A Day In The Life Of An Executive Director

by Joan Garry

There are 5 practices of outstanding nonprofit leaders. Want to know what they are?

You know those pharmaceutical commercials that tell you the drug is going to save your life but that side effects include everything from loss of all motor control in from your waist down to brain aneurisms to a you-know-what lasting longer than four hours?

That’s kinda like being a nonprofit Executive Director, the person in charge. Here you are trying to save a teeny-weeny part of the world and the work is exhilarating. You feel lucky beyond measure.  It could be a big victory (passing a law to lower the NYC speed limit) or something smaller (a thank you note from a client).

And yet there are side effects. And if you are not careful, these side effects will control your day. I see it with clients all the time. The job that controls them and not vice versa.

And so this week I offer you a glimpse at a “typical” day in the life of a nonprofit Executive Director. Or at least I hope it’s typical since, overall, it’s a pretty good day.

For comic relief, an object lesson and perhaps a quick look in the mirror.


6:00 am

My alarm went off so I could head to the gym. I decided to check my email really quickly. Who was I kidding? There was an email from my board chair sent at 3 FREAKING am. My first bad choice of the day. Will it be the last? Nah. Skipped the gym.

7:00 am

Dog needs to be walked. Alex came downstairs looking all fresh and rested. I don’t look like that at all. She rolled her eyes at me and said, ‘Sure I would love to walk the dog because you do it every morning (NOT).” Then she laughed. It was a frightening maniacal laugh.

8:15 am

Emails read. Still quiet in the office. Time to make a list. I tried to mix it up – some firefighting, some time to write a board update memo, a list of calls to make. I put an asterisk next to things I cannot leave the office without doing. Helps me control my day. At least a little. Please let some of these things actually happen!!!

9:00 am

My assistant arrives promptly. Best decision I ever made was to spend a bit more money on an assistant who is a partner and not just a ‘point and shoot’ implementer. He anticipates and partners with me to get things done. Just seeing him at his desk gives me such comfort.

9:15 am

I actually prepared for the staff meeting with an agenda. Feeling good. I thought about what might make the meeting worth attending.

9:30 am

Staff meeting was so good today! No one nodded off! Maybe because we actually had an agenda for once? Everyone shared a story about a recent external or internal thing that went really well. I took notes — great material for major donor pitch. And the staff writing the upcoming e-appeal actually now has some current material. Staff said the meeting felt energizing. Could we have discovered the secret sauce?

nonprofit executive director - A grey scale illustration of a group of people and one rabbit sitting a long table for a board meeting. Underneath the illustration is the text "Some of these ideas... they sound like they... have been pulled out of a hat."

10:00 am

Coffee with a donor prospect. Our research said she has significant means. She seemed so interested in our work. I made the ask. She declined politely and didn’t even offer to pay for my coffee (Really?) And a parking ticket was waiting for me. Back to the office less than empty handed. Sigh.

11:00 am

Time to get through some phone calls. Some to donors, some to board members, and others to set up important meetings. The staff meeting gave me some great stories to tell. Folks were impressed. Felt really good. Especially after that coffee meeting.

12:00 pm

Planned to have lunch with clients in the dining hall – something I do like NEVER. Something always gets in the way. Two staff members are at my door to share latest crisis. I thought, well so much for that plan but then I decided to try the boundary thing. I told them I had 15 minutes and it worked! I would do the boundary thing for a donor lunch but I have always seen the client lunch as kind of a luxury. I really need to get my priorities straight. The lunch recharged my batteries and I found myself looking forward to the afternoon.

1:30 pm

New energy led me to write a really upbeat note to the board. I introduced them to several of the folks I had lunch with – their stories and how our organization has literally saved their lives. I couldn’t wait to get notes from board members about the note – something like “sending this to 10 donor prospects right now!” Still waiting. 

2:30 pm

I took a few minutes to count the emails that came in since this morning. Why do I EVER think this exercise has any value? I need to just assume that I always have the most and move on. The life of a nonprofit Executive Director.

3:00 pm

Meeting with senior staff to discuss the performance review process. I know this stuff is important but it’s torture for me. I know I know. I’m a pleaser but can’t I just tell everyone they are doing great? (Well maybe except for the IT guy who answers every one of my problems with ‘why don’t you just turn the thing off and restart it’?) I pay him for that????

nonprofit executive director - A grey scale illustration of a dog standing on two legs in a shirt, jacket, pants, and shoes at the desk of what appears to a be a female supervisor. In the background the door is open with a collection of cats standing on two legs walking around. Underneath the illustration is the text "This looks like a tough crowd for my performance review."

