To Boldly Go Where Others Have Gone Before

By: William Ferguson

Which is more frightening to you? Being the first one to do something or following in someone else’s footsteps? Stepping into an established role brings more challenges than you might think at first. Earlier this year we partnered with a new association that was changing management right in the middle of on-going programs. This has been a very challenging, but highly rewarding, year for me. Keep reading for ideas on how to tackle taking on a position that had previously been filled.

We don’t all do things the same way. The staff before you may have done things in a way you don’t agree with or used difference systems.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

As you go through learning the information about your organization – their history, by-laws, standing rules, etc., – you’re going to find something that isn’t complete (meaning the information is incomplete or you don’t have context), that is outdated, or can be done more efficiently. While you may run into some who want to keep doing things that way because it’s always been done that way, you have the responsibility and opportunity to make positive changes.


Start by locating all of the important documentation for your organization such as: Bylaws, Standing Rules, Committee Lists, Budgets, Investments, Financials, AMS Documentation, D&O Insurance Policy, etc. (You may be surprised to find some important pieces missing! If so, make updating or creating them your first priority.)

Locate, or make, a map of all the program areas and who’s responsible for each (including both staff members and volunteer leaders). You can use this to make sure enough manpower is available for everything or to quickly know who to reach out to for decisions or help.

Review your website and/or AMS to familiarize yourself with where everything is located or how it works. If you have inherited an AMS you are not comfortable using, contact the company and arrange training for you and staff members. Remember, your members are going to come to you for help!

Make a list of the volunteer leaders you’ll need to talk to in the order of what needs to be handled first. You need to reach out and make connections with your new board, chairs, and other volunteers. They may already know your name, but have you introduced yourself to them?

Tip: Make sure all contracts and policies are updated to your new address!

Once you have identified key areas that need to be addressed, it might be helpful to have a long conversation with your President or Chair. Arrange to have a block of time with them on the phone or, if possible, in person. Talk to them about their expectations, preferred mode of communication, and find out what their feelings are about priorities. You might learn that something you thought was very important is only a footnote to them at this time due to other concerns or needs. This is also your opportunity to share with them your feelings and concerns on any issues you’ve discovered during your internal scan of the organization. Together, you can come up with a short list of immediate concerns and a longer list of projects to tackle.

Make sure to share the outcomes of your conversation with the rest of your staff/team. Issues that affect one program area are likely to spread into other areas. This is especially true when revising documentation like manuals or by-laws.

Work with your staff to create an internal plan of action to tackle your list of immediate concerns. Being able to quickly complete items provides you and your team with a sense of accomplishment while also assuring your organization that you are capable and responsive.

Remember that your volunteer leaders are trusting you to help them and to care for their interests as if they were your own. Don’t forget to keep the lines of communication open as you work through each project.

With every organization being so different, your best tool is communication. Don’t assume you know exactly how to handle each situation just because you’ve done something similar in the past. You must establish a working trust with your leadership and your team.


Stepping into an established role (but one that is new to you), you’re going to find that the most common phrase you hear is “We always did it this way…” Without gaining the trust of your leadership, you’re going to find it very hard to initiate change. Focus on the positive, identifying areas where you can improve production or financial outcomes or improve member value. By openly communicating with your volunteer leaders, you will demonstrate that you are striving for the best and you can build trust to foster change.


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