Don’t Do These 3 Things In Your First 90 Days as A Nonprofit Leader

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

A friend and client of mine was just about to get started in a new Executive Director role. I’m grateful and flattered that she frequently reads my posts so with her upcoming role, she suggested the post you’re now reading. The title is self-explanatory so off we go….

  1. Don’t bring your playbook: We all have the event that worked perfectly at the last organization. We have the fundraising approach that just killed it somewhere else. And of course we have that board structure that was the perfect fit. Here’s the thing: While that event, fundraising approach and board development hack met the moment, that moment is past. Trying a one-size fits all has at best, a 50/50 chance of working at the new place. Instead of bringing out the old stuff, take your time, assess, and see what the organization truly needs. As my favorite old saying goes, just because you’ve got the perfect hammer, don’t assume everything (or nonprofit) is your nail.
  2. Don’t assume your leadership style will work: Similar to techniques and strategies, just because the way you led at the last place worked, don’t assume the same exact approach will connect at a new place. An ED I was coaching shared the story of her transition from leading an affiliate of an international nonprofit with a budget of over 1 billion to joining a five year old organization striving to hit the $1 million mark. She had gone in with a pre-conceived notion of how she wanted to interact with the staff, who unlike her previous team, thrived on creativity, flexibility and failing fast. Fortunately she was able to adapt. However, the first several months were quite rocky as she tried to apply her highly structured approach that had worked at her prior nonprofit. After finding her footing, she noted that she was probably way too authoritarian and buttoned up in the early months at the younger organization.

By the way, with these first two, this isn’t a question about you as a leader, your prior successes or how you show up. Rather, it’s about what you do (or don’t do) with your new team. Think of newly retired Tom Brady. When he moved from New England to Tampa Bay, he had to figure out a whole new set of plays that would work with the new squad. Nevertheless, he’s a great quarterback and that didn’t change with the transition. (And don’t curse me if you’re not from either New England or Tampa Bay!)

And most of all….

  1. Don’t be afraid to Lead! After all, that’s why they hired you. One of the Executive Directors I coach shared the story of the what she called her biggest mistake. She told me that while serving as an Executive Director for an International nonprofit, she was beyond frustrated with the board’s willingness (or actually unwillingness) to fundraise. I know — stop me if you’ve heard this! Anyway, after an extremely disheartening board meeting where she pulled out all the stops, she threw up her hands. She decided to write the board an email outlining five options for moving forward. What followed wasn’t very surprising. Crickets. Follow up two days later. More crickets. And on it went. The bottom line was that the board was not looking for a myriad of options or her analysis of them. Quite simply, they were looking for leadership. Her leadership!
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

If you’re a James Bond fan and you’ve seen the final Daniel Craig installment, the villain says something akin to: People love the idea of freedom but they really want is to be told want to do. I think that’s extreme and don’t agree. I truly believe people want and need freedom to make choices. However, organizations need and want leaders — that’s why individuals are put in leadership roles. While the organization may appreciate successes you had elsewhere, they see in you an intangible something they recognize as a guiding force and they want it. Give it to them!



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Robert Grabel

Robert Grabel

Robert Grabel is committed to serving and does so through his practice Nonprofit Now! Learn about him at