The Move from Corporate to Nonprofit

new ceo with no nonprofit experience

We are on the cusp of a huge leadership gap in the nonprofit sector as more and more boomer leaders retire. Search committees and executive recruiters will need to look at more and diverse ponds for leadership candidates. As a result, we see (and will continue to see) lots of “fishing” in corporate America ponds.

Unfortunately, nonprofits are not always welcoming of folks without years in the nonprofit trenches. As a product, originally, of the corporate world, I remember that pretty well.

There were folks who saw me as unqualified, without the “chops” for the gig. I hadn’t paid my dues. I didn’t understand or appreciate the trenches and there was of course a risk that I just might attempt to inject an “evil” corporate paradigm into the consensus driven world of advocacy. This skepticism even found its way into the press.

Ridiculous, right? Infuriating, yes? Especially when this criticism comes from your own community, the one you have raised your hand to advocate for. I only wanted to help.

But there is no question – you absolutely can transition to nonprofit leadership and be successful with no prior professional nonprofit experience. I did it.

So, at the risk of overstepping, I’d like to tell you about a few of the lessons I learned and pitfalls I overcame. It might come in handy if you are hunting for a new leader or if you are this new leader I describe.

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A Foolproof Way to Get Board Members to Open Their Rolodex

board member contacts

“Can you look through your contacts and identify folks you will talk to about our organization? We need names.”

In a heartbeat, every one of your board members becomes a monk. Friendless loners who live under rocks.

That’s not entirely fair. Some board members have like two friends.

Why does this happen? Type-A, successful people, interested in the wellbeing of others and willing to serve can’t identify 5 or 10 people who would be willing to have a conversation about people doing something good? What an amazing opportunity to avoid cable news!

Guess what? Your board members do not live under rocks. You CAN get them to share their contacts.

Today, I offer you a new approach to this paralyzing question and a downloadable template I use with clients that actually works.

==> Download my foolproof board contacts template here

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The Case of the Clueless New Board Member

Transcript below:

Welcome to The Case of the Clueless New Board Member. Here’s the question we tackle today: How do you set a clueless new board member up for success, as someone who understands and appreciates his or her fundraising obligation? First, let’s talk about the problem, the root problem. When you put together a nominations committee, you don’t usually include your best fundraisers, because they’re over on the development committee. So the people on the nominations committee are usually your worst fundraisers, so when the recruit asks a question like, “Tell me about the fundraising obligation,” you probably get something like this, “Oh, staff does all that. Don’t worry about it. It’s really, really easy. You know, I hate fundraising, myself.”Continue Reading

It’s Time to Stop Using This Word

You know there’s a word I hear a lot from board and staff members of nonprofits, and it kind of drives me nuts. Actually makes me a little bit angry. Would you like to take a guess at what the word is? I’ll give you a minute. Why don’t you toss some ideas in the comments below? I’ll wait. The word that drives me crazy makes me kind of angry. One word. Almost ready?

The word is competition. When I first became a nonprofit executive director, I was floored at how often I heard this one word, competition. “Oh, she’s not gonna give to her organization because she already gives to XYZ org.” Or “What is that ED working tables at my fundraising gala?” Or the board members are bringing in news clippings or see things online where your colleague is quoted and not you. Right? You’ve been there.

So first, if your organization does not fill a unique gap in a sector or has some substantive overlap with another organization, could you just fix that? Address the problem, not the symptom. Secondly, considering an organization to be competitive misses the true essence of philanthropy. It was taught to me a long time ago by a mentor. She sat me down with her major donor list, we ordered in Chinese, and we looked through the list. She said, “Mary’s gonna really like what you’re doing,” or “Tom is in the entertainment business and he was really anxious for new leadership. I need to introduce you to those two people, and I think there are some others on the list too.” She understood what other leaders miss.

When you introduce people to the power of giving, guess what happens? It makes them feel good. Like, good good, like scientifically good. Like philanthropy actually releases dopamine in your brain, the neurotransmitter that creates pleasure. Amazing, right?

