For the New CEO With No Nonprofit Experience

An open letter to Eric Goldstein, the newly appointed CEO of UJA Federation of New York.


Dear Mr. Goldstein,

Last week, I saw the announcement from United Jewish Federation about your appointment as the new CEO of UJA Federation of New York.

Eric Goldstein

Welcome, Mr. Goldstein, to the nonprofit world. It’s a bit different here.

First of all, congratulations! What an amazing opportunity for you!

I’m writing to you because we may have a few things in common. UJF referred to you as a “professional outsider.” Hmm… I can’t imagine that gave you the warm and fuzzies. I too was a “professional outsider” once, joining GLAAD as its CEO with “no known professional experience.” I had not 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.  And so I, like it seems you, was the recipient of some skeptical press.

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

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.

First, what to avoid.

Three Things Not To Do

  1. Assume you have nothing to learn from playing in the nonprofit sector. I hired a senior staffer from the for-profit communications field. He came to share his extraordinary expertise with “the little people.” The expertise part was fine. Treating your colleagues like clueless idiots?  Not so much. I wish I realized this was happening much earlier.
  2. Induce culture shock. Do not find a donor to underwrite McKinsey to come in within the first three to six months. Culture shock is very bad for the organization and creates serious distrust. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did bring in McKinsey but I waited 5 years. There were still  process bumps but the end product was first rate.
  3. Set no boundaries. Draw some obvious and clear boundaries between you and the Board of Directors. I know you were Chairman of the Board of the Manhattan Day School (an Orthodox Yeshiva) and so you’re used to being one. I wasn’t a board member, but rather hand been recruited by a friend on the board. In any case, steer clear of that comfort zone and spend a lot of time being where you may not feel quite so at home.

5 Keys To Success For the New CEO With No Nonprofit Experience

  1. Find an ally who can shepherd you through this new land. Identify someone who has been working on this cause forever and create an alliance. Ask them to mentor you. Even better if the person’s politics is to the left of yours.
  2. Meet and create relationships with your colleague CEO’s – large and small. Your new ‘industry’ will be filled with all sorts of organizations, many doing good work, many struggling, many whose mission is incomprehensible. Regardless, meet them, attend gatherings of them. Show that you care about their work and that as a whole, you are an orchestra fighting to end a disease, advocate for minorities or working to end hunger.
  3. Give your staff members a voice. There are no year end bonuses. There are long hours and they are different long hours from the ones you left behind in corporate America. These hours are more intense, typically more personal. There is (or should be) a passion for your cause in each staff member. What do they get instead of a year end bonus? A voice. They have skin in the game and points of view and your work will benefit from their thinking. It can be a bit messier but that comes with the territory.
  4. Be humble. Your staff may not give you the benefit of the doubt. You came from the “outside” and have not been in the trenches. So be careful not to unintentionally disrespect your staff when you see something obvious that requires a clean up.
  5. Create a quick hit. Something that illustrates how your past experience in corporate America has real advantage to the organization / movement. Be sure that this advantage is obvious to your staff. Market that. Humbly.

The thing that truly matters the most is that you are passionate about the mission and that you are fiercely determined to make a difference. And your history truly suggests that you are. But you must recognize what you don’t know and that you understand that you can’t just know the nonprofit sector; you have to appreciate the messiness that can come with giving people a voice, working to reach consensus and working with colleagues who are not always on the same page with you.

What matters is that you understand from the get go that, if you do it well,  you will get much more than you give.

Best of luck, Mr. Goldstein. The nonprofit world needs you.

And you need them.


Joan Garry

p.s. For anybody reading this, I’ll soon write a follow-up article discussing the skills and attributes a Board search committee should look for in a person who is a “professional outsider” with “no known professional nonprofit expertise.”

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