March 2, 2015

Creating a Leadership Strategy and a Roadmap for Personal Success

A Three Step Guide for New Nonprofit Leaders in a Competitive Environment

You’ve just overcome the competition and were offered the leadership position at your nonprofit organization of choice. But, if you believe that you’ll walk in to find a  smooth running development operation, a culture of stewardship, a pristine database and technology system, absolute financial transparency and a Board that is fully engaged in the philanthropic process — you should re-think that assessment.

After the round of farewell tributes for your predecessor, the Board has renewed its energy and commitment. They will most likely assure you that everything has been left in perfect order and that staff morale is great – at least to the best of their knowledge. The search committee will explain that the staff is well prepared and that they look forward to your leadership and onboarding. All that is necessary now is the right leader and a new vision to take us over the top in the future, they will say. All you have to do is develop a strategy, engage the team, correct a few mishaps and prepare for success. But you know better!

Nonprofit leaders, Board members and the organizations they represent very often live in a world of abundant optimism which is rooted by their fundamental will to serve their mission. Board members become involved because they want to help people and change communities. In many cases this interest is genuine and relevant for day-to-day business. These are the folks which are charged with leading committees, making structural decisions which impact the organization and its staff as well as leading special initiatives relating to key areas such as public policy, community revitalization, leadership development and fundraising.

Let me share three easy steps for new CEOs, VPs and nonprofit leaders: Eat, Study, and Connect.


Start personally scheduling coffee, breakfasts and lunches with each Board member and committee leader in the first three months (90 days). Do not communicate with these leadership volunteers through your assistant as much as possible. Personalize your relationships so each will feel valued. Make these meetings a priority and be prepared to share your vision, plans for the future and areas where you need their “special assistance” as an important leader of the organization.

Your conversations should be a relaxed opportunity to build a positive relationship with your Board members. Listen more than you talk. You do not have to dazzle them with your brilliance, but you should be able to articulate your ideas for strategic improvements and future success. Also pay close attention to the details shared, their knowledge of specific areas, and their tone. Very often your volunteer leaders will utilize these sessions as an opportunity to vent or communicate very specific frustrations or areas for improvement based on their history with your organization. This can be your opportunity to make alliances and to be a valuable resource to your Board.


Make sure you make time for yourself and to work strategically. Your mind and your schedule will be racing and you’ll need to take every opportunity that presents itself to engage in your personal plan for success. Very often this means working long hours and taking more notes than usual. One trick I recommend is to keep a notebook by your bed or your cell phone’s notepad app open. This way,  when you have those revolutionary ideas that pop in your mind in the middle of the night you are prepared to write yourself a  note or to capture the thought as it enters your conscience at any given time.

Until you intimately know the personality of your organization, its structure, quirks, roadblocks and opportunities for success you have to be open to understanding everything that comes your way - so do your homework, study and learn at all times. Use your social media platforms creatively to share news and to explore the position of key stakeholders. Before you search for new alliances, make sure you’ve specifically shown interest and attention to the people who have already given the organization through their time, loyalty, money and dedication. Study their behavior, personal interests and patterns of communication and their engagement in your organization.


“No Connections…No Relationships” should be your approach.

You must immediately develop depth of knowledge regarding the community and the thought leaders within your region. If there are corporate, foundations, alumni, or national leaders that are within your six degrees of connection, then you must do what you can to build relationships with them by any means necessary.

In many nonprofit sectors, the cultivation and stewardship cycles are long and investment is high. They are a series of conversations over time that lead to decisions to make change or philanthropic support for your organization. It’s education and it’s consultation. As part of an effective  strategy, connecting to “influencers” and  thought leaders which provide the content and forum that bring an organization’s ideas, insights and epiphanies to life, creating the  fuel for individuals at all levels to start and sustain dialogue with prospective donors, earn their trust, and ultimately, win their interest and partnership.

Your first year as a nonprofit leader will move as quickly as ever. Nothing will be simple or as clear as it seems. Emergencies will erupt and solutions will be necessary, but remain focused on your fundamental strategy for success, engagement and survival. You will be lauded, judged and sometimes misunderstood. You will be astonished, humbled and grateful for the opportunity to drive change within your organization. You will be resilient and successful if you stick to the plan … Eat, Study and Connect.

Written by

Chris Polk


Questions or comments? Join the conversation!

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