Here’s the other thing, is when you get invested in the sector, you care about a lot of organizations because the more you understand about how important the work is, the more you understand that it has to be tackled from different perspectives. So the big takeaway is that rising tides lift all those. Specifically, eliminate the word competition. Keep your mission clear and focused, and lastly, play nicely in your sector sandbox.

Share this video with your development committee, with your board, and remind them, “Please, all of you remember, you are part of a movement working to create real and lasting change.” You’re part of a movement, an orchestra of organizations, tackling the same issue from a host of different perspectives. Making real and lasting change, it takes a village.

Board Retreats Done Right

board retreat

Have you ever gone to a board retreat?

Close your eyes for a moment and think back to the last one you attended.

Maybe it was last year, maybe a few years back. Try to remember the basic contours of the agenda. Or better still, something that changed as a result.


Get in line. Here are some things board members have told me about their most recent board retreats:

“It was fine.” 

“I wonder if we ever did anything with the flip chart stuff and the action items.”

“I remember we had a really great strategic visioning conversation, though I’m struggling to remember the details and I have no idea if anything actually came of it.”

You’ve invested all this time and money. Your board members gave up a Friday night and full day on Saturday. And yet, just months later, they can barely even remember the agenda, much less any outcomes.

Wow. This is NOT OK!

Look, here’s the truth. Most board retreats really are just fine. They’re not disasters. If they were, board members would actually remember a whole lot more about them!

Really, though, most board retreats are wildly mediocre.

But we can do a lot better.

We can create board retreats that are valuable, memorable, and actionable.

That leave board members with a sense of camaraderie, pride about the work, and an urgency to be great ambassadors.

Today, I offer some practical advice and a downloadable agenda for a retreat that does exactly that.

==> Download the sample five-star board retreat agenda

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The Case of the Board Member Hunt

Transcript below:

Hi. Joan Garry here, answering questions that board and staff members at nonprofits ask me, quite literally, all the time. I get emails. I can’t answer them all. I’m hoping that maybe in these Q and A, I stumble upon the question you yourself might have. Trust me, if you’ve got it, so do many others. I treat these a little bit like cases, like I’m one of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or something, so this one, we call The Case of the Board Member Hunt.

Of all the questions I am asked, I believe this must be the most common: help me find board members. Actually, that’s not a question. That’s a statement. Can you help me find board members? Here are three good tips. Number one, stop asking the question so generally. Can you help me find board members? That means that you go to a board meeting, and you say, “Hey, does anyone know of someone who would be a good board member?” That is a paralyzing question. In general, if you ask that question that abstractly, you will paralyze board members, who will think only that you want people who are rich or know others who are. Trust me, that’s not what you’re looking for. Think about this like you’re directing a play. You can’t walk into a room and say, “I’m directing a play, and I need some actors.” You have to be specific about the kinds of roles you’re looking for the actors to play.

Number two, make intentional time for either as a full board, or as a subset of the board, to sit and think about only this: what would the ideal board of our organization look like? What skills, experience, expertise, competencies, attributes would the ideal board have? Figure out which of those you have, based on your current board, and then make a list of the gaps. It is those gaps that then become the roles that you will cast for. You can then begin to say, “We really need someone who knows something about strategic planning.” Maybe you can go to a large strategic planning firm in your city and ask one of the minority affinity groups to help you find a board member who’s a junior planner who would be just right for a small board. Once you know what role you’re casting for, there’s all different places you can look for those folks, and different ways you can look for people who bring different things to the table and diversity in its broadest definition.

Number three is engage your board in discussions outside of the board room, to reshape how other people see board service. I think that there are a skajillion people that oughta be on boards, a skajillion people who think they are ill-qualified because their neither rich, nor do they think they know rich people. They don’t understand what board service is, the privilege it is, what it feels like to be part of a board, and that it’s about inviting people of all sorts to know more and do more. One thing leads to another, that leads to another, and you’re building an army, and sometimes members of that army even have money.