4:30 pm

Back to back meetings. I just love that. Who needs to breathe? This is my not-so-regular meeting with my board chair. Every meeting starts the same way. My board chair says, “So what’s up?” This is as much thought as she (or I for that matter) had given it. We acknowledged that we have to change it and agreed to devote our next meeting to create a more meaningful agenda for our meetings. She’s smart and has a lot to add – structure would be great. I really need a partner at the board level and we both have to work on that.

6:00 pm

More emails have piled up since I last checked (but who’s counting). I put on my noise reduction headphones (every ED should have a pair) with some favorite music and bear down and plow throw a boatload of them.

7:00 pm

I reviewed the morning to do list. It wasn’t perfect but I got a lot done. And I touched many aspects of my job in one day. I even accomplished something that wasn’t on my list. So I added it and crossed it out. Silly, I know, but it gave me an even greater sense of accomplishment about the day. Yes, I understand that’s unusual behavior.

8:30 pm

Home. After dinner, Alex suggested this new series on Masterpiece Theatre called HomeFires. About women’s power and how they made a difference during WWII. I made a terrible screaming sound. “I can’t even watch people changing the world. I must watch Dancing With The Stars.” I fell asleep with my husband just before they awarded the Mirror Ball Trophy to someone I’d never heard of.

10:00 pm

Crawled into bed. Did not check email (I’ve learned THAT lesson.) As I nodded off I thought about my lunch in the dining hall with our clients. Found myself struck by the fact that one conversation like that trumps the frustration, chaos, and messiness of a day in the life of a nonprofit leader.

Made a mental note that touching the work is not a luxury during my day but an absolute must for any nonprofit Executive Director.

nonprofit executive director tired

So tell me about a typical day for you. What sustains you through the chaos? Did these journal entries ring true? Did I miss anything? Looking forward to your comments!

22 thoughts on “A Day In The Life Of An Executive Director”

  1. Joan, I enjoyed it but still would love to have information that would help us little guys.. The ones that have boards that you have to drag to the table to get stuff done, the one that the ED is 1 person and maybe a part time assistant…
    I work 7 days a week, 12 hour days, and produce close to 1,000,000$ per year… (and yes I know I am going to flash burn and fry some day, going on 10 years now) I need to help knowing how on earth do we get stronger board members…
    How do you find these donors to sit and have lunch with?
    How do you find the time to go have lunch with them?
    How do you find the time to research to find the possible donors…
    There are so many of us little guys out there that need help too… So much that I see is written for those big guys with committees, big boards, big bucks… I bet there are more of us little guys reading you than the big guys…
    Maybe a poll on the sizes of the non profits that read you?

  2. I believe I would “ditto” Alana’s comments. We are a smaller non profit then she is working for, however those same thoughts and questions ring true for me as well.

  3. Alana, the non profit I lead is 11 employees with a ten person board. Our budget is about 800,000.00 Human Rights Initiative does free legal services for immigrant survivors of violence: gays religious minorities, children, and political dissidents.
    All of this rang true for me. I completely relate to getting batteries charged by client contact. A couple days ago, I was in at my usual 7:00., a potential client was waiting in the dark for an 8:30 meeting, because that’s when she could get a ride. then a couple of days ago, a client needed a ride from our office to the free medical clinic. I drove him over and he told me he prayed for all of us. That was really cool.
    You missed the press, last summer during the unaccompanied minor crush, on any given day, I might be called by a reporter, wanting to talk to someone on the ground.

  4. Thank you so much for this feedback. We did a survey last year of our members but we are overdue for another. In this context, we will absolutely do another survey and more detailed analysis of the size of the orgs who read the blog. We are also strategizing about how to speak more directly to smaller nonprofits. I would say that you would be surprised at how many of the questions you raise about are actually identical to larger organizations! Stay tuned for our next survey. This is very much on my radar screen.

  5. Love the list making – I do exactly the same thing to organize my day and items for the week – a list of items with checkboxes, and asterisks by the items that must be completed that day. AND I too will add anything additional that comes my way, wasn’t on the list, however was accomplished – I add it to the list and happily check it off! Yes, we are a small non-profit as well – three of us in the office and as a community coalition, our board is a bit different in structure than others. Some days I start off with an organized “To Do” list, however “other administrative items as assigned” just take over the day – the workers comp audit, the State needs a change of address form completed before we can be paid, our internet is down, the building owner pops in – and with no administrative assistant, these are all added to my plate to address. It is disheartening many days to be so bogged down in the administrative and business components, that I lose precious fundraising time and our project work gets pushed farther behind as well. Wish I had the magic answer….or perhaps 10 more hours in each day?

