The Secrets for a Successful First Year as a Nonprofit CEO

Jan. 27, 2016

David Edell


During your first-year as a CEO of a nonprofit, you might find that the classroom conversations and executive education that you participated in doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the real-world challenges that you face in the position.

When I sat on a panel, along with Martha Sullivan, CEO of Gouverneur Health, a few months ago for the inaugural session of the Belle and George Strell Executive Leadership Fellows Program at the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York, I began by challenging the fellows to ask themselves whether the work of the CEO included the responsibilities that they wanted to pursue. Too often we have seen people pursue the role because they thought it would represent the pinnacle of their career. However, they did so without being sure that the specific challenges in the role would be satisfying.

The CEO job descriptions, though detailed and comprehensive, don’t always encompass all of your potential responsibilities and they don’t account for some of the unexpected curveballs that you will encounter in the role. You’ll be expected to juggle a variety of tasks, including financial management, working with a board of directors, staff management, community relations and fundraising.

Your ability to succeed at these responsibilities during your first year on the job are not just dependent on your training and previous experiences. It is often related to the things that you can’t learn in the classroom. Here are a few of them:

Inspiration. Having the ability to articulate a clear vision, identify solutions and master the language of possibility, create a context for staff and board so that their work is focused and inspired toward achieving the organization’s mission.

Resilience. An organization is only as resilient as its leader. As the face of the organization, you will have to make tough decisions and be comfortable with accepting blame when things don’t work. Multitasking and juggling internal and external processes and crises around-the-clock can be draining. How will you react if your board is unhappy? What about when a staff member resigns or when services are not delivered effectively? Leaders need to be skilled in managing their emotions. That includes compartmentalizing and knowing how to take care of yourself so that you aren’t easily overwhelmed by the issues that you encounter.

Organizational culture. Creating a work environment at your nonprofit that is energized and empowering is often defined by the stories that employees tell others about your organization’s values and what it’s like to work there. Success isn’t just focused on metrics or how much money your organization has raised. It’s about building a culture where employees recognize that there is meaning in the work that they’re doing and they are valued for their contributions.

Community-building. We often think of community building as external, but one of the greatest things you can do for your organization is to make sure that all the volunteers and professional members on your team are connected. It’s not just about appearing to the outside world as a “happy family.” You need to be able to attract and retain volunteers as well as cultivate a community of people that are onboard with your mission. These individuals share values, are motivated by the work, and are prepared to be supporters and ambassadors for the organization.

Comfort with ambiguity. While a large part of your job will involve developing strategies to execute successful change, there are some issues in the sector that you will have to address unexpectedly, from natural disasters to scandals. You may end up succeeding at fixing one issue, only to find that there are other issues that you weren’t aware of. You may not have time to complete a planning or strategic process. Instead, you may need to implement change immediately. All processes cannot be linear. That is why leaders need to be “comfortable with messiness” while driving toward a desired outcome.

Courage. Being the leader of an organization requires courage. You need to have the courage to independently analyze problems, listen to people with diverse perspectives and expertise as well as be decisive and translate strategies into action. You also must have the courage to not shy away from difficult people or negotiations while mastering the art of saying “no” when it’s appropriate.

Successful CEOs create the vision and the environment for staff and volunteers to feel empowered and fulfilled by their work and connections with the organization. The role requires many learnable skills, but inspiration, resilience, comfort with ambiguity, courage and building culture and community are essential leadership traits that define a CEO’s success.