5 Mistakes New Nonprofit Executive Directors Make

The mailman has delivered the approved documents from the Secretary of State – you now are an official nonprofit! It’s an exciting day full of new opportunities and hope. Phone calls and emails go out to the Board Members on the incorporating documents. Excitement has filled the day! The next day you wake up and think, “now what do I do?” Do we open an office, get our website up and running, hire staff? What the vast majority of new nonprofit Executive Directors don’t realize, is there are 5 predictable mistakes that nonprofit leaders make in the first few months. Understanding the pitfalls will help you to avoid them and ensure a successful launch.


  1. Programs before fundraising – Many nonprofits are born because someone has an idea to help people, create change or promote an idea. Focusing on a program before you have raised the money is a mistake. It is like buying a new car and driving it without having the money to fill the gas tank. Fundraising is the fuel for every nonprofit, regardless of your mission.

  2. Board recruitment without expectations – In the beginning, most new nonprofits gather friends to be on the board because it is the easiest way to ensure the compliance with incorporating requirements. The challenge that quickly emerges is the lack of expectations for board members. Making it clear you need them to commit a number of hours per month, to open their contacts to the organization, and to assist you in raising money is where the real work of a Board starts. Not having clearly defined expectations for a board member will cripple the organization from the start.

  3. Mission drift – This is a common problem among nonprofits and usually occurs when funding opportunities change. It is easy for an organization to follow the money and end up drifting away from the purpose the organization was formed. Mission statements need to be developed carefully and once they are finalized they need to be memorialized in concrete. Every 5 years you reflect on refinements or draft a complete replacement of the mission statement, but don’t make the mistake of changing your mission to fit the most recent funding opportunity.

  4. Not talking to the community – It’s easy for a new nonprofit executive to identify a problem and propose a solution without ever speaking to any of the potential clients. Assuming you have the answer without really knowing the right questions is a danger. Understanding the needs or the issues that a community is facing and responding to them with programs or services is a pattern that will ensure your success in the future.

  5. Not getting a coach – As you start down the road with your new nonprofit it is good to learn from those who have gone before you. It’s your journey and you will navigate the turns with your own style and speed but knowing the pitfalls and the dangerous conditions that will crush your dreams is critical. Finding sage wisdom from those who have more experience is often overlooked. Most Executive Directors think of this only when they are in trouble and need a consultant, but the prudent invest in this from the very beginning, building their organizational capacity and leadership development. The investment will ensure long term sustainability for both the organization and you as an Executive Director.

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