  6. Hey Joan – I guess the only thing that raised my hackles little in this was the “made the ask” comment. Was it indeed an ask, or an ask for a tour, etc.? It reminds me a little of board members who are sure they HAVE to ask at a lunch, etc., when really it is about cultivating, and sharing what we do. Sort of the bless and release opportunity. I know this was more of a laundry list of things that we have to do daily, but it made me cringe – and I know you are an incredible fundraiser, and probably don’t ask on the first “date.” Also – do you live in my house, because that sounds like my relationship with my spouse and the dogs!

  7. Hi Alana,
    I prefer working for small organizations, I’ve learned, even though there are times I feel I have sold my soul! I agree with you – I went to a conference last year and a session was on “kickstarting your fundraising,” and it sounded like it was designed for small shops. The presenter had 7 fundraisers on staff. 7! I have ME! I know there’s a definite need, and my dream is to be like Joan and start some impact consulting for small nonprofits. There are a lot of great people out there doing that already – make sure you read Gail Perry and Pamela Grow (I think I found Joan through them), Marc Pitman, Mazarine Treyz, and Amy Eisenstein if you haven’t already!

  8. Would love a survey on size. My husband is the ED and he and I both wear many (all) hats. We have one part-time administrator who takes care of simple things like thank you notes, bulk mailings, and deposits. We have a 3-person (great people but busy) board. Our nonprofit is only 1 year old and counting. We are not in a USA office. We are developing our work in another country. We raised some substantial donor support before leaving the USA, but now we don’t have the people on the ground to help us raise support without our constant oversight. And everyone is crazy busy. So we work on keeping our current donors very happy and sending out frequent newsletters on our progress. Grateful for the Internet and free calling! So I also agree with Alana. I’d love to see some advice directed to not only the small shop nonprofit, but the newly-begun bare-bones nonprofit. We are the ones really needing help. The larger guys have more players and experience to draw from and should by now have acquired a vast wealth of knowledge if they take time to access it. Thanks for all you do!

  9. Well I feel much better about the 3:00 a.m. emails I wake up to most mornings. (My Board Chair is an entrenched night owl and rarely makes meetings before 3pm.) They are also chronically late to meetings and such. My poor dogs gave up on me years ago.

  10. And with it being election day, letting in the poll workers at 5:00am (because staff let them set up last night and will be here after hours today) after having a fund raising event last night that went until 11pm…and hoping the kids don’t hate me this week.
    But after 24 years in nonprofit management with various organizations, I have never woke up in the morning thinking, “I need a new job” and really meant it.

  11. Take it from me Lou. Your kids won’t hate you. They will admire you for the work you do. And your model of a commitment to changing the world will not go unnoticed and they will, in ways large and small, follow your lead. Thanks very much for your comments. I do hope others take note.

  12. This is absolutely amazing! Thanks for sharing. I agree that time spent remembering the “why” always helps keep me through the day. I work for an affiliate of a non-profit called Love INC. Our mission is to mobilize the local church to transform lives and communities in the Name of Christ. In other words, we help churches help people.
    As a brand new Executive Director, I have much experience on the church level, but not so much…ok none on the non-profit level. Therefore, reading this was so comforting because I found that I am not an abnormal ED. Your honesty was refreshing and encouraging.

  13. I couldn’t have said it better! I feel I’m drowning in the cesspool of just trying to maintain everyday. I was at a training the other day when the presenter made a statement that I have been thinking about since – “A leader is not the person steering the ship. A leader is the one navigating that ship.” In my world, with the constant struggle with funding, turnover, and burnout, there is little opportunity for me to stop “steering” and get back to “navigating” to move the agency forward.

  14. Judy, actually we are small, I am just blessed with a specialty animal shelter and amazing donors. I have just been lucky to beable to raise a lot of money. That does not mean it will not stop… I am an office of 1, I wear all the hats… My staff takes care of the animals.. I take care of the money… My board is here for advice and do help with some of the fundraising, but the majority is all done by me. 12+ hours a day 7 days a week. I am old and tired… How did these big guys gets big?

