My partner Eileen once noted that she’d never heard a group of people talk more about wanting to leave their jobs than executive directors. Eileen does not suffer fools gladly. Her answer was simple. “Why don’t they all just get new jobs?”
But why? Isn’t it a privilege to run a nonprofit organization? I always thought so. And I wasn’t a volunteer; I actually made a living. Of course I could always go find another job if I didn’t like the one I had.
Today I answer two questions: 1) Why is it that E.D’s might hate their jobs and 2) What are the tell tale signs that it might actually be time to do something about it?
5 REASONS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR JOBS FEEL SO HARD
1) Because it feels like every decision matters. The stakes are just so high when you care deeply about your clients and/or your mission. It feels like dropping any ball could create a crisis, stand in the way of your ability to serve your mission, or create a firestorm with a stakeholder group. Even small decisions feel big.
2) Because you are beholden to many groups of stakeholders and they never want the same things. You have your board, your staff, your clients, your donors, the press, the folks you lobby, and your family (hardly an exhaustive list.) Your board wants you out fundraising; your staff wants face time; the folks you lobby care at least as much about votes as they do about your cause; the press doesn’t seem to want you to succeed; your clients want you to spend more money; your board wants you to spend less; and then there’s your family. They just want more of your time and they would like you to complain a little less about your job.
3) Because you can’t say yes to everything. You meet with a funder who thinks it would be great if you opened a homeless shelter for your clients. She asks you to submit a proposal for 25% of what it would cost. It’s a lot of money. Very hard to turn down. It’s is a brilliant idea. But where is the other 75% coming from? Or try this. Your board member comes up with a great idea for yet another low-end friend-raising event when all you really just want her to do is ask her mother who is a foundation trustee if you can submit a general operating proposal for $250,000.
4) Because the TSA security guy at the airport noticed you got new shoes. The travelling is killing you. I mean it’s nice to be recognized at the airport but to be on a first name basis with the person who yells “male check?” It’s just too much.
5) Because everyone is afraid to have lunch with you. They all know what it means. Just as the cappuccino is set down, bingo! They get asked for a contribution. And lunch with the E.D. is always expensive! I remember that first time I invited someone to join me for lunch after I stepped down from my E.D. job at GLAAD. There was a certain relief in their eyes that was hard to miss.
THE TOP 5 TELLTALE SIGNS THAT IT MIGHT BE TIME TO MOVE ON
1) You suggest a piñata of your board chair as a team building exercise at your staff retreat.
2) You strike out at a fundraising ask and shriek, “If the damned SubZero is so finicky, why did you buy one for your 7,000 square foot home in the Hollywood Hills?”
3) You stop caring whether the hot meals on wheels you serve are still hot.
4) You run out to pick up Chinese for lunch and watch a woman fill hundreds of tiny cups with soy sauce and you think to yourself, “Wow, that looks like so much fun.” (Personal note: This really happened to me. It was scary.)
5) You suggest that your staff learns sign language so that you don’t have to listen to them complain about not having a voice.
YOU DON’T REALLY HATE YOUR JOB, DO YOU?
The primary reason that executive directors complain to each other is that they can. Who else can they complain to? The other stakeholder groups are off limits. And so sharing war stories about difficult donors, about feeling like you are a mid-level personnel manager and not really out changing the world with colleagues who get it can be pretty therapeutic.
So just keep your eye on the prize. The community you serve needs you to be on your game. You are making a difference.
And you’d get really bored filling those cups with soy sauce.
P.S. Please explore the site (click the link at the end of the next sentence.) There’s a lot here that can help you become a better and happier Executive Director.
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