My wife 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 traveling 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 food 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 pray for a laryngitis epidemic 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.
23 thoughts on “5 Signs It’s Time to Quit Your Job”
I love this!!! I am so close to this…! lol
Simone. One word of advice that feels implied in my article. ED’s have more control over their circumstances than they often think. You can work on fixing the things that drive you mad rather than letting those things drive you away. It feels important to look closely at that distinction. Best of luck and hang in there.
I often dream about my teen job as a dishwasher at a local café….sigh
Susan, come on. You probably hated that job when you were 16. And you DO love your job. It’s just that saving a piece of the world is really really hard work. Stay with it!
It’s the isolation I find difficult. You have caught all the challenges. Being caught between a rock and a hard place between all of the stakeholders is very challenging.
I love this perspective and it is the one that keeps me in the ED role 5+ years later. When I think of other jobs I could pursue, unless it is another ED job or starting my own business, I realize I’d be signing up for less control and I really do value that, as exhausting as it may be at times! Decision fatigue is a real thing, but so is the fatigue that comes with being a cog with no control or voice!
Really liked this. I have been an ED in California for 4 years, and it is time for me to move on. I have been fantasizing about working for a coffee shop lately (your sign 4). I am also a mental health clinician. Working with person’s mental health issues in the therapy room is a piece of cake compared to working with employee’s mental health issues as and ED in the litigous state of California.
A decade into my ED role, I can relate to all of these items. Best quote I can come up with is some days you’re the dog, and some the hydrant. Believe in yourself. Trust your gut, follow your principles. If they are in conflict with your environment, then maybe it’s time to update “resume.doc” and find your next adventure.
Love your site and congrats on your new book!
I couldn’t agree more!
I laughed out loud at the cartoon even before I read the article, I love your insight and truly appreciate that “someone understands!” I go back and forth about the job and usually come back to the pros about it. I did print this out to show to my husband who more often than not doesn’t really understand why I stress about the things I do. My #4 is looking longingly out at our community landscapers and wishing I could join them to mow, weed, prune, fertilize etc. etc. etc. 😉
I was the director of our early childhood program for 33 years and stepped into the role of ED just a few months ago. Big change and a whole different set of stress issues. I had an 87 year old mentor ask me several years ago, “Do you still feel the joy?”. My answer was a definite “yes”! She said that when I stopped feeling the joy, I needed to leave. It has been a lot harder to find the joy as an ED, but it’s there. Thank you for your insight and your new book!
The isolation is very difficult – no one to celebrate or commiserate with. I’m not siloed, I’m the only one on the farm!
Given that six of my fellow nonprofit colleagues are out of work, the only signs that truly apply to knowing when it’s time to quit your job are: 1. your partner can support you both 2. you hit the lottery 3. the movie script you pitched has been picked up.
Preach! So lonely. My personal drive just doesn’t seem to be the same in this season & I can’t seem to will the excitement that I once had to invest into my staff/volunteers. Any suggestions out there?
Yes, the isolation makes it hard. During my tenure there was a group of NYC ED’s who met regularly – sharing best practices and mutual support. It made all the difference.
Debra. I wish your six friends the best of luck finding suitable jobs in the sector. And keep me posted on that movie script.
Jesse. when was the last you spend the entire day engaged in, touching and appreciating the work you do? I generally find that can recharge folks.
You are very welcome. And ditto on the job piece. Wise 87 year old mentor!
I can’t stop laughing at the cartoon either. It IS hilarious even if I do say so myself.
Thanks for your kind words. I like your quote. I use gladiator and lion – same concept.
Rachel. A very high burnout factor in the mental health field. Please take care of YOUR mental health!
I have these thoughts every. Single. Day. Thanks for sharing some validation.
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