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Lessons in the Pandemic: Starting as a New CEO

Matthew Moy Johnson

Matthew Moy Johnson, an experienced nonprofit executive, recently accepted a new challenge to become the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Cancer Research Foundation (CRF), Chicago. He was selected during a national search, led by Tuft & Associates.

Believing CRF has an important mission, Johnson was ready to help the organization realize its full potential.  His first day of work at CRF was March 16.  This also turned out to be his last day physically in the office as the Governor declared a Stay-At-Home order and the CRF team complied.  

Tuft asked Johnson to share lessons learned from his first month on the job as he started his new role as CEO during the pandemic crisis. Here are his thoughts:

“What an unusual time this has been. I had the opportunity to meet the staff for an hour the first day, and then, heeding the guidance of our Mayor and Governor, we decided to work from home. Since that first day, we’ve been isolating in place. It’s been challenging getting to know the staff since we hadn’t met before the first day.

“But I’ve learned a few important lessons from this experience:

  • Recognizing the importance of regular communication and meetings with my Board Chair.  While face to face is much preferred, we are relying on Zoom for now. 
  • Knowing that part of the job of building close personal relationships is not possible right now, you can still focus on what can be controlled such as communicating with Board members via Zoom and phone, and getting to know donors and keeping them informed.
  • Taking advantage of this time to dive into the organization’s history and all of its documentation—policies and procedures, donor lists and histories—learning about the past and thinking about the future by verifying and updating information about prospects. It’s also a good time to put structure in place for the annual campaign, communications plan, and moves management for major donors. 
  • Starting to build our brand and visibility. Through building our social media, we are profiling some of the promising early-career scientists whom we’ve honored with our Young Investigator Awards, and we’re getting attention and positive feedback.

“I’m in awe, but not surprised, that nonprofit and philanthropy are really stepping up as the world is struggling with this crisis. I am proud to be a small part of the nonprofit sector, which steps up whether the world is in a major crisis, or not.  We are always here to support and serve society.  That definitely keeps me motivated.”