Dear Joan: Do We Need a Deputy Director?

by Joan Garry

Dear Joan: Here’s a question for you. Is it time for a Deputy Director? Wouldn’t that solve the problem and compensate for our Executive Director’s financial liabilities?

Each month, Joan responds to readers who send emails asking for nonprofit advice, practical solutions, or just general therapy (Joan tries not to make direct comments on a reader’s psychological state — that’s called practicing without a license).

Is there a common thread amongst these three dilemnas? I see one. It’s about getting out in front – about being proactive rather than reactive. And yes that takes time to plan, to be thoughtful, to partner with your board to really think through the tough stuff.

Maybe you think you don’t have time to design a fabulous board meeting, build a crisis management plan, or build the ideal job description for a Deputy Director.

But trust me. Getting out in front saves time. Always.



Dear Joan: Our Executive Director is a gifted visionary and great with people but… her financial acumen is poor, she feels like she needs to do everything herself, and she is not focusing on the internal work of the organization. Is it time for a Deputy Director? Wouldn’t that solve the problem and compensate for her liabilities?

– She is Great But…

Dear Great But…:

A Deputy Director could be the answer but far too often, boards and staff leaders assume it is the answer.

I am very wary of creating a new position to compensate for the weaknesses of the staff leader, especially if the organization is under $2 million in revenue without much money in the bank.

I just worked with a client with a $1 million budget and 4 staff people. The board has realized that the E.D. has no management experience and his instincts are not good. In this situation, I don’t believe adding a #2 is the right move. The right move is to hold this staff leader accountable to all aspects of his job and evaluate him based on those. In addition, I would recognize where the ED needs professional development and as part of that review, I would create six month goals that include support for management training, and financial management for the non-financial executive. Make sure you are not letting your ED flounder or letting him off the hook.

There may be a time when a #2 is needed. And when you think you are there, I beg you. Build the position in a proactive way. Do not build the job description in reaction to the skills and attributes (or lack thereof) of your current ED. Create a position and find a great candidate that will lead to more effective work regardless of who’s on top.

– Joan


Dear Joan: I am the treasurer for an animal rescue organization that is all volunteer. Our fundraising efforts have become stale and lack enthusiasm. Fundraising seems to never be a priority and we chase so many little opportunities, rather than getting behind a few well thought out and executed strategies. I am having trouble. We all care about the dogs, but not so much about the money. While all of our board and members care deeply about the mission of saving and finding forever homes for these precious animals, I feel most treat this as a hobby. How can I engage them?

Although may provide emotional health benefits, they may not adequately treat a mental health condition alone.

– Can I Put My Board in the Dog House?

Dear Dog House:

“Caring about the cause but not engaged in fundraising” – this is a common refrain from readers. I bet some readers are thinking, “Are you kidding? I would love it if my mission was about adorable animals in need of homes – that would be so easy to raise money for!”

Not necessarily. 

Here’s the truth. Every single cause regardless of how tangible the efforts or emotional the sell will be hard to raise money for unless three key things are in place:

  1. The board touches and feels the work regularly. In the case of your organization, your board should meet at the shelter if possible. Give a tour. Explain how you care for the animals. How much you do on so little. What you would do with a little more. Or bring one of the friendliest critters to every board meeting and tell his/her story.
  2. Recruit board members and do not soft peddle the fundraising obligation. You know how many board members tell me they were never really told that they would have to raise money? Think about your daughter home from college and her kitchen full of dishes. You think she will magically wash ’em? Not unless the expectation is set.
  3. Connect the dots between the $$ and the work. It’s so obvious, right? Raise $1,000 and you can do more for those beautiful animals. But trust me. It is not obvious to busy volunteers who show up at a board meeting and spend most of the time approving minutes or looking at cash flow. My development director at GLAAD had a saying she used all the time Money = Programs. There’s your opening. Then bring that to life with examples. These examples will make it easier to ask and the word “yes” will come more often.

– Joan


Dear Joan: I am a new Head of School for kids with special needs. In my prior position, we had a crisis management plan – we really thought about the tough stuff – what happens if….  My new school has a good solid strategy for security in the event of the unimaginable we see far too frequently. But we have special kids in our charge and I believe we should have a plan should something happen to one of them. I’m sure you agree but everyone is so busy there never seems to be enough time to get everyone together for a few hours to talk about this. And besides, who wants to talk about crises? Do you have advice?

– Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News

 Dear Bad News:

Several years ago, an autistic kid walked out of his school and was later found dead in the Hudson River. I was working for another school for autistic kids at the time. The Head of School there was dynamic, smart, and knew and understood autism in both her head and her heart. “This kind of thing could happen here,” she told me candidly. “You can do your very best to protect your kids but bad things can happen.”

This is why a plan is critical. It’s not a plan to keep bad things from happening. I’m going to assume you have that in place.

This is a plan for when bad things happen. What to do next. I hope they never do. But if they do, you will be ever so grateful that you have created one.

And as for time, don’t get me started. An investment of three hours to create the “what if” plan will save you endless amounts of time and will turn the acute phase of a crisis into what is called the “chronic” phase when it feels like nothing will ever return to normal.

I think I need a full post on this but in the meantime, here are four simple things to consider as you build an agenda for the WHAT IF meeting.

  1. Seek out inexpensive resources to guide your efforts. One of my favorites is one I use with my students at U Penn. It’s called Strategic Communications for Nonprofits. Buy a used copy for under $10. There is a section on Crisis Management. Build your agenda using this as your guide. From core messaging to having a lead messenger to the role of the board, you’ll find this super helpful. No need to reinvent the wheel.
  2. What is the worst headline you could read about your organization? This is a scary exercise but it helps you really think about all the possible crises.
  3. Recognize the value of external relationships. You know how you talk to reporters when you want them to write about your organization? Try to develop a real rapport with them so that if something happens, a few of them will be part of the solution rather than the folks spending all their time figuring out what went wrong. Same is true with elected officials and community leaders. Without real authentic relationships, you’ll wind up with a Greek chorus of folks playing the blame game.
  4. Make a commitment to communicate often and transparently. People will always fill the gap of silence with their own narrative and not yours. Even if the news is hard, tragic, or unflattering to your organization, you have an obligation to the communities you serve.

– Joan

If you have further advice for any of this month’s “Dear Joans” please share in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “Dear Joan: Do We Need a Deputy Director?”

  1. Great insights Joan, as usual. I’ve often wondered if a number 2 (or COO or Deputy, whatever) would make sense for our 27-staff, $8 Million organization. We had a couple of tries in the past, and none of them stuck. Actually, they were a big problem, most likely because we picked the wrong people. But: I think there is an inherent challenge in a Deputy position, which is due to the need of having a leader WITH attention to detail, an operations person with LIMITED input into strategy (we don’t want doubling up with the ED, right?) and overall, the incumbent knows that he/she cannot progress further, unless the ED is near retirement. Not an easy one, if you ask me 🙂

  2. Luca. Interesting points. Did you pick the wrong people? Or were you LOOKING for the wrong skills and attributes? I wonder. Also, deputies are not often looked to as “incumbents” as their skills are often internal rather than external. I think that is a problem in the sector b/c it causes a “clog” in the leadership pipeline….. Thanks for writing and for reading!

  3. I think there are plenty of professionals who groove on details and have the creativity to contribute and complement the CEO’s work at a senior level. Not everyone has an eye toward gaining the top spot. The interview questions to shine a light on those candidates would make for a good article or further discussion.

  4. I am sure we picked the wrong people… Smart ones with an ambition and not very good at coordinating a team without actually having line management responsibility on all of them… Our mistake was we didn’t want to settle for a very experienced and senior management assistant, but go for a true Operations Director, and that’s where the trouble came from. Now we’re OK with directors for each of the teams, and an office manager for the minutiae of running the day-to-day needs of a 27-people team. Crossing my fingers this lasts…

  5. I know this is an old post but as it just showed up in my FB feed, perhaps new comments are welcome. I’m curious about the comment below from Luca re this: “an operations person with LIMITED input into strategy (we don’t want doubling up with the ED, right?) .” As COO of our small nonprofit, there’s no way I would want to be responsible for ensuring the success of a strategy implementation/execution for a strategy that I had limited input into. That sounds like a recipe for failure especially if a CEO is not one to pay attention to details (aka reality in my world!). I love that I can work closely with our CEO and our Board on strategic planning because I think my approach/skill set are definitely critical to the development of a great strategic plan for the company. As Jane says below, I “have the creativity to contribute and complement the CEO’s work at a senior level.” I see that Luca’s company has found a solution that works for them but maybe it was less about the wrong people and more about the wrong job (description)? Just my .02!

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