Before You Take That New Executive Director Job…

executive director jobs

The story is mine but it’s oh so common. When I was hired to be an Executive Director of a nonprofit organization, I had no idea what I was getting into. The board had even less of an idea. We had a budget on paper. Paper, it turns out, we couldn’t afford. From tip to toe, there was a lot of work to be done, starting with raising enough money for payroll.

I often wonder. If I had asked the search committee the right kinds of questions, would I have understood the depth of the challenges? And here’s an even better question. Would I have walked away from the opportunity that turned out to be one of the most professionally rewarding roles in my career?

That’s the thing about applying for Executive Director jobs. I don’t think I asked particularly good or smart questions of the search committee. Funny, right? I pride myself on asking good, smart questions.

And why didn’t I? Perhaps I wanted the Executive Director job so much I did not want to be dissuaded. Or maybe I thought the board really wouldn’t know the answers.

So what should we ask search committees when we’re interviewing for Executive Director jobs?

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Executive Directors Are Superheroes, But They Have Their Kryptonite

executive directors

As I write this, the biggest movie in the world is the superhero film, Avengers Endgame.

Now, I’m not the biggest action movie buff in the world, but I do know a superhero when I see one. And Executive Directors are society’s superheroes. There is just no doubt in my mind.

They go toe-to-toe with their opponents on national TV.

They fearlessly meet with elected officials to influence change.

They lead with a level of determination far beyond those of mortal men and women.

But just like Superman (and yes, I know he’s not in the Avengers), Executive Directors have their kryptonite. Their (potentially) fatal flaw.

It’s not a lack of resources… or a disengaged board.

No, those are obstacles for sure. But this problem is actually harder to overcome. And it affects Executive Directors regardless of level of performance.

And it’s not an addiction to hummus either.

Want a hint?Continue Reading

10 Things That Drive Executive Directors Nuts

toughest things about being an executive director

My glass? Half full. As far as I’m concerned, running a nonprofit is a joy and privilege.

But I’m also a realist. These jobs are hard. You throw your heart and soul into educating, advocating, feeding, lobbying, sheltering – the list goes on.

During my time as an Executive Director, the toughest thing for me was the enormous responsibility I felt.

There was this therapy session. So why are you here? My therapist (who was wonderful) had one of those voices that’s supposed to calm you down. But I was so riled up, her voice could not even make a dent.

I cut to the chase. I really like to help people. It’s part of my DNA. And for the most part I think it is one of my finer qualities…. And probably because of this, I just took a job running a gay rights organization. But I’ve gone overboard. Now I feel like I need to help all the gay people.

Over eight years, I had days when the responsibility felt crushing and I developed some go-to strategies for when I was having a bad day.

Today I offer you my take on the top ten toughest things about being an Executive Director. And because I cannot contain myself, some color commentary and maybe an antidote for each.Continue Reading

The Best Book I Read This Past Year

useless meetings

Useless meetings? I have had my share. Bet you have too.

Back in my corporate America days I would find myself sitting in meetings that were just a pure waste of time.

Maybe the meeting was poorly led. Or the convener liked to hear herself talk. Or there was no agenda. Or the meeting got awkward for any number of reasons.

Later, as a nonprofit board member, I left board meetings thinking I could have called in, put the phone on mute and checked Facebook. I had learned nothing that I had not read in the written packet.

My technique for dealing with useless meetings? I called it “wood grain analysis.” My technique for disappearing from the room. A nice close look at the patterns and an opportunity to make mental lists about the work I should be doing.

And I’ll confess. I am certainly not immune to this problem here in my consulting shop. I have let staff members drone on (I did not want to hurt their feelings or embarrass them in front of colleagues). I have raced into meetings unprepared to lead it and pulled some agenda out of thin air.

We have all done it.

But during a recent break I discovered the antidote to this syndrome, and I felt compelled to share it with you.Continue Reading

3 Easy Holiday Gift Ideas for Nonprofit Staff

holiday gift ideas

You slid into Thanksgiving like a baseball player stretching a double into a triple. You are filthy, battered and bruised. Those four days “off” may have included drama at the Thanksgiving table, company that wasn’t supposed to stay that long, and checking email during courses.

Thank goodness for time off, eh?

Now here you are back at your desk. You have tried to block out the light at the end of the tunnel. You know which light I mean. The light of the oncoming train of the holidays.

There’s no time left to ignore it.

My mom would always brag about the holiday shopping she did on December 27th for the following years. I really did not like when she said that. Not one little bit.

Unlike her, I’m not ready just yet. Are you? Probably not.

