Introduction and Suggested Dos and Don'ts

Congratulations on your new position as executive director of a Center for Independent Living (CIL)!

Several of us compiling this tool kit have been where you are and know that you are probably experiencing an overwhelming mix of conflicting emotions: excitement, curiosity, accomplishment, eagerness to get started, fear, anxiety, inadequacy, maybe even panic.

Not only do you have to deal with the complexities of running a nonprofit—financial management, personnel management, resource development, marketing, and public relations—you have to meet the unique standards for and challenges of directing a CIL.  These include ensuring people with disabilities comprise a majority of the staff and board, assisting individuals with significant disabilities to set and meet goals, and bringing about systems change and equal access both within your CIL and in the larger community. A CIL deals with issues that people with disabilities face throughout the lifespan, from education and healthcare to housing and personal assistance and everything before, between, and beyond. That is a lot to wrap your head around.  

The good news is that you don’t have to do this alone. As soon as you can, get connected with your Program Officer, ILRU, and—if you are in a Part B Center or a 723 state—with your Designated State Entity:

  • Your CIL’s Program Officer (PO) at the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Office of Independent Living Programs (OILP) can answer questions you have related to federal grant requirements and compliance with regulations. If your CIL receives Part C funds, you will have a PO assigned to your CIL. Check the listing linked in Section 3 for the name and contact information of your PO.
  • The Designated State Entity (DSE) is the state agency identified in the State Plan for Independent Living (SPIL) to receive, distribute and monitor Part B funds. CILs that receive only Part B funds or those in Sec. 723 states[1] will work with a contact at the DSE on reporting and compliance issues. Centers receiving both Part B and C will have a PO for Part C and report directly to the DSE for Part B. For more information, see Frequently Asked Questions About Designated State Entities
  • The IL-NET National Training and Technical Assistance Center for Independent Living at Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU), publisher of this tool kit, provides training and technical assistance on a wide range of topics of interest to CILs and Statewide Independent Living Councils (SILCs) and a vast library of materials, on-demand webinars, and videos at For general questions about finding resources or trainings, please contact ILRU at or at 713-520-0232.
  • Individualized support is available to assist you in identifying areas of need and more intensive support is available if you have compliance issues you need to correct as identified by either the state or by your ACL/OILP Program Office. Contact IL-NET’s Associate Director for Technical Assistance (TA), Paula McElwee, at to enroll. If you’re in need of intensive support, please attach a copy of the review including findings you must correct.

The purpose of this tool kit is to focus your attention on important aspects of your job that you need to know about early on and that might get lost in the daily conflicting demands for attention. Concrete action steps are provided in easy-to-use checklists, bullet points, and dos and don’ts organized to help you quickly find what you are looking for. For example, here are some Suggested Dos and Don’ts for New Executive Directors that our Technical Assistance (TA) team put together.

Suggested Dos and Don’ts for New CIL Executive Directors

  • DO learn about the history and philosophy behind Independent Living. Review the four video modules produced by ILRU that will provide an orientation for you. You can also use these to orient new hires and new board members. (
  • DO learn how to navigate training options and the ILRU website ( For individual Technical Assistance questions, email Paula McElwee, the IL-NET’s Associate Director for TA, at
  • DO meet with each staff person and ask them to tell you about their job. Find out if their job descriptions capture what they actually do on a daily basis. Understand the full array of programs and services offered and where each staff member fits in the organizational chart. Ask each staff member what you can expect them to accomplish in the next six months. Ask them what they need from you. Then follow up!
  • DO read CIL financial management publications ( Read your own policies and procedures to see if they meet the requirements. Discuss with your financial manager (whether on staff or a contractor) what financial concerns they have, if any. Review the most recent CIL financial statements with them, including budget to actual expenditure comparisons.
  • DO get to know your board. Take the time to talk with each board member and learn what they can bring to the CIL and to Independent Living. Ask who they know in the community that you should meet. This training ( on supporting your board might also be helpful.
  • DO learn about the other CILs in your state. You might start with this directory ( Update your own listing by using the “contact us” form on the website. You can refer to state associations ( or check in with another CIL to learn whether your state has an association for Centers and get on their phone/email list.
  • DO learn about the Statewide Independent Living Council in your state, including who the representative for the CILs is. These resources can help you contact your SILC ( and learn more about how CILs and the SILC work together (
  • DO complete ACL’s hiring checklist for executive directors (
  • DON’T move to a different building immediately. As the new person in the space, you can see how it is or is not serving your vision. Study the situation before making a recommendation. Take time to read and understand your lease. See if there are leasehold improvements that you are paying for through that lease. Often the landlord agrees to add an automatic door or remodel bathrooms, but your lease adds these costs to your rent and you agree to pay for them over the period of your lease. If your lease ends soon, ask for a month-to-month extension while you work with the board on the reasons change is needed. If it is several years away, turn your attention to other things. Getting a new office is energizing but often takes you away from the real work that needs to be done.
  • DON’T spend money updating or decorating your office. When you first come into a job, no matter how you have prepared, you don’t really know the financial situation. Spending money on yourself doesn’t endear you to staff who have been doing without some things. Instead of jumping into the purchase of a new desk (unless it’s an access accommodation for you), start a list of improvements you’d like to make for everyone. Then begin the process of planning and budgeting for those changes.
  • DON’T change the name, logo, colors, and image of your CIL. Rebranding is a very popular idea for new executive directors, and maybe it is needed—but it doesn’t need to be done in your first weeks, or even year. Take time to know what the consumers like and don’t like about your Center and you will figure out how to improve—not just cosmetically, but concretely.
  • DON’T blame your predecessor before you really understand the lay of the land. There is no value in trashing the person who came before you, even if that executive director was fired by the board. That kind of situation is never black and white. Get to know the staff, the board, the policies, and systems. Make sure you really understand what happened under your predecessor before you assume they were bad and you are better.
  • DON’T start changing staff job descriptions, redoing the organizational chart, or firing staff. You may indeed want to do these things, but again, get to know the staff and what they see their jobs to be. Don’t act just to show that you are in charge. Empower your staff, board, and consumers to share their knowledge, expertise, and talents as you decide how to move forward.

This tool kit is not intended to answer all of your questions. Contact us and the other resources listed above if you need more information.

We look forward to working with you and seeing you succeed!

[1] Section 723 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, authorizes grants to CILs in states in which state funding equals or exceeds federal funding.