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So, You Want to Be a Nonprofit Executive Director …

I am often asked how someone can prepare to become an executive director – how to be ready and feel ready right at the beginning of that dream gig. This post is the first in a series of three on the topic. Today I will focus on the actual job duties as most people in the nonprofit sector see them and offer some tips on what you can do to familiarize yourself with and prepare for the different aspects of the job. In the second installment, I will focus on juggling and balancing the many stakeholder relationships that an executive director manages (“It’s Lonely in the Middle”). The third installment will be about your work with a board of directors (“Managing the People Who Hired You”).

Before looking at an executive director’s job duties, it is important to begin by looking at some of the qualities and characteristics that most nonprofit leaders bring to the role. Because executive directors are responsible for so much, how they go about the work is essential. Executive directors should:

  • Have an authentic connection to the mission. All stakeholders want to follow a leader who is credible and authentic, which comes from trusting that you believe in the work. This connection does not have to be direct mission-related program experience, but the story of your journey to this role – why it is the perfect fit for your values and experience as well as how you embody the organization’s commitments – must be evident.

  • Find fulfillment in leading others. The job of the executive director is ultimately to lift up the work of others – whether staff, Board, beneficiaries, or donors. Your time in the spotlight (which will be plentiful, hopefully) is the chance to tell the story of the challenges and successes of those you lead and serve.

  • Embrace ambiguity. Leaders aim to bring continuous and positive change to their organization so it can better meet its mission – become increasingly impactful and better managed. A nonprofit executive director needs to be comfortable with the ambiguity of change and leading other people through that change.

  • Focus on the Future. The reason you initiate change is that you see a better future for the organization. You are able to formulate a vision that articulates how things could be and the clear actions needed to get there.

  • Be Deliberative and Decisive. If you were hoping to be in charge in the traditional sense, this is not the job for you. You do have authority, but it is the authority to bring people together to discuss and debate what should happen before you make the decisions that are within your role to make. The most important decisions (i.e., strategy, budget, and policy) cannot be made by you as the executive director acting alone; they are made at your recommendation to your board and with input from staff and stakeholders. Ands, for you as the executive, if a decision does not work out the hope is that everyone – Board, staff, donors, and beneficiaries – all believe the decision was made in a thorough, equitable, and reasonable way.

If you possess those qualities or can develop them through mentorship and coaching, here is a list of the duties to which you will bring your energy. I could start any of these items with the phrase “none of the other areas can function without your strong focus here.” The interplay of these duties is what makes the job truly rewarding.

  • Prioritize Diversity Equity & Inclusion. I list this first because its importance cannot be understated. Your commitment to equity and inclusion must be infused throughout your management of all aspects of your job and how you arrive at all of your decisions.

  • Provide Leadership. In the nonprofit world, this entails being the face of the organization and the representative to all stakeholders – internal and external. At every opportunity you will engage people using the tools of mission, vision and strategy.

  • Manage the Board. This facet of the job is so important that it warrants its own post in this series. Until then, you can see in this blog post that I recommend devoting 20% of your time to board development, cultivation and management.

  • Connect with Communities. No matter the size of the organization, an executive director needs close ties with the communities the organization serves and to ensure that the mission and vision include their perspective and remains relevant to them.

  • Develop Resources. Part and parcel of being the public face of the organization means you are most often on the frontline of developing resources. This is not only about bringing in money (although that does help in meeting payroll). As important are gifts of time from volunteers, donated services that provide valuable budget relief, and the expansion of the organization’s network and visibility. Most executive directors spend no less than half of their time on this area of the job.

  • Steward the Financial Resources. An executive director ensures that the organization will be sustainable and that its donated resources are managed with the highest ethical standards and maximized for impact. In my experience, this aspect of the job causes the most anxiety to would-be executive directors. I make a few suggestions below on how you might prepare for this aspect of the job.

  • Lead Programming. A good executive director recognizes that programs enable your ability to communicate vision, raise resources, and spend wisely – they are the reason your organization exists. The executive director must be keenly focused on ensuring that the programming is unique within your field, impactful, and resourced for success.

  • Support Talent and Build Culture. An executive director sets the culture of the organization, which is then most evident in how the organization manages talent, from recruitment to retention, including professional development and fostering a sense of belongingness.

  • Build Technology, Facilities, Insurance, Operations. A certain portion of your time will be spent ensuring that the lights are on, email is working, and the website is up. Like talent, this area of work has been historically under-resourced. Nonprofit leaders need to make smart investments of capacity to ensure that the programs and your team thrive.

  • Ensure Compliance and Mitigate Risk. Working with the board and staff, you ensure that whatever standards your organization is held to (by charities bureaus, the IRS, etc.) are being met and that you are as an organization pursuing your mission in a way that meets the highest standards.

As you can imagine, no one is an expert in all the areas you manage. That is why you build a stellar team and board. Still, what are some steps you can take today to start to get more familiar with the areas you would like more experience in?

Now, how can you put this advice into action?

  1. If you do not have one already, an advanced degree in public affairs or business can cover many of the topics above. Be sure to pursue electives in areas like human resources, technology, or fundraising that are (sadly) often not part of the core curriculum. Make sure these electives are available to you when you apply.

  2. If you are rounding out your experience, there are great certificate programs for you to delve into single topics, like finance, DE&I, or human resources. Check out this series of offerings from Cornell to start your exploration.

  3. In many areas there are nonprofit leadership development programs (sometimes in partnership with local institutions of higher education) that can be invaluable. They also help you build a cohort of like-minded professionals, something you will need increasingly as you advance your career. A few favorites include the National Urban Fellows, Coro Fellows, and the Developing Leaders Program for Nonprofit Professionals at Columbia Business School.

To learn more about what it means to become and be an executive director, check out my course Nonprofit Leadership - Being Prepared and Effective from Day One and sign up on the waiting list. I will be announcing fall dates this month. Or, follow me on LinkedIn for other tips and musings.


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