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Guest post: Kathy Finn Wright, MHR, CPC, ELI-MP is CEO of Nevus Outreach, a nonprofit “dedicated to bringing awareness, providing support and working toward cures for people affected by congenital melanocytic nevi and related disorders.” Nevus Outreach serves people who were born with moles covering as much as 80% of their bodies. She is former COO of the Institute of Conversational Fundraising. 
I got the job!
Transition to any job typically encompasses a wide range of emotions. When stepping in to the role of CEO for a nonprofit, these emotions are amplified. Excitement at the idea of using your skills, background and experience to take an organization to the next level. Uncertainty as to exactly what you are stepping in to in terms of organizational stability. Fear of not doing the right things in the right order. Energized by the good you can do in the world.
I have taken on the Chief Executive role three times in my career, most recently on July 1 of this year. The first time I wore that hat, I was the first CEO that particular organization ever hired. The other two times were during varying degrees of organizational crisis. For one organization, the nonprofit discovered their Executive Director was embezzling and needed an immediate interim director. In my most recent position, the former CEO retired, but had left some unresolved issues as a legacy for me, the incoming CEO.
Did I mention I embrace a good challenge?
Why? Because the people we serve deserve to have our organization do the best it possibly can in meeting our mission.
By way of background, I have worked mostly for small nonprofits. With small organizations, the CEO manages nearly all the functional areas. Having skills and training in business management, fundraising, HR, accounting, and writing is essential. Experience with things like web management and computer hardware will also come in handy. This type of position is perfect for someone who is a jack of all trades!
But where to start? What to do first? Here are three areas I’ve found are the places to first focus your efforts when making the transition to a nonprofit CEO.
  1. Board and Staff Roles
  2. Financial Picture
  3. Relationships
Board and Staff Roles
Board and staff role expectations can take a huge step in the right direction before you even get hired for the job. One excellent question to ask during the interview process is this: “In your organization, does the board work for the CEO or does the CEO work for the board?” It is surprisingly common to hear the incorrect answer (the board works for the CEO) to this question, particularly in young or founder led organizations. Many times, in these organizations, the board members are carefully selected by the CEO to be a rubber stamp for the whims or priorities of that person. Instead, the board should be choosing its own members and then, in their governance role, taking charge in setting the destination, direction and duration* of the organization. Or conversely, the board meddles in every detail from choosing napkin colors for the gala to hiring the bookkeeper. Micromanagement, versus governance.
Let the board know BEFORE you get hired that you expect them to govern and that you will be leading.
Once hired, prepare and send your board report at least a week in advance of every board meeting and refuse to give it aloud, AGAIN, during the meeting. Board meeting time is reserved for decision making and input from board members, not for endless “reports” with no action in sight. Redirect any board member (including the chair) who requests items or actions from you and insist that you take direction from the board speaking as one voice. Everyone will be much happier-especially you-when they stay within appropriate roles.
Financial Picture
Getting a true handle on the financial status of the organization is critical early on. When I took over after the CEO who was embezzling, as you might imagine, the books were in a terrible mess. It took a while to sort out what entries were real and which were “made up”. We worked closely with our accounting firm to straighten out the financials to get a true picture of the state of the organization. And, we put policies in place to protect the organization and the people running it.
Get the help of any outside professionals you need during this process. Besides the obvious review of 990’s and budgets, ask a lot of questions about anything that seems unusual. “What does this line item ‘Executive Expense Account’ mean?” “How did you determine the individual donation projections for the year?” “Who are our major donors and key stakeholders?” “What are our liabilities for the next 6 months?”
It is critical to know what funding is coming in and what expenses are going out in order to construct your plan and to determine next steps.
Immediately beginning to build relationships with board and staff is critical to success in your role. Besides getting to know staff members and what their respective jobs entail, getting to know board members is equally important. One of the first things I did in my most recent transition is to go on a “Listening Tour“. I did mine by phone because our board members are spread out across the country and Canada. But if you can meet in person, that’s even better!
Each individual board member generously set aside 30 minutes of their time for us to get acquainted. I had just a few questions I wanted to know and the time just flew by. You can find the template I used to guide my questioning here. We had some rich conversations! After completing the interviews, I compiled the results and sent them to every board member. Board members got to see what others thought and some of the responses became starting points for future discussions and planning. And, they got to know ME a little better as a person rather than just some words on a resume.
Next, relationships with donors need to be established. It goes without saying that this activity is especially critical in a small organization with no development staff. Calling and thanking major donors pays relationship dividends…and donor retention dividends…down the road. A simple thank you followed by a question, “I’m curious. When you give to __________ what do you want your gift to accomplish?”** Then sit back, listen and prepare to be blown away by your donors!
Assuming the leadership mantle in a nonprofit organization has many rewards. Those of us working in this sector, especially those working for small nonprofits, are here to make a difference. Salaries are typically lower and benefits skimpier than in respective jobs in corporate America, or even in larger nonprofits, but we see daily how we change peoples’ lives. And that’s what it’s all about!
*From The Intentional Board by Kent Stroman.
**From Asking about Asking by Kent Stroman.
Kathy Wright, MHR, CPC, ELI-MP
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