Don't Let New Nonprofit CEOs Stumble in the Honeymoon Stage
A friend forwarded the email. I could tell by his introductory remark he was not pleased.
He was a long-serving board member of a major organization and a very prominent community leader. The nonprofit recently went through a leadership transition after years of rising dysfunction and then budget troubles that had become well-known in the community.
The email he forwarded was from the new CEO to board members. It was not personalized. The CEO shared that the organization had been visiting with many board members, but those the organization could not get to were asked to complete a survey.
I stared at the screen. Then, I reread the email. It even noted that the survey was being conducted by a consulting firm — one that many board members for years has raised questions about for its effectiveness in helping the recently departed CEO and especially in light of more than $1 million in consulting fees paid to it during that tenure. It was obvious the relationship continued.
The organization's budget is near $100 million, and a survey of the board was well within internal staff capacity. The organization's development and communications staffs certainly are also able to handle a new CEO rollout.
But it was deja vu — this firm had helped rolled out the now departed CEO 10 years earlier with great fanfare.
I clicked on the survey, and instead of asking strategic, vision questions, the survey was asking about board size, board meetings and the like. The wrong questions at the wrong time.
There are many lessons to be learned:
- The organization had been in financial trouble, closing several facilities, and the ongoing use of consultants for roles internal staff could fulfill sent the wrong fiscal signal. And at a time of needed change, it does not paint a picture of hope or fresh start to have the same players — especially key advisors — at the table.
- Board members are a CEO's chief asset. The email and survey did not make a board member feel important. CEOs should have a plan to regularly connect personally with their boards. An essential part of a 90-day new CEO plan must be to visit with every board member. Period.
- A CEO's conversation with board members — and especially a new CEO — should be about vision. The new CEO should be painting a new picture in a time of challenges. The survey asked about operational issues.
CEOs' honeymoon should be magical. It is the best opportunity for them to define themselves, including their vision and values, and paint a bright big picture that board members and other donors can embrace.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.