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The Care and Feeding of Executive Directors

If there is a heaven for Executive Directors, I imagine it would be a wonderland where all grant proposals are approved, there are regular random phone calls from donors with accolades and checks, board meetings where decisions are quickly made and everyone leaves holding hands and singing Kumbaya, staff are ecstastically happy and totally aligned, your clients achieve every outcome you could possibly wish for them and you leave work with a ton of energy, ready to go work out and then meet friends for drinks.

You get home to a magically prepared, nutritionally-sound meal with your family, your partner and your children are incredibly pleasant and engaged, you give them your full and undivided attention because your phone is not pinging with emails and texts,  and you then go to bed early knowing that you will wake refreshed and dream of nothing but butterflies and rainbows, not funding shortages and impending deadlines.

Ah, a girl can dream.

The reality is a little less, um, idyllic.  While much ink has been spilled about how hard it is to be an Executive Director, is it a path that is chosen or is it a path that chooses you?  For many Executive Directors of my acquaintance, it is a calling that resonates deep in their soul.  Yet, why do so many leave the sector and what happens when they do?What we demand of many Executive Directors may not be possible or sustainable over time.  At a certain point, it becomes too exhausting to hold everything together.  Here are some key leverage points.

Board members activate

The biggest opportunity is in an engaged and active board who understands their role.  Too often, boards are both too much and not enough.  The work of the board is high-level: setting strategic direction, legal and fiduciary oversight, championing the cause and bringing resources to the table.  Often, EDs lament that they can't get board members to show up to meetings, to fulfill their pledges or to even read their board documents ahead of a meeting.  I fully understand that people are busy, but agreeing to be on a board is a serious commitment.  If all board members were actively engaged on behalf of the organization, I don't think as many EDs would feel like they're flying solo.  They would benefit from the updraft of so many of them flying in the same direction toward the same goal.

Fund bigger

The nonprofit funding cycle is generally feast or famine and even the most established nonprofits are concerned about the sustainability of their funding.  Also, the one-year cycle of most funding makes it difficult to make confident long-range plans.  Finally, funders should not shy away from funding innovation and new approaches.  Nonprofits are reluctant to try audacious new approaches because nobody wants to report failure and yet the problems we face are huge and cannot be solved by what we have done before.  In order for the nonprofit sector to truly make big impact, we have to be willing to make resources available and be willing to make bigger bets on big ideas.

Human capital

Based on twenty interviews I conducted with nonprofit leaders, human capital was the number one concern of all EDs.  The concerns broke down into three major buckets: recruitment, retention and development.  Firstly, nonprofit leaders were challenged to find high-quality, diverse candidates that they could afford, especially at the higher levels of leadership.  Secondly, once folks were in the door, they were concerned about keeping them.  What do you mean?  High levels of stress, low compensation, limited professional development and not much upward social mobility ain't keeping them in the seats?  Weird.  Finally, leaders were concerned that they were not able to provide themselves, let alone their staff, with the appropriate leadership and professional development to do their jobs effectively.  So, on top of being on a funding treadmill, EDs are also tasked with achieving their goals with an underpaid, overworked, under-trained workforce with a high turnover rate.  Again, this problem is related to the other two issues above.  I hate to be so simplistic as to suggest that throwing money at the problem will solve it.  But,yeah, throwing money at the problem would solve a lot of things: better compensation, enough staff to handle the responsibilities, time to cross-functionally train, ability to provide meaningful growth opportunities, building a deeper bench.In sum, while we think that EDs are superheroes, they are just people too.  Every ED I've ever met has been deeply committed, passionate, creative and smart.  They are exactly the people that you'd want if you had to survive on a desert island.  The problem is that they are often on their own desert islands with no help in sight.  In order to sustain people in the work, the work must actually be sustainable. 

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