Your First 30 Days as a Nonprofit Executive Director

A typical day in the life of an Executive Director

Regardless of the size or age of your nonprofit, the first 30 days as a nonprofit executive director have similar trajectories. Think a cross between a rodeo (just holding on seems like an achievement) and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (when the bottom falls out as you learn all the things the Board search committee neglected to tell you).

It’s all about threading the needle between giving the impression that you’ve “got this” to your board and new key stakeholders, while secretly feeling that in the next meeting you will be completely unmasked, not as Oz, but as that bald little man behind the curtain.

Take control of the first 30 days. Here are some tips I believe you will find useful.

DON’T BE PRESSURED INTO QUICK DECISIONS

On my first day at work, my Deputy bounded into my office with relief. “Finally, someone here to make some decisions. First things first, we need to fire this young development staff member. He is outrageously insubordinate.” He showed me a memo this young man had written – filled with an equal measure of arrogance and unbridled passion for the organization. It also outlined (ever so bluntly) specific changes that needed to be made.  Oh and did I mention he wanted a raise and a promotion?

Secretly I couldn’t wait to meet him.

So I took time (not a lot, but some) and met with his boss (not the Deputy).  She encouraged me to meet him before making any decision.  She said he was smart, passionate and came complete with the naivete and arrogance of a 23-year-old.  I met him. I loved him. He stayed with us for a decade. He was a rock star.  Still is.

BRING IN AN OUTSIDE AUDITOR ASAP

Insist on it. Some board treasurers will balk; others will be insulted; some will be both.  In the first thirty days you need to understand the numbers from top to bottom from someone who has no agenda other than finance and accounting. If you are not facile with balance sheets, endowments, etc, pay the auditors to teach you enough to be facile. Tell them to explain it as if they are explaining it to a fifth grader. If you have lots of financial background, ask questions that show the auditors that you know your stuff. Make them work for their retainer. Don’t leave this meeting without a clear understanding of your cash flow projections for the next 3-6 months and a clear line by line document that lays out your monthly expense run rate.  And your biweekly payroll nut.

It will be a long meeting.

A SUGGESTED ROADMAP FOR YOUR FIRST 30 DAYS

The following roadmap will demand strict time management and discipline. You will need to work with your assistant, outline these activities and have her/him partner with you to achieve them.

Your primary goal in the first 30 days is to touch as many people as possible, to make them feel special, to capture the true financial picture of the organization and to begin to try out a ‘vision elevator pitch.’ You also need to understand from board and staff what the ‘red light’ issues are – the ones that have been awaiting your arrival that are now brighter and redder because they have been in a holding pattern.

Here are three important pieces:

1) Think about what you want to hear during your first executive committee meeting:

  • “I cannot believe you spoke to THAT many people.”
  • “Wow, you really have a handle on the numbers”
  • “I spoke with X and she said she was impressed with your conversation and looks forward to meeting you in person.  She found you articulate and got a glimpse of your vision.”
  • “You have excellent insights about the strengths and weaknesses of key staff.”
  • “You are doing a great job of working your way through one-on-one board conversations.”
  • “You have brought us the key ‘red light’ issues, have a clear understanding of the different paths we could take. Now let’s talk.”

2) Identify a capable person (it might not be your assistant) who can partner with you to schedule your first 30 days. Your calendar is real estate and it must be maximized in order to get to the above quotes.  The first week is beyond key. See tips below:

  • Day 1:  All Staff Call. Everyone will want a piece of you but it is your staff members who will be working overtime for you.
  • Day 1:  A memo out to Board Chairs with a request for a list of the top 20 most influential external stakeholders to your organization. List to include contact information.  Outreach for phone or in person time completed as lists come in.
  • Day 1:  a memo out to direct reports with a request for a list of the top 20 organizational stakeholders – colleagues, big vendors.
  • Week 1:  Meet with every direct report.  Schedule so it is not rushed.  A meal is way better than a meeting. Understand big decisions coming down the pike.
  • Week 1:  2 hour meeting with your board chair. Getting the lay of the land.  Have the chair take you through board members one by one.  You want to know, at minimum, the following things about each one on a scale of 1 to 10: T for tenure, P for passion for mission, E for level of engagement, F for fundraising ability.

3) Do NOT Rely on your memory.

Take good legible notes (or use a tablet) at each meeting. You will be absorbing so much I guarantee you will get confused and forget names, connections, and relationships that will be important for the next day’s meetings. Review them again at the end of each week.  Yes, you are sponging but you also need to synthesize.

OK, so even I am breathless re-reading this and I am no longer a President / CEO.  There is plenty more for another blog post I suppose but in the meantime, just remember:

 No quick decisions. Get a real handle on the numbers from an outsider. Lastly, touch as many internal and external stakeholders as you possibly can.  Make them feel confident and hear them loud and clear.

 

Joan Garry
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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
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  • Erica Gruen

    Love this, Joan….both as a board member w/ significant NP experience and as a former CEO (albeit for-profit….same stuff still applies). You are a terrific writer – keep going!

