culture and values of Shedd Aquarium.

Shedd has engaged Jack Gorman of Isaacson, Miller to assist with this important search. Inquiries, nominations, and applications should be sent in strict confidence to the search firm as indicated at the end of this document.

The founding of the Shedd Aquarium began with the establishment of the not-for-profit Shedd Aquarium Society in 1924, supported by a $2 million donation from John G. Shedd. Walter Chute, who would become the aquarium’s director, worked with architects to create the state-of-the-art Shedd Aquarium which opened its doors in 1930. At the time it was the largest aquatic animal facility of its kind. Since then, the aquarium has expanded twice to include the Abbott Oceanarium (1991) and Wild Reef (2003).

Since its founding, Shedd Aquarium has continued a trajectory as one of the leading aquariums in North America. Shedd is aligned with renowned organizations including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago Park District, Museums in the Park, International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These partnerships demonstrate its commitment to fostering a love and understanding of aquatic life and a commitment to conservation on an international, national, and local level.

A pillar in the Chicago community for generations, Shedd Aquarium welcomes approximately two million guests annually, cares for over 32,000 animals, and maintains one of the most diverse aquatic collections in the world with more than 1,500 species. Shedd is governed by the Shedd Aquarium Society, composed of volunteer corporate, civic, and community leaders that make up the board of trustees with the primary responsibility for governance oversight and fiduciary accountability, as outlined in the Society’s bylaws. The board provides strategic direction for institutional priorities through work in both governance and programmatic committees.

Shedd is committed to partnering with people at home and around the globe to build a world thriving with aquatic life, sustained by people who love, understand, and protect it. This work is framed through key initiatives including Care and Conservation, Taking Action for Animals, Research, and Sustainability.

Shedd is in a strong financial position with attendance holding at two million visitors a year. Financial and physical guest access has been and remains a key priority of the leadership of Shedd and more than 600,000 visitors attend annually at no cost. As the physical plant transforms, physical access will also improve. An economic driver in the region, Shedd’s current economic impact is approximately $360 million annually and employs more than 388 Chicagoland residents.

Financials and Philanthropy
Shedd receives support from individual contributors, corporations, foundations, and government agencies including the Chicago Park District, the City of Chicago, and the State of Illinois. Shedd’s tradition of philanthropy remains essential to ensuring its mission, and Shedd aims to fully leverage philanthropic dollars to advance a world thriving with aquatic life: comprehensive of all fundraising revenue and expenses, the aquarium’s cost to raise a dollar is $0.08. In 2021, Shedd generated $53.7 million in operating revenue through the following sources: earned revenue (63 percent), charitable giving and membership (29 percent or $15.6 million), and the Chicago Park District (8 percent).

Centennial Commitment
In 2022, Shedd announced its Centennial Commitment, a $500 million, eight-year effort to prepare the aquarium for its next 100 years by accelerating access and connection to nature for all and amplifying ways to care and conserve to ensure an equitable, sustainable, and thriving future for people and aquatic life. More than half of the $500 million investment will power the programs and partnerships needed to achieve Centennial Commitment’s aspirations onsite as well as in communities, on the water and in nature, in virtual experiences and informal learning engagements, and through new and expanded onsite and field-based research and science portfolios centered on advancing durable solutions for the dual and intersecting threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. The remaining investment will focus on needed physical improvements to the historic Beaux-Arts-style building, modernizing aquarium galleries and experience, enabling greater accessibility, enhancing animal care and welfare, restoring architectural features, and creating a more welcoming outdoor area. The half-a-billion dollar endeavor is fueled by a fundraising campaign, bond dept, cash reserves and an investment from Shedd’s endowment.

The key strategic drivers moving Shedd forward are: Expand the aquarium’s reach and access; Personalize engagement; Celebrate, sustain, and protect a thriving, living collection; Safeguard species and nature; Partner for enhanced impact and connectivity; Ignite Chicago’s economic recovery and mobility; and Steward the next generation of enthusiasts and advocates. Responding to the key strategic drivers, three commitment areas—For People, For Communities, For Aquatic Life—structure Shedd’s ambitions to develop creative guest engagements on site at the aquarium and to cultivate relationships that connect people to aquatic life out in nature, in cities and communities, and online in the digital world.