Stop asking the question generally. Make intentional time to sit down and think about what gaps in skills, expertise, competencies, and attributes are, where are your gaps? Then start casting for those roles.

The third is be part of the solution. People don’t choose to be on boards, not always because they don’t have time. It’s because they don’t understand what an incredible joy and privilege it can be, and they think they have to be rich or know someone who is. All they need to do is be in love with your organization and be an ambassador to talk about the work of the organization to as many people as possible. It’s that simple.
We answer a lot of questions in our Facebook group at Thriving Nonprofits with Joan Garry. Head on over there and join the 11,000 folks who are there, and learn from and support each other there. You’ll find a weekly blog post from me that usually has practical and actionable advice, and a story or two that might make you laugh, and it might provide you with a kick in the pants and a shot in the arm. You can find that at joangarry, with two Rs, .com. See ya next time

The Case of the Very Bad Event Speech

Transcript below:

So Joan Garry here with another question that comes up quite often from board and staff leaders of nonprofit organizations.

This one, and I like to think of them as cases, is the case of the very bad event speech.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? You’re sitting there, you love the organization actually, and you even had a glass of wine, so you’re predisposed, and the executive director gets up to start to talk. And she talks. And she talks. And then all of a sudden you start to see a lot of people heading back towards the open bar, and she’s still talking.

And in fact the speech is clear and passionate, but it goes on forever. You sort of lose the central point and it really slows down the pace of the event.

So I’m gonna offer you five steps in creating an event speech that I think should help you.

I’d begin with the most important one. People speak an average of 135 words per minute. Don’t ask me why I know that, I just do. I talk a little faster actually. So if you want a six-minute speech, and I think that’s exactly what you want, six to eight minutes, multiply six times 135 and that’s the number of words you should write for. It’s like a good sized blog post and that’s it. That’s the first one, is keep it tight and short. Leave them wanting more. Six, seven minutes maybe, 135 words a minute.

Number two, do not open your speech with thank you’s. Nothing will send people to the bar faster than that. I’d like to thank my board share, my board members, staff members, will you all please stand up? I’m already standing up and I’m heading to just check out my pal over at table number 16. Leave the thank you’s to someone else, the person who introduces you perhaps. Somebody else should do the thank you’s.

All right, that’s number two. So time, no thank you’s, here’s number three. How did you get involved? Bring the story to a personal note. I began as a kitchen volunteer here at project angel food back in 1986, and the people I sliced and diced with are my friends to this very day. You get it.

Number four, one fantastic story about the work. Don’t give me ten, don’t give me 12, don’t give me six, because I’m only gonna remember one, so just one, and make it count. Give it to me like I’m ten years old so I don’t miss it.

Number five, what are you up against? What’s the threat? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? Don’t assume people know, and definitely don’t assume that people don’t understand the scope and magnitude of that problem.

And then my bonus is that every speech should call people to action in some way. Sometimes you’re asking for money. Sometimes you’re asking them to do more, to get engaged in different ways. But if you fire somebody up, don’t miss the opportunity to invite them to do more.

And that’s what a good speech should look like. See you next time.

The Case of the Disengaged Board

Hi, I’m Joan Garry, and I’m here answering questions that board and staff leaders of nonprofits ask me, everything from occasionally to all the time.

Here’s a big one. I think of these as kind of like cases, like I’m Nancy Drew. Today we tackle the case of the disengaged board.

Are you hungry for a board that’s more engaged? I bet you are. So here’s three practical ideas and a bonus suggestion. Whether you’re the frustrated Board Chair that feels like you’re knocking and nobody’s home, or the frustrated Executive Director who feels like every request is met with crickets.

