Dear Joan: There’s Too Much On My Plate

Advice For New Executive DirectorsEach month, Joan responds to readers who send emails asking for nonprofit advice, practical solutions, or just general therapy (Joan tries not to make direct comments on a reader’s psychological state — that’s called practicing without a license.) You can send your questions to Joan by clicking here.

This week, Joan gives advice for new Executive Directors (and those who want to become Executive Directors.)

Dear Joan: I am a new Executive Director of an organization less than a year old. My struggle now: finding time to oversee operations and successfully fundraise. I don’t have a lot of fundraising experience; I am willing but nervous. Oh, and I have no idea how to find the time. And of course we really need the money.

– Juggling Poorly

Dear Juggler: Welcome to the world of nonprofit leadership. Too many balls to juggle; some will need to drop. Or perhaps more accurately, you need to prioritize, especially early on. Finding time to do everything is a big challenge.

I am a deep believer in “quick hits.” Show the board right away that you can hit the ground running. The single most powerful way to illustrate this is to secure a major gift. So sit for an hour (or more if you need it) and come up with a list of folks who are current donors who have the capacity to give a bigger gift and go get ‘em. Use the passion, determination and eloquence that brought you to the job to begin with and ask for an additional gift to support the work and your new leadership. Or perhaps there is someone just waiting to be asked.

There are lots of resources (including lots here) to overcome anxiety about asking but nothing reduces anxiety better than practice.

Now, the operations part. Important for sure. But it will swallow you whole if you let it. Look at your calendar every Friday and make sure you’ve given yourself time to be out of the office meeting with donors and asking.

Trust me. If you don’t schedule it, it will not happen. Get out in front.

And don’t forget to tell a great story about the work. It will inspire them and affirm your decision to step into this leadership role.

Here are a few of the best articles I’ve written with advice for new Executive Directors. Hope these help!

Hope you can find your balance.

– Joan

Dear Joan: I’m in the process of transitioning from corporate to nonprofit, seeking to leverage 10 plus years of brand marketing and management into the nonprofit sector. I want to pursue my life long passion for improving the lives of kids and families in underserved communities. I have been an active volunteer for organizations in this sector. I secured a job interview – thrilled and nervous. Advice? Words of wisdom.

– Ready to Make The Leap

Dear Leaper: Lots of folks email me about this leap. I made this leap and it was the most personally and professionally transformative experience of my life. To take all my skills, my passions and combine them to change a piece of the world? And get paid?

Felt like I had hit the lottery.

For others considering this leap, listen to the leaper. He has done two things right that others miss:

  • He has a specific passion. He doesn’t want to just make the leap and make a general difference. Organizations look for passion about their specific mission.
  • He is ‘walking the walk.’ The volunteering component is key. Even better, join a board and illustrate that you are not afraid to raise money.

Two last pieces of advice:

  • When talking about your volunteer work, talk about how much you appreciate the culture of nonprofits and the value of the voices of all stakeholders – that decisions are richer as a result of input and you don’t see enough of that in the for-profit sector.
  • If you have a lack of fundraising experience, talk about the attributes that make someone a good fundraiser. Read this: The Five Attributes of A Great Executive Director. I was hired with no fundraising experience at all. But here’s what I had:
  1. Conviction
  2. Strong public speaking skills
  3. A first rate partner in my Development Director
  4. A few board members with prospects who wanted me to succeed
  5. A passion for organization that trumped my fear of asking

P.S. I now do fundraising trainings for some of my retainer clients. I’ve come a really long way. Before 1997 I never asked for money – not even from my parents.

Here are some additional articles I’ve written that should help:

Welcome to the nonprofit world!

– Joan

Dear Joan: I’m a struggling new ED. My nonprofit has big systemic problems I didn’t know about and frankly don’t feel equipped to solve. I need strong financial leadership on my board. What do I do?

– Does Anyone Know Excel?

Dear Excel: So you realize that these two problems go hand in hand, right? If your organization had strong financial leadership on the board, you would have arrived knowing the problems.

I once had a client that didn’t know the board was supposed to have a treasurer. And another client with a board treasurer who said, “Oh, I guess I should have been looking at monthly financial statements.” Head-desk.

Here’s the plan. In your sphere of influence, there is almost surely a CPA who cares about the community and your organization. Ask everyone you know to offer you suggestions about CPA’s they know, they trust, and that have a good heart.

Cut a deal – put the firm’s name all over your website for a finite period of time in exchange for a financial assessment at a very reduced cost. Pro bono if you are lucky. Have an assessment done that falls into the “Hey Board Wake Up and Smell the Deficit!” And then invite that CPA to the next board meeting to be the messenger. Not you. An external expert.

Get that CPA engaged, be really nice to her and she could be your board treasurer. Or she will know someone.

And also, read this: Is Your Nonprofit Heading for a Financial Crisis?

Good luck!

– Joan

Joan Garry
Follow me

Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
Follow me