    • Celestine I Johnson

      Joan, this is very helpful. I am going through this right now. I just completed the formation of a new non-profit organisation and this advice is very valuable. Thank you very much.

  • Mike Allison

    I was an Executive Director 30 years ago (yeesh) and REALLY wished someone had given me this guidance. Great piece Joan!

  • Maryum

    This is awesome! Can’t wait to read the next installment about what to do in the next 30 days!!

  • Maryum. So happy you are finding the articles of value. I enjoy blogging and I especially enjoy it when I get feedback like this. Best of luck.

  • Reyna

    Thank you for this article. Wished I found this few months back, when I was groping:) Still helpful!

    • Donna

      I was thinking the same thing! Invaluable advice

      • I write this blog to be of help to folks. So glad I could be of help to you!

  • CJ Haze

    I bookmarked this page for future (hopefully not so future) reference. I applied for our shelter’s ED position and they began deliberating on the first of the month. Fingers crossed, I hope I get it. I went from volunteer to manager in only a few months and my passion for this organization is astronomical.

    We’re building our new shelter and I vehemently want to be part of it.

    Even though it would be a complete career change for me, I feel this is my calling. This is really helpful and I need all the help I can get. Our homeless pets and great staff will depend on me — if I get the job — and I want to gain as much traction for success I can.

    Thank you, Ms. Garry. You’re a wonderful human being.

    • First, call me Joan. It is really heartwarming to hear someone so passionate about a job opportunity leading an organization, especially one offering direct service through shelters. My fingers are crossed too CJ. Stay in touch and never hesitate to suggest topics that will be helpful. Guarantee your topic ideas will be helpful to others.

  • Hanging On for Dear Life

    Joan, What to do if you are a first time E.D. and the only staff is you and a volunteer board?

    • Dear “Hanging On” –
      First off what do you do? You hang on for dear life!!!!! You keep your eye on the most important ball — the service you provide, the work you do. Put one foot in front of the other and look for what I call “quick hits.” Small victories that build trust between you and your board and that build your own confidence. Next, you need to make the case to your board that they must be “workers” until the org is big enough for them to be ‘governors.’ Once they get that, put them to work. Then, figure out how best to use other volunteers or interns to add person power. And you and the board members need to add money to the coffers to build staff so get out and start asking! Hope this is helpful.

      • Hanging On

        Thank you so much. I have found your site invaluable during the transition period. I truly appreciate you!

        • You’re very welcome. Keep reading and never hesitate to suggest a topic (or two or three!)

      • Scaredbutwilling

        I may be jumping into this as an opportunity has presented itself. Can it be done effectively with just a board and an ED? Your site is fun, informative, and immensely helpful!! Thanks!!

        • Dear Scaredbutwilling: First off, thanks for the shout out on the blog. I love writing it, mostly because of this kind of feedback. The answer to your question depends on the size of the organization and what your board is willing to do. With a one staff organization , typically the board is a working board, meaning they are essentially acting like staff, helping to operate and raise funds to grow the organization. Another way this can work is with a boatload of volunteers who do the work on your behalf. Bottom line: you need folks to help you get the work done. Best of luck.

  • Jim Williams

    Thanks Joan…fantastic article. I’m working on a ‘project’ as part of the interview process for an ED position. Reviewing these pointers has helped me focus and refine my ideas.

    • Jim. Now that’s exciting news. Email me off line if you want to chat a bit more in real time about your interview process. Glad the article was helpful. Regards to all my Chorus pals!!!!!

  • Laura Carpenter Myers

    Super road map!

  • Christine

    Joan, my organization is looking for a new ED, what should the interview ask?

  • Donna Bliss

    This is my second week as Development Director at a small and wonderful not for profit dedicating to bringing the arts to a diverse group from at-risk youth to the elderly. I created an exercize “Leverage our Assets”, asking for key contacts, personal interests, assets like a second home, etc. They take one home and I will put all the answers in a spreadsheet moving forward.

    Thanks for all your input.

  • Sue Suddith

    I was hired March 10 as ED for a 15 year old program….15 years in this industry but new to this program and state. It may be more than 30 days in, but I’m going to do this starting now.

    • Sue. Many many readers have emailed me to tell me this was a very helpful roadmap. I hope you have the same success with it. Joan

  • Shirley Anne Smith

    Joan,what differences would you suggest for the ED roadmap in an organization where this is the first time they have hired an ED?

  • Christine Johansen

    This is great guidance. One place to get the financial acumen you may lack is at the Washington Nonprofits Vimeo Channel. FUN Finances Unlocked for Nonprofits gives you the overviews and the details in an easy to understand format. Everything on the channel is free.

    • can’t wait to see it. wondering if an hour is more than most could bear 🙂

  • about to enter the NPO world as E.D., am looking for some more material related to Family Justice Centers programming, funding, and professional development…

    I have been in a Christian NPO director position for 25 years, but the FJC is a different beast…
    thanks