First 30 Days for a New Non-Profit Executive Director
Whether it’s a first job as an executive director or a first day at a new non-profit, knowing where to start can be overwhelming. That’s because the 4 key areas of a non-profit executive director’s job are massive. Those 4 areas are: governance/board support and policy management; making sure the programs and services fulfill the mission and strategic priorities; supervising all administrative operations from human resources to tech support; and finally, financial performance and sustainability.
After you find out where your office is and where you can hang your coat, don’t let the breadth of the work ahead cause you to flounder while you find a nice working rhythm. Reject the need to do everything in those first few weeks (except for emergencies) and focus instead on these 3 steps to get familiar with the organization.
Step #1 Begin with the Board
You will likely have a few contacts already. There will be someone from the hiring committee who will act as your liaison to get started, or who will meet you on your first day and show you around.
Ask about the structure of the board and where board members are located.
You may already know the answer to this question. Regardless, use the conversation as an opportunity to refresh your knowledge.
Ask when the board meets and, more importantly, when is the next meeting.
An executive director works for the board, so it is critical to know when you will be expected turn in your first set of reports.
Ask to see the strategic plan and the operations plan.
Plans that are kept up to date are a pretty good sign the organization is on track. Plans that are old or don’t even exist will be a sign of work ahead.
Step #2 Talk to the Team
Employing the right people can make or break a non-profit, so it never hurts to spend time getting to know the team. These days, people work from all kinds of different locations, so spend some time finding out where everyone is located and scheduling a time to meet one-on-one (virtually or in person).
Ask each person on the staff team to share a bit about themselves and why they came to work for the organization.
This will help you get to know each team member a bit, but will focus the conversation more on work, avoiding personal details. There is no need to pry into someone’s personal life. If they have something they want to share, they will. This is also a good time to share some of your own information. Offering details about yourself, and even why you sought out the job, can help set the tone for a relaxed and friendly conversation.
Ask each team member to tell you about the work they do for the organization.
This answer will help you form a picture of how everyone fits together to get the work done.
Ask each team member to tell you about the organization as they see it.
If there have been areas of concern in the organization, the team may be hoping someone new (you) will fix all the pieces that are broken. Don’t commit to fixing anything, but the answers to this question might give you an idea of areas or relationships you will need to monitor.
Ask each team member to tell you about the future they see for the organization.
The answers may also help to identify areas where the organization is succeeding or failing. Until team members get to know you a little better, they might be uncomfortable sharing too much information. Let the conversation unfold naturally and see what you learn.
Step #3 Look at the Books
You don’t need to scrutinize a year’s worth of financial reports to get started. During the first week or so, you just want to learn the basics.
Review the most recent budget report.
This information will provide a bird’s eye view of the operational financial plan.
Find out where funding is coming from and what’s in the bank.
This is critical to ensure the organization can meet payroll, and other expense obligations.
Find out if there are bills that need to be paid.
A pile of unpaid bills can mean vendors may not work with the organization in the future. Find out why bills are unpaid and the usual plan to get the books in order.
The work of a non-profit executive director covers a lot of areas and can be complicated. Bulldozing into a new position without taking the time to observe, ask questions, and learn, may intimidate other team members, volunteers, and the board and may set a new executive director up for failure.
Proceeding a little more gently, but strategically, will help to provide much needed information about the inner workings of the organization and reveal priority focus areas. A thoughtful and professional approach will demonstrate that a new executive director isn’t trying to clean house, but rather trying to learn and observe before making any big changes.
Perfect information to add to a succession package.
If you are a new non-profit executive director, you can use these 3 steps to map out your first 30 days. If you are not new and have been in your position for a while, consider adding these 3 steps to the ‘How to Do the Job’ document that you will leave for a next ED. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t planning to leave for months or years, it is always a nice legacy to help someone new succeed.
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Hi, I'm Christie Saas, former board member, current Executive Director, and non-profit volunteer. I remember well, those early years when I lacked the training, the confidence, and the work-life balance to focus on becoming the best non-profit leader I could be.
Fast-forward past many bumps in the road, lessons learned, and you’ll find me still in the trenches, but a little wiser, a little calmer, and a whole lot happier. I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.
I created ChristieSaas.com so non-profit leaders never need to feel alone. I’m here to help. If you’re a brand-new non-profit leader, or a little more seasoned, someone who’s looking to make a meaningful contribution and still have time for a full life away from the job, you’re in the right place.
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