Insights into nonprofit leadership & governance

Letter to a new CEO: Wisdom from the ranks

October 15, 2019  

Career Pathways, a terrific “talent pipeline expansion program” of the Council on Foundations, is now in its sixth year of bolstering inclusive practices and diversity in philanthropic decision-making. (BoardWalk has been pleased to be a supporter from the beginning.) A number of early participants (primarily women and people of color) are now running major foundations, and many more have expanded their responsibilities significantly.

One assignment for the 2019 cohort was to craft a “Letter to a new CEO.” Donita Volkwijn, a cohort member from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, shared her letter with us, and with her permission we are sharing it with you.

A native of South Africa, Donita spent 11 years as an opera singer (in San Francisco, Seattle, Amsterdam and Hungary, among others) before joining the world of philanthropy. Now a Manager of Knowledge Management, she started as a temporary admin assistant. Her letter reinforced for us the wisdom available at every level of an organization. Her advice—especially point #4!—are words any CEO would do well to heed.

We will feature other voices from the field in future postings.  If you have one to share, we’d love to hear from you.

Letter to a new CEO by Donita Volkwijn

Dear friend,

Congratulations on your appointment to CEO! It is well-deserved and well-earned. You asked for some guidance as you start this new chapter in your life, and while I appreciate your willingness to learn from others, my first bit of guidance is this: trust yourself. You were chosen for this position and if you can’t see what the board and staff saw in you to invite you to take on this leadership role, then you might want to rethink some life choices. I joke…but only a little.

I’m going to keep this missive short, as you now probably only have about 3 extra minutes a day to read non-essential information. I trust that you’ve done your due diligence as to the nuts and bolts of how your organization runs. If you haven’t, again, reconsider your life choices. I’m sure you’ve also read this wonderful document, which comes from someone who is a much kinder and more patient person than I am.

Here then are my thoughts to keep in mind:

1. Never, ever forget the communities we serve.

2. Trust yourself.

3. Surround yourself with people who complement rather than compliment you.

4. Don’t be an a**hole – forgive the language, but seriously, you earn more money than anyone else in your organization, you should be experiencing an inordinate amount of joy from doing what you love, and you hold the trust and futures of a lot of people in your hands.

5. If you find no joy in your work, reconsider your life choices.

6. If you don’t get angry about something in this world at least once a day, reconsider your life choices.

7. Make sure you have someone in your life, both personally and professionally who says no to you. You may think that you’re all that, and in some circles you may be, but if you start believing your own hype, you immediately become a less-effective leader. We already have enough of those. See, again number 4

8. If something doesn’t make you curious at least once day, reconsider your life choices.

9. Ask yourself on a regular basis how you might be standing in the path of someone else’s leadership.

10. Always look for and acknowledge the humanity of the people around you.

That’s it. Obviously, I could continue ad infinitum, but that would be silly. The way I lead will never be the way you do (although I hope there are many points of overlap), but trust that you will find your own path and will then be asked to write a similar letter to someone else someday.

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