Jatrice Martel Gaiter is executive vice president, external affairs at Volunteers of America in Alexandria, Va.
Congratulations! You just vanquished the competition and were offered your first nonprofit CEO position. If you believe that you’ll walk in to find a pristine environment, a culture that welcomes change, updated technology, absolute financial transparency and a board that will not compare you to your predecessor — resign now!
After the round of farewell galas and tributes for the departing CEO, the board has rekindled their love. They will assure you that everything has been left in perfect order and staff morale is great. The search committee will explain that internal candidates withdrew and look forward to your leadership. This is not a turnaround or a clean up, they will say. All you have to do is develop a vision for the future and fortify the foundation of success.
Nonprofit leaders live in a world of abundant passion and optimism. Board members become involved with a charity because they want to help people and communities, but often have scant knowledge of the subterranean layers of the nonprofit. They generally know what they have been told at board meetings or read in the consent agenda.
Let me share three first-year fundamentals for new CEOs: Food, Home, Money.
FOOD: Start personally scheduling breakfast or lunch with each board member on day one. Do not communicate with board members through your assistant. Personalize your relationships so each trustee will feel valued. Make these meetings priority number one.
Your conversations should be a relaxed opportunity to listen to your board members. Listen more than you talk. You do not have to dazzle them with your brilliance. They already hired you. Do not hand out charts or infographics. Pay rapt attention and learn why they joined the board, their vision for the future and which specific aspects of the mission resonate.
Talk with your board chair early and often. Communicate, share information and ask for advice. Consider your relationship with your board chair as an essential partnership. Work very hard to learn personality, style and your chair’s unspoken expectations. Are they modest, confident, thrilled to be the board chair or burdened by yet another obligation?
Take each of your direct reports to breakfast or lunch with the same plan. Communicate that your purpose is only to get to know each other better. Do not write anything down. Again, listen to them talk about their work and perspectives.
HOME: Work inside the sphere of existing organization networks during the first year.
Your board, staff, clients, members, affiliates, funders and coalition partners are your priority. It will take you at least a full year to meet, engage and cultivate relationships with each of them. Even if you are the most vivacious and swashbuckling personality in town, practice restraint. Focus on the current relationships that are integral to funding, operations and mission. You may be tempted to accept all speaking engagements, join boards or travel with a media road show. You might be attracted to influential names you can drop, but it is more important to become intimate with the names of your donors. Any urges to become a nonprofit celebrity in the first year should be suppressed.
Until you know whether your organization needs a vitamin or a defibrillator, stay home, do your homework and learn. Use your social media platforms creatively to reach broader constituencies and share news. Before you search for fresh connections or alliances, make sure you lavish attention on the people who have already given the organization their time, loyalty, money and dedication.
MONEY: “No money, no mission” should be your mantra.
You must immediately develop depth of knowledge regarding the organization’s finances. If there are financial, cash flow or contract issues, it is best to share them early and infrequently. Dribbling bits of awkward information in a constant flow at every board meeting or encounter will curtail your honeymoon. It makes you appear to be a fragile amateur.
When you are faced with bad news, it is best to share details with the board and then openly proceed with options and strategies to ameliorate the situation. If you castigate your predecessor, you are also implicating the board.
In the first year, you must demonstrate that you can bring money into the organization. Start by calling on your major donors. Reach out to long-term small donors and lapsed donors with a personal call, note or visit. Consider renegotiating contracts or changing vendors to find savings.
Your first year as a CEO will move swiftly. Nothing will be linear. Emergencies will erupt and people will leave, but remain focused on your fundamental strategy for success and survival. You will be lauded, judged and misunderstood. You will be astonished, humbled and grateful for the opportunity to work with the selfless, driven and dedicated board and staff. You will be resilient and successful if you stick to the basics … food, home and money.