  15. Right on Alana. We are a small non profit with a very simple function we have developed a program that breeds Labrador retriever puppies that are the prototypical candidates for service dog training. Our goal was and remains to reduce the cost and time that it takes accredited service dog organizations to make placements to people in need. In an industry where the average pass rate for a pup in training is 46%, our pups, because of their genetics and the program we have implemented for their critical phase development pass training at 80% or higher. This has resulted on significant cost savings for the organizations we serve as well as an ability to place more trained dogs in any given year. We really dont need strategic planning other than to try to figure out how to raise the funds we need to do the work we do. We have went through about 5 board members over the past two years that came on the board, they received a detailed JD indicting that fundraising was going to be a priority., only to find out that when we did our letter writing campaign they wouldn’t even write their family or friends to ask to donate. ED with an admin? Who has the funds for that? Thank God for volunteers. Where do you find these people who will fundraise for donations with a smile? Our budget is $100,000 and I dont ever see us over $250K. Our pups and the dams that birth them are always serving a productive purpose either being used for canine assisted therapy for children with special needs or veterans with PTSD or for a mom finished breeding at an early age (3 to 4) being trained to become a skilled companion for a child with Down syndrome or Autism. Given our limited funds I would love to be able to get someone who would fundraise for donations and pay them an incentive on what they bring in however the APF frowns on that. So, I think its “too bad” APF, we cant pay the high salary of a professional fundraise and I am not going to let your organization fail because use of the good we do because your say we cant compensate in such a manner. Its very easy to cap compensation to prevent abuse and if fundraising this way is successful for a few years, move the person to a salaried position. Also, given this competitive landscape we are going to use the “girl scout” model. They sell cookies to generate revenue. We are going to start a for profit from which the “first fruits” will be used to fund a portion the non profit that will offer dog related services. Myself and my wife, the founders, nor any of our board members are connected socialites or have friends with million dollars pockets. our typical donations are $25, $50 and $100! Fundraising for donations that way is a lot of work for a little yield.

  16. Jaon, So I have come to believe that part of the reason there is stress, preferably tolerable and not toxic, is that we are forced to change our routines often. I refuse to change that I need to take time to get fit, and stay fit, eat healthy, and enjoy the times that I am leading and working in the position.
    Second, there are some things that others can do, that is a sign f allowing people to empower me and the position. They can do some of the things that I do or feel compelled to do. third, there is too much ownership of the program and position as a CEO and or ED
    We need to be able to build the trust, focus on the bigger picture, and allow the powers that be help lead the organization.
    toom any E.D. are all about the power and position, and forget about what they are doing…staying connected to both the board and staff is a struggle that takes good balance and ability.
    I recommend that every do the Gallup Organization Strengths Finder and or the MMPI for assessment to hire the people that fit where I may not…
    just some thought sauce on the spectrum of executive and professional Development

  17. I can definitely relate to this, I am a different kind of ED, I run a local government agency. My day is not unlike yours, but there are some big differences for sure. I have spent 5 years inbuilt non-profit sector, so I am familiar with somebody struggles. One of the big differences is funding, for me that ischemia a daily issue. This is truly a driver for the non-profit ED. I am not one of those public sector folks who says “When I retire I want to run a non-profit.” as if that were this delightfully laid back way of doing good, making a good living, and finally being free of the sometimes bizarre government bureaucracy. Building and growing a successful non-profit is truly a work of commitment, devotion, and creativity that is admirable, and much appreciated. The public sector has many similar challenges, but we do know who our funders are, even if they change regularly. I look forward to all that I can learn here in this community.

  18. I’m a little guy nonprofit Ex. Director (NOT calling my self the ED of a nonprofit…no way… ) 🙂 and we’re in an economically struggling RURAL (as in identified as one of the most rural, isolated communities in the US (excluding Alaska). Those possible donors are so so rare for us…but our needs are still there! I’ll find time for lunch (not dinner, because that’s when alot of our work is done… after school, at-risk youth center) but breakfast and lunch I can do…if I can find the prospects!

  19. This is great. I just started a non-profit and this is spot on. Since I woke, it’s been non-stop answering emails, calls, writing contacts and moving into a new donated office space. It’s 10pm, I just hit the bed and checked my email…Tommorrow won’t be much different. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing

  20. I am the Executive Director of the I Care I Cure Childhood Cancer Foundation. I’ve worked in non profit as a volunteer and professionally for 30 years. You had me pegged with the cardinal rule I break daily… never check emails if you intend to work out before work. I run the foundation single handed my. We have a great board and some dedicated volunteers, but at the end of the day, it is not their main priority.
    Let’s throughnin being a single mother of four older children in or getting ready for college. And because we tend to want to save the world, of course there are multiple pets. It’s a 24/7 job, fundraising is frustrating, but when you have a good day and make a difference there’s nothing better. ❤️

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