And if you’re lucky enough to have staff or lead volunteers, you need to do something.

I’m here to help. Seriously. I have three holiday gift ideas. Inexpensive, meaningful, and easy.

Easy means you can pull off within a week. AND not expensive to ship if your team is virtual.Continue Reading

How to Handle Criticism of Your Organization

handle criticism

We live in a strange new world. Not a particularly kind and generous one if you ask me.

Our world is polarized as never before and civility in dealing with those with whom you disagree seems to have been erased from our society’s hard drive.

And I am so not talking only about politics. I see it with nonprofit organizations galore.

The negativity comes from both inside the organization (a staff upset with a change in health benefits) and externally (community members who feel voiceless in some kind of directional change.)

Or a local blogger or journalist with a big ol’ bone to pick. My phones have been ringing more and more asking for help with these kinds of issues. Some might frame this as crisis management but I would prefer to dig at the root cause.

Often, a full-blown crisis is the result of something small handled poorly.

Or something small that leaders got so worried about that it became big. I believe nonprofit leaders can often cut crises off at the pass if we handle the challenge or the criticism well.

Today, I want to help you think about how to handle criticism without anger or defensiveness so that it doesn’t blow up into a full-blown crisis. If I do only that, it will be a good day at the office for me.Continue Reading

The Best Nonprofit Career Advice I Ever Got

nonprofit career

What’s the best career advice you ever got? I really want to know!

It turns out I have a pretty mixed track record when it comes to giving career advice. A story for another day.

But you know who gives the best career advice?

My wife.

The advice she once gave me is a perfect example.

There I was at Showtime. Seemingly happy and successful and yet there was something gnawing at me. But I was clueless.

Until my wife offered the best career advice I have ever gotten.

“You would be a great nonprofit executive director.”

Not something I had ever considered but she made a clear case. “You have natural leadership ability, innate management ability, and you care really deeply about gay rights.”

She could not have been more spot on. A career move that was personally and professionally transformative.

It also began my nonprofit career.

So back to my original question. What’s the best career advice you ever got?

I decided to ask some real experts.

You might know I host a Facebook group for board and staff leaders called Thriving Nonprofit With Joan Garryyou should totally join us there if you haven’t already. This group – presently 20,000 strong – is definitely thriving!

A member of the group, Kersh Branz, asked a similar question.

142 comments later, here’s what I thought was the best nonprofit career advice I read…Continue Reading

The 8 Habits of Highly Effective Nonprofit Leaders

nonprofit leaders

You are a nonprofit leader. Likely a type-A kind of person – pretty accustomed to getting 95’s on your book reports.

It’s one of the reasons you have historically found yourself in leadership positions – when there’s a need for someone to be in charge, it’s like a reflex you cannot control – up goes your hand.

You are also a learner. You always want to get better at your job.

Maybe there was a book report (or in your case a board report) you felt was like an 85. Not a grade you are accustomed to. You look for books or podcasts to hone your skills, manage your time, become an even more awesome leader than you already are.

In 1989, Stephen Covey wrote a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I mustn’t be highly effective because I didn’t read it until I decided to write this post. It has been a best seller for THIRTY YEARS.

Is that crazy or what? Thirty years.

So I figure he must be on to something. Thus, with a ‘tip o the hat’ to Mr. Covey, I’d like to share with you my own version of this: The 8 Habits of Highly Effective Nonprofit Leaders.Continue Reading

The 5 Pillars of a Thriving Nonprofit

thriving nonprofit

There’s a word I hear from nonprofit leaders more than any other.

Can you guess what it is?

It’s not inspired, lucky, or meaningful. I wish!

It’s also not frustrated or burned out. Thank goodness!

Here it is… the word I hear more than any other from nonprofit leaders….

Overwhelmed.

Ok, that’s probably not a big surprise. Leading a nonprofit can feel completely overwhelming. And the biggest reason is that it can be hard for nonprofit leaders to wrap their heads around all the things they need to attend to.

One of the more popular posts I’ve written was called “The 14 Attributes of a Thriving Nonprofit”.

Sure it was popular, but what was I thinking? Fourteen attributes? Really?

Fourteen feels like an awful lot of things to worry about. I’m not sure I helped anybody feel any less overwhelmed.

But here’s the truth. If you look a little bit closer you’ll see that in reality there are only five things… five pillars… that a healthy and thriving nonprofit handles really well.

Just five.

Get these five things right and your nonprofit will soar.

So are you ready to lighten your load? Feel some weight come off your shoulders?

Let’s dive into the five pillars of a thriving nonprofit.Continue Reading

Your Board is NOT the Enemy!

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