  1. Remember that no board is monolithic, so find your stars and bring them together in an alliance. Take your list of board members, divide them ones, twos, and threes. Your ones are your rock stars. Find one or two of them. It doesn’t take much. Bring them together, make them feel like a million bucks, and engage them in the process of working with you to tip the board in the direction you want to go.
  2. Make board meetings count. They are your best opportunity to create first-rate ambassadors. You want to do several things. You want to enrich them, something that gives them context about the sector or why the work matters. You want to engage them. Ask them legitimately and authentically for their advice, ideas, and suggestions.
  3. Keep them informed enough so that they can share accomplishments of the organization with the people they encounter. If you can enrich, inform, and engage you can ignite your board members to be engaged ambassadors for your work.
  4. Keep things alive between board meetings, and by this I do not mean nag them to sell tickets to the next event. You can nag them, but it has to be mixed up with some enrichment, a victory, a story they can tell, a mission moment some people call it. You’ve got to give them. You’ve got to feed them between board meetings if you want them at the next cocktail party to say, “Hey, you know, my job is great but boy am I loving board service. Let me tell you about something recently that happened at XYZ org.” That’s how it works.

Now, here’s the bonus. At your next board meeting try something.

Ask your Executive Director, maybe it’s an executive session with just the ED and the board, ask your Executive Director to offer his or her thinking about what he or she needs from the board in order to be successful.

Ask her to be specific and flip chart it, then turn the tables. Ask your board, “What does the board need from the Executive Director and the staff in order to be successful?” Flip chart that, too.

Take those two flip charts and make that the primary central focus of the next agenda for your ED, Board Chair check in.

How do those things come together in a way in which the ED gets what is needed from the board and the board gets what it needs to be successful, because you as copilots of this twin engine jet that is your nonprofit have to really make those engines work in sync. I think an exercise like that could be really, really valuable.

If this was helpful to you, join us in two places. One, on Facebook, Thriving Nonprofit with Joan Garry. Join us any time. There are almost 11,000 folks in there who find the conversation useful and valuable, and you can always subscribe to my blog, weekly pieces of advice just like this at

See you next time.

It’s Time to Step Up and Join a Board

Can I ask you to stop for just two minutes and think about something? I want you to consider joining a nonprofit board.

Nonprofits all across this country are desperate for people just like you.

I bet you’re deeply committed to a few key issues. Maybe you’re tired of looking at a playing field that isn’t level for everyone. Or maybe you’re so damn tired of the ugly world we live in you just want to be part of the solution. Maybe you just wanna get out of the stands and onto the field.

So consider joining a board.

My friend Joe will tell you that his board service was transformational. Here’s a guy who cared deeply about immigrant rights, couldn’t sit idly by, so he joined a board. He developed leadership skills, a group of kindred spirits, networking opportunities, and he felt like he was part of something bigger than himself. He felt valued and valuable, and he took some of that with him to his professional life, where he now holds a higher level leadership position.

Do you think you don’t have time to join a board? I didn’t think so either. But I made the time because I cared that much.

And do you think you have to be rich or know someone that’s right? Can I bust that myth right here and right now? No and no.

All you have to do is care enough to talk about the organization to people, to invite them to know more and to do more, and that doesn’t take money to do at all.

So do me a favor. If you know somebody who’d be an awesome board member, can you share this video?

And if you think it’s you, take a few minutes, do a little homework, and please, for yourself and for the organization you will serve, join a board. Please.

How Effective is Your Board? Here’s a Simple Test

simple board assessment

Dysfunctional boards would be comical if they weren’t scary.

Did I tell you the one about the board that needed to fire the Executive Director, but the ED had stacked the board with friends (because there was no formal recruitment process) and so the motion did not carry? And in the next two years, the endowment disappeared?

Or how about the board that approved an $8 million budget with just one probing question: “How much is a first class stamp these days?”

Then there was the board that met for nearly a year without a chair because no one wanted the responsibility.

Oh, and then there was the board that finally made a strategic decision to eliminate an ineffective program that cost too much money in order to ensure the sustainability of the nonprofit. And then after the meeting, more than half the board resigned and started a competitive organization to keep that program alive. All because of a charismatic founder.

I could go on but you get the idea.

Nearly every problem an organization has can be tied back to a dysfunctional board. But fortunately, there are clear signs of a dysfunctional board.

Want to know what they are?

==>  Download my simple board assessment

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