Centennial Commitment outcomes will include the structural transformation of how divisions operate internally and how the aquarium engages externally. Opportunities for collaboration will flow both across the organization, in the region, nationally, and internationally. Following this transformation, the expected economic impact of the aquarium will exceed $410 million annually.

More about the Centennial Commitment can be found here:

Shedd’s accrediting organization, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, published a comprehensive story about the aquarium’s plans for the future in the June 2022 issue of their magazine, Connect. Read the full article here:

Experience Master Plan
The aquarium’s new Experience Master Plan is one component of the Centennial Commitment’s multi-layered plans. It aims to honor the historical integrity of the building’s unmistakable architecture while augmenting spaces for the needs of guests and the over 25,000 animals that call Shedd home today.

The multi-year, four-phase construction project began in late 2022 and is expected to conclude in 2026 with new galleries, programs, and experiences opening each year on a rolling basis. Project highlights include: a modernized guest experience; more complex aquatic habitats; enhanced animal welfare; a new learning commons; a centralized science hub; greater physical accessibility; and activated outdoor spaces.

Reporting to the president and CEO and serving as a key member of her executive leadership team, the CDO will define a development vision and implement the necessary infrastructure to support a comprehensive program that strengthens a culture of philanthropy; supports the organization’s strategic plan and campaign; attracts new sources of funding; promotes the involvement of donors, members, and friends; grows and retains staff; and raises the visibility of Shedd as a premiere living institution— regionally, nationally, and globally. In addition to their formal duties, the CDO must be an integral member of the Shedd community. The CDO will reflect the values of the institution and demonstrate an awareness of and interest in the conservation of aquatic environments and their inhabitants.

Strategic Vision + Fundraising Leadership
  • Serve as architect and leader of a strategic, cohesive, and systematic development program to broaden fundraising, outreach, and membership activities, and increase philanthropic revenue year-over-year. Prepare Shedd for future fundraising endeavors, ensuring an optimally deployed staff and an effective, efficient infrastructure that will support success.
  • Assess Shedd’s fundraising potential and craft a sophisticated multi-year fundraising and engagement strategy that will result in sustainable long-term growth in philanthropic contributions, in keeping with the mission and core values of the institution.
  • Based on campaign priorities, identify compelling funding opportunities, and match them with existing and potential donors. Leverage the new strategic plan and campaign messaging to energize, inspire, and challenge the Shedd community.
  • Personally cultivate, solicit, and steward a select prospect portfolio. Lead the frontline fundraising team by example, demonstrating success and ensuring that timely steps are taken toward solicitation.
  • Develop and deploy a strategic and forward-thinking operating model that utilizes and is enabled by metrics, data, and development benchmarking with an eye towards best practices.
Executive Engagement
  • Guide and support the president and CEO in her role as chief spokesperson and fundraiser, serving as an adviser and co-strategist in cultivating prospective donors and soliciting transformational gifts. Similarly guide and support senior leaders, volunteers, and other key constituents in all development-related activities, ensuring that their time spent is productive, meaningful, and personally rewarding.
  • In coordination with the president and CEO, advance development conversations at the board level and solicit board participation in executing the fundraising plan; work closely with the director, office of the president & board relations.
  • Serve as an active member of the executive leadership team. Build collaborative professional relationships with peers and foster a strong team orientation. Work with a broad range of diverse individuals and groups, including senior executives, to achieve shared goals.
  • Participate in institution-wide strategic planning efforts and contribute to discussions that guide strategies and policies shaping Shedd’s future. Listen and contribute to strategic insights.
  • Identify compelling funding opportunities within the aquarium and match them with existing and potential donors.
Staff Management
  • Lead, support, and mentor Shedd’s development staff of 21 (4 direct reports), promoting a culture of excellence, collaboration, and professional growth. Further develop a diverse and high-caliber staff that is well prepared to meet the ongoing challenges and opportunities of an ambitious program.
  • Oversee development personnel activities, including the hiring, training, defining of job descriptions, and performance review process for the team. Enhance professional development, career planning, and employee wellness opportunities for advancement staff.
  • Actively and meaningfully promote a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Recruit and retain top talent in Chicagoland, establishing the aquarium as a broadly viewed employer of choice. • Set clear direction, priorities, and measurable goals for advancement professionals and administrative support personnel. Assess current staff effectiveness and overall organizational structure; create and nurture a culture of transparency, communication, and collaboration. Ensure that all staff members have a common commitment to advancing Shedd and its priorities.
  • Maintain a leadership style that is fair, equitable, open, and inspiring, empowering, and motivating to staff. Foster a work environment that recognizes and rewards performance, supports new ideas and risk-taking, builds confidence, encourages interaction and teamwork, and reduces silos. Serve as an advocate for staff, representing their concerns and needs.
Programmatic Administration
  • Partner closely with finance to oversee the management of financial and legal compliance issues, data-driven strategy, and trends in metrics and reporting, while projecting and exceeding donor expectations.
  • Implement fundraising activities and programs including, but not limited to: prospect research, major and in-kind gift solicitation, corporate sponsorships, grant preparation, annual fundraising events, and planned and deferred giving programs.
  • Promote development knowledge, expertise, and best practices within the organization; inform and adapt the strategy when insights arise; educate constituents on donation trends, activities, and opportunities.
  • Work with marketing and communications to identify, develop, and implement promotional activities benefiting Shedd. Ensure that development marketing strategies target key donor audiences, effectively educate about the campaign and mission, and advance program goals.
While no one candidate will meet all desired criteria, the successful candidate will bring most of the following qualifications and attributes:

