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, you can pay 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.