Several years ago, after finishing my Master’s Degree, I was offered a new job and left my position as the executive director of a small grassroots nonprofit. A few months later, I called up my former board president to see how the transition was going with the new executive director. The board president responded, “Not so great, the executive director only lasted a week.” During my conversation with the board president, it became clear to me that the search committee was not able to adequately convey the day-to-day details of the job. I suggested that the next round of hiring might yield better results if I could speak with the candidates to convey what would be expected of them in terms of day to day operations.
I share this story because often times executive directors are hired by members of a search committee who may not have first-hand knowledge of the actual tasks required to do the job. An executive director of a small nonprofit has to figure out on her own the processes and structures required to accomplish the goals of the organization. A lack of information often requires executive directors to be flexible, resourceful, and innovative during the first three to six months on the job.
Here are a few strategies to utilize during the first three to six months as an executive director that I have learned from my own experience and through my mentors.
Identify key priorities
When a new nonprofit executive director is hired there is often a sense of urgency to complete many tasks right away especially if the hiring process took longer than expected or the organization is in disarray. Be realistic about what you think you can accomplish during the first six months. Take ample time to understand the key problems and board members’ goals. Once you have gathered enough information, you will begin to realize the most important problems to tackle immediately. They may be different than the board identifies and even change over the course of the first six months.
What is one challenge that your organization is experiencing? What are three tasks you can complete in the next two weeks that will help your organization overcome these obstacles?
Dig up any problems
As a new executive director, it is essential to uncover any potential red flags that need to be dealt with immediately. Spend time talking with board members, finance staff, program staff and donors to learn about any financial, structural, or organizational issues. It is better to be proactive in learning about problems rather than learning about problems when you least expect it.
Have you spoken to key staff members, volunteers, and board members that hold historical information? What are some red flags that have shared with your during these conversations? Are you hearing several problems repeated over and over by different people?
I recently took over as executive director of a national education based nonprofit and during the first couple months I felt overwhelmed by administrative tasks. About two months into the position, I realized that every time I started doing a task, I needed to ask myself if it could be delegated to another staff person. As an executive director you have many responsibilities and it is impossible to do everything by yourself. Delegating allowed me to focus time on learning organizational history, building relationships and understanding the organization’s challenges and opportunities.
Think about the tasks you completed today at work. What could have been delegated to a volunteer, intern or a staff member? If you don’t have staff members, have you recruited volunteers or interns to assist you in the office?
Prepare for staff turnover
Four days into my position as the new executive director, my assistant director notified me that she would be leaving in three weeks. I was so new to the position that I wasn’t entirely sure of her responsibilities and we were three months away from a 1,200 person conference. I asked her to stay on for an additional few weeks to ensure that organizational knowledge would be transferred. I then quickly had my staff organize succession plans for their positions.
Do all staff members at your organization have succession plans? Do you know the important details of the essentials tasks that each staff completes on a regular basis? Have each of staff members created a succession plan manual?
Being an executive director can be a chaotic and rewarding experience. During your first three to six months try to remember these strategies that I have suggested. If you need it, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to discuss any challenges you are experiencing as a new executive director.
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About the Author | Leah Weiner, Ed. D. serves as the Executive Director of The Division for Early Childhood, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing the field of special education. Leah has a doctorate in organizational leadership from Pepperdine University and a background in fundraising, volunteer management, board development, and planning giving. She provides consulting for small to mid-size nonprofits. Connect with her on LinkedIn.