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  • Writer's pictureDr. Eric Lankin

What Should a Nonprofit Leader Do in Year One?

As the new CEO of a NGO, I remember being flabbergasted when I learned that the required staff vacations were the first two weeks in July and the last two weeks in December. I soon learned that the past CEO had owned a factory and this policy was standard in his factory.

For me, as an experienced NGO executive, I could understand a July vacation but December?

December is a critical month for NGO’s, as the most important cash collection and fundraising time of the year before the tax year ends and not an opportune time for staff vacations.

So, I made an executive decision to help develop good relations with the staff and improve organizational efficiency. I announced that no longer will the office be closed in July and December and that each staff person can request their own two weeks of vacation to which they were entitled and for which they were paid. I would approve their choice if it met the needs of the organization.

Boy did I misjudge the response!

The policy change didn’t sit well with the staff, even if it benefited them in the long run. They took my first attempts to reorganize and revamp, as threatening changes to the status quo that put them on edge.

I share the above story as only one example of the challenges of a new CEO. As the new professional leader, you were probably hired to make changes but beware, all changes come at a price!

In the many professional positions I have held in the nonprofit community, among the biggest challenges has been to determine what I should do on day one, and, of course, on future days in the short and long term.

The following are four points you should consider as the new leader of an NGO:

It takes time to learn the organization’s unique culture. Edgar Schein, the dean of organizational culture, in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership (5th edition, 2017), describes three levels of culture: visible artifacts and observed behavior; espoused beliefs and values; and basic underlying (unconscious) assumptions and taken-for-granted beliefs. To simplify, imagine organizational culture as an iceberg, with a small percentage of its mass above the water (what you see and experience) and a majority (unconscious assumptions and taken-for -granted beliefs) under the water. Give yourself time to learn both parts of the iceberg because both have the capability to sink your ship if your ship crashes into it.

If you are hired to be a “change agent,” don’t rush, and build a constituency before making changes. Note that might take you many months. The reason policies and procedures are the way they are is probably because someone on the present staff either designed it or has an investment in the status quo. They will oppose you, actively or passively, to avoid the changes. All change is scary, even changes that lead to improvement, so be sensitive that any changes you introduce will affect people, their work lives and home lives. Hold off on the changes until you really understand the rules and until you build your own team of supporters.

Subconsciously or consciously, you were hired to address the deficiencies of the last person in the job. Find out what they were and develop a plan to address those deficiencies. But be careful, as it doesn't help you if you bad mouth the last person who had your title. Some members of the staff, board, donors and clients/customers liked the last person and won’t appreciate your criticism.

Use the beginning of your tenure to meet not only the key players but as many members of the NGO’s constituency as you can. Have meals with board members and senior staff members. Make it a point to have coffee in the work spaces of the members of your staff. Stop by their offices, get to know your team, as people. Sit and talk to folks in the lobby. See significant clients and the top donors of your nonprofit. Ask questions to every person and listen attentively and carefully. I remember saying to the development leadership in one nonprofit I led and said that I want to meet the top 100 donors as soon as possible. Their response was, “that’s impossible, we only have 70 donors!”

In summary, your NGO ship has left the port and you are the new captain. Avoid the icebergs and remember that what you see of the iceberg’s surface is only a small view of the entire mass. Even policies you think obviously must be changed will have constituencies that will oppose you for conscious and unconscious reasons. Get to know the sea that you are traveling and note that ships turn slowly!

Dr. Eric Lankin is President of Lankin Consulting, a firm focused on the needs of the nonprofit community and an (Adjunct) Professor in the M.A. Program in Nonprofit Management and Leadership at the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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