Stand Out: Pete Cooper, President of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga

Stand outWelcome to the debut interview of  Stand Out, an original Q & A series. Allow me to introduce you to my friend, colleague and local rock star fundraiser Pete Cooper, President of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

Q: Pete, How long have you been in the development business?

A: My primary job at the Community Foundation is fundraiser. I have been doing that for 21 years. But before that, while I was in the Trust Department of SunTrust Bank, I sat on a number of boards and was active in fundraising for those charities as a board member.

Pete Cooper

Q: How did you get your start?

A: My early exposure was as a junior officer at the American National Bank. We were assigned cards to work for the United Way campaign. Then as I joined boards that were of interest to me, I participated in fundraising as a board member. I was actually on 14 boards at one time. I certainly don’t recommend that for anyone.

Q: Why did you decide to make a career of it?

A: I was a Sr. V.P. of SunTrust Bank and had lived through two mergers. I was head of the charitable trust department that had most of the charitable business in town. My future was basically to maintain a department. I was 41 years old. I don’t work well with boredom. So when the opportunity arose for me to take over as CEO of a foundation that had no office or telephone, I jumped at the chance. As they say, the rest is history.

Q: This may be a tough question to quantify, but approximately how much money have you raised over your career thus far?

A: That is a very difficult question. I won’t even try to talk about gifts outside of the Community Foundation. In the first full year I was at the Community Foundation, we raised $1 million. I was the only employee doing fundraising. We have had a fairly steady increase over the years. Last year we raised approximately $14 million. In addition, we have raised over $400 million in planned gifts that have not yet been received.

Q: What is the secret to your fundraising success?

A: Relationships. Most of my fundraising has been directly with the donors. We don’t do mass mailings or fundraising events. Mostly we do relationship-building and some marketing.

Q: Without naming names, tell us a little bit about your most favorite volunteer fundraising partner in crime. What made them stand out from all the rest?

A: We have a former board member who is my best unpaid salesperson. He never misses a chance to tell other donors and non-profits about our services. It is such a joy to have him working with us in so many places.

Q: Donors can transform an organization they care about with their giving. It is also true that a donor can transform your own life by the reasons they share with you for their giving. Has a donor ever impacted you this way?

A: We do a lot of donor education in the philanthropic world. Often the result is donations to nonprofits that go directly from the donor to the end charity. We regularly see real enlightenment about the real issues in our city. I can think of three individuals who have vastly increased their charitable giving after understanding the real world needs. One was in the area of direct assistance and two were in the area of scholarships. Two of those have actually called me up to give money since they had not heard from me often enough. Now that is a cheerful giver.

Q: What has been the most dramatic change you have seen in the development profession?

A: The advent of computer software for fundraising purposes. The good news about software is that it can make the process more orderly, controlled and documented. The bad news is that it has led some fundraising programs to be more about process and less about relationships.

Q: I would submit that you could teach probably any topic from the nonprofit sector that you’d want, and you probably do rather frequently. What topic do you prefer most and why?

A: I have two topics that are urgent in my mind. The first is the strengthening of nonprofit boards. This is probably the biggest problem in the nonprofit world at this time, weak boards. The second is ethics. Difficult economic times encourage charities to take short cuts. Some of those short cuts may be unethical. I am convinced that most folks in the nonprofit world are highly ethical. But often decision-making is not framed as an ethical question. So decisions are made that in hindsight or on the paper look less than ethical. The other topics that concern me are: succession planning, CEO burnout, planned giving and endowment building.

Q: So what does a seasoned pro like you do to grow professionally?

A:  I read. I mean I read a lot. Books, articles, magazines on a wide range of subjects, internet lectures, research papers. I also attend annual conferences of community foundations. I regularly meet with other professionals in the foundation world and have excellent discussions with my colleagues. Having been out of college for over 40 years, virtually everything I learned in college is either obsolete or was wrong in the first place. We also try to do some education element in every board meeting so the board members as well as the staff engages in continuing education.

Q: Have any good books or blogs you’d like to recommend?                          

A: One of my all time favorite books is an ethics book by Rushworth Kidder entitled, “How Good People make Tough Choices.” It gives a framework for ethical decision-making. I also love the TED lectures on the internet.

Q: What piece of advice would you give a college grad and/or newcomer to the development field?

A:  You will have a number of choices in your career. Always choose the one that will make the most significant contribution to your community and makes you happy to go to work. I have known a lot of very unhappy people who were very successful at making money but did not have much to put in their obituary. In the long run, the amount of money you make is a very low priority if you want to have a full rich life. Deal graciously with all persons. Value family and faith. Create a balance in your life between the short-term and the long run but never compromise your values.

Thank you Pete for sharing your experiences with us.

You can learn more about Pete and his work at



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s