  • Minimum of 10 years of progressively responsible experience envisioning, developing, and implementing a successful and comprehensive development program in a fast-paced environment. Depth of knowledge of best practices in all key areas of development, including demonstrated ability to manage and close a comprehensive campaign.
  • Strong planning and analytical skills, proven experience in developing and effectively implementing an organization-wide development plan.
  • Results-driven with personal experience cultivating seven-figure gifts, including supporting donor strategies, solicitation approaches, and donor stewardship.
  • A range of experience from a variety of sources including major gifts, corporate and foundation giving, planned giving, and membership programs, with a track record of results across all areas.
  • Fluency in a range of gift vehicles, including donor advised funds, estate gifts, remainder trusts, and pledges.
  • Deep understanding of resource management in terms of time, effort, budget, and funding, and evidence of strategic decision making in allocation and tracking of resources.
  • Exemplary organizational development skills in building and managing strong teams; ability to inspire and motivate in line with the aquarium’s focus, key performance indicators, and expectations. • Experience as an influential leader and manager, with a proven track record of strong hiring, team development, and career progression and promotion.
  • Demonstrated history of implementing new ways of thinking and engagement while thinking strategically and tactically.
  • Experience building upon an existing program, resulting in a transformative increase in philanthropic revenue for an organization. Success in increasing the effectiveness of a program and its staff through established objectives and performance standards.
  • A data-driven approach, and the ability to articulate metrics in broadly accessible terms.
  • Success working closely with—and building—executive team, board, and staff relationships including examples of working across the aisles to break down silos with diverse groups.
  • A commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging on the development team, the Shedd community, and beyond.
  • The credibility, maturity, and sound judgment required to effectively engage and leverage Shedd’s leadership and volunteers in the cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of key prospects and donors, including high-net-worth individuals and business leaders.
  • Strong personal integrity and work ethic, as well as a sense of humor and perspective.
  • Bachelor’s degree required.
Shedd Aquarium has retained Isaacson, Miller, a national executive search firm, to assist in this search. Confidential inquiries, nominations, referrals, and applications should be sent in confidence to:
Jack Gorman, Partner
Grace Zakim, Managing Associate

We strongly encourage people of color, LGBTQ+ community, veterans and active-duty military, parents, individuals with disabilities, and individuals from all cultural backgrounds to apply. Shedd Aquarium is an equal opportunity employer and welcomes everyone to our team. If you need a reasonable accommodation at any point in the application or interview process, please let us know. In your application, please feel free to select which pronouns you use (For example – she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs). 
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