CEO Confidential

9 Steps: How First-Time Nonprofit CEOs Succeed?

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The daunting task of running a nonprofit is apparent to any CEO on the first day: managing finances, understanding new protocols, developing fundraising strategies, implementing key marketing concepts, and learning everyone’s names are just some of the tasks at hand for the newly christened leader of the organization.

Sounds overwhelming? It doesn’t have to be, if you get a head start in considering how you want to approach your role as a leader before you set foot on your first day.

If you were ambitious enough to reach the level of CEO, you’ve likely got some big dreams for the future of your nonprofit.

Before you set out to tackle those dreams, it’s important to use your first few months in this role to set solid groundwork for your relationship with your employees and the culture of the organization under your command.

Here are the most important steps for a nonprofit CEO to undertake in the first three or four months.

  1. Plan for Perfection (and Imperfections)

    Planning is the essential first step to running any organization. Planning involves much more than just big-picture musings and dreams for the future; it involves determining concrete milestones, and monitoring your tangible progress towards those milestones.

    Before you start in your new leadership position, set performance goals for your first day, week, and/or month. Make sure you have reachable outcomes for yourself and your team. Especially during the first few weeks, check your progress against these notes to judge how well your strategies are (or are not) working.

    In addition to planning for the success of your team, start planning now for the long term success of the organization. Consider succession plans for your nonprofit, long before you’ll need them. This is a good step in protecting your organization, but more importantly, it shows current employees that you will prevent them from shouldering a lengthy and unfair burden should someone leave unexpectedly.

    Placing their minds at ease with the knowledge that their leader has already prepared for potential obstacles strengthens employees’ comfort, and can prevent more staff from considering new employment themselves.

  2. Communicate with Respect

    Respect is earned, not given. The best CEOs take this to heart. Do not assume that with your new role, you automatically have the support or respect of each employee. You must actively seek to build and strengthen these relationships through open and positive communication.

  3. Stop and Say Hello

    Get to know your employees, by asking about their thoughts and truly listening. Interview your board members, stakeholders, staff, major donors, and even your most committed volunteers — this can help you contextualize the history of the nonprofit and your future role within it. Whenever possible, try to reach consensus decisions, instead of strictly imposing your will. Building this level of respect in your first few months will lay the foundation for your authority in the years to come.

  4. Think Happy Thoughts

    Learn to reframe negativity into opportunities for self-improvement. “This was a bad job” can become “I see what you’re attempting, but what if you tried it another way?” or “You’re off to a good start, but focus on these few areas to make an amazing result.”

    Your employees are more likely to work harder if they believe in the mission and attitude of the organization at large; and you can control that perception to a large degree.
    Having a positive attitude at work might sound clichéd, but do not discount your ability to breathe new life into an organization simply through optimism, will, and confidence. Smiling really is contagious.

  5. Institute an Open-Door Policy

    Even CEOs, at the very top of the ladder, can benefit greatly from management training classes. These courses often teach managers how to communicate better with their employees, and how to avoid the all-too-common conflicts in which managers overestimate their effectiveness. The majority of nonprofit employees have stated that their job responsibilities require them to swallow their true feelings; try to be the manager who encourages free, open, and professional exchanges of ideas.

    Even if it’s out of your control to fix or ease a particular employee complaint, the simple act of being open to hear and acknowledge that complaint can make all the difference in your team’s attitudes.

  6. Get Engaged With the Team

    Engaging your employees from day one should be a top priority. Employee engagement goes beyond offering high salaries; be the boss that says “thanks” or “good job” on a regular basis. Identify employees who should be given opportunities to learn new skills, or lead important projects. Even paid lunches or snacks can make a difference in staff’s feelings of appreciation.

    High levels of employee engagement translate to better retention, which improves your nonprofit’s financial solvency — and helps prevent against the high rate of burnout inherent to the nonprofit sector.

  7. Be Your Best Boss

    Understand how you want to appear to your employees, partners, and vendors. You set the tone for the rest of the nonprofit; articulate your message in a way that befits your preferred style of management. Try for concise, clear instructions to give team members a sense of direction.

    Offer praise when possible to boost morale. Enable productive employees to achieve tasks with less and less oversight as time passes, to reduce burnout.

    Essentially, seek to hone your voice and style over the first few months. Employees will look to see if you act unnecessarily arrogant or authoritative, or if you refuse to delegate (or delegate too often, even for simple tasks).

    Remember the former managers you had; what irked you about the professional manner of your least favorite bosses? How can you be better than them, or approach issues in more constructive ways? How can you best emulate the mentors and leaders you respect most?

  8. Share Success

    If you have worked in the positions your employees are performing, you can better communicate with them. Offer advice, or sympathize with the more challenging aspects of that role. You will simultaneously offer a shared human connection, and command respect as someone who once fit into the employee’s shoes and has climbed upward.

    Similarly, if you know the ins and outs of a task (or even if you don’t, but want to show your team spirit), jump in when appropriate to help out. Just be sure you are not stepping on any employees’ toes, or disrupting the natural work flow (which may incite more distaste than appreciation).

    When the CEO steps in to aid in completing a project or even a simple job, employees feel a sense of trust and kinship. You can earn a great deal of respect when you show how work ethic does not fade as one climbs the nonprofit ladder.

  9. Head Out of the Office

    Consider holding a retreat for key players within the nonprofit, including managers, donors, long-time employees, and other influential figures. The goal of this retreat within the first several months of your ascension to leadership is to identify areas of contention, or potential problems, as well as shared goals and motivations.

    Take charge of the retreat by setting defined goals and deadlines, but step aside when appropriate to allow every voice present to share thoughts. You will earn major kudos and invigorate your team by encouraging them to overcome these issues as a unit, under your guidance.

Written by: Cory C. Grant is a Founder of Grant, Hinkle & Jacobs

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Cory C. Grant
Cory C. Grant is a Founder of Grant, Hinkle & Jacobs. For the past 20 years, Mr. Grant has developed his expertise in the design and implementation of advanced estate plans, wealth protection techniques, and business succession strategies for families and business owners. He has been an active member of the California State Bar since 1994.
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