The One Thing Every Executive Director Needs Right Now

by Joan Garry

If you have an Executive Director in your life, please read this post closely and take action today. Here’s the action I have in mind….

Every single Executive Director reading this right now just yelled at their computer.

“One thing??? You’re kidding me! Joan, my list goes on for days!!!”

I’m not being insensitive or unkind – I swear. I know how much you are carrying. I have a front row seat to the struggles of nonprofit leaders. Work directly with folks who run small community organizations with budgets of less than $50,000 as well as some of the largest nonprofits out there. Please keep reading.

I am hearing about so many things you need.

  • Money
  • Volunteers
  • Grief counseling
  • Engaged board members
  • Someone to nag your teenagers to do their homework
  • Just five minutes where you could focus on one – JUST ONE thing.
  • Did I say money?

For the last month and more, I’ve been writing and podcasting and interviewing on big publications so that your board, your donors, and everyone else can begin to understand what your world is like right now.

Because most folks don’t actually know. They are not getting that while you all are struggling, the need for your work has never been greater.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see a number like 22,000,000 unemployed (and counting!) and connect the dots. Any organization dealing with housing and homelessness is going to be bombarded in unprecedented ways.

But you see, people are not connecting dots. And there’s something they can do they may not have even thought about. It’s not a difficult task at all. And it’s something that every single Executive Director could really use right now.

If you have an Executive Director in your life, please read this post closely and take action today. Here’s the action I have in mind….


Not a text. Not an email.

A phone call. That’s it. A phone call.

A few stories will make my point for me.

Story #1: Book Club. It’s Book Club night in my Nonprofit Leadership Lab. A few dozen folks from around the world (including two members from South Africa where it is 2am) are gathered to discuss the first few chapters of The Five Languages of Appreciation.

The conversation digs into the distinction between recognition and appreciation. And one of our members realizes something and says, “You know what? I just realized that my board chair has not called to check in on me.”

And a small chorus of voices join in. “Me neither.” One of those voices was Tracy Baron Phillips from the Hussey-Mayfield Library Foundation. Later that evening, Tracy relayed the conversation to her husband who is the board chair of another nonprofit in the community (there is a lot of do-gooding in that household).

Tracy’s husband listens and pauses. “Hmm. I haven’t called our Executive Director. I really need to do that. I wasn’t thinking.”

Story #2: A Head of School. Think about the mental gymnastics every head of school is doing right now. Can you even imagine? Getting kids electronic notebooks. Procuring all the supplies they need. Training faculty to use Zoom. And on and on and on.

Oh yes and then there is curriculum, graduation. I can’t even.

This Head of School is doing remarkable things – I am beyond impressed. Because I had just written a blog post about what great boards are doing during this crisis, I asked her about her board.

First, like a good nonprofit leader, she tells me about how she is keeping them all informed with a regular email. The next question is obvious – I ask her about the kind of response she is getting.

She reminds me that I often say that the official insect of the nonprofit board is the cricket.

Because staff leaders hear that sound from their board members more than any other.

Story #3: A Nonprofit CEO. Yesterday I was working with a coaching client – the CEO of a very large nonprofit. We were chatting at the start of the session and she was asking me about my other clients and what I am seeing. I told the two stories above. I could feel it coming. “I haven’t heard a peep from my board chair since all of this began either.”


A phone call. That’s the one thing every nonprofit Executive Director needs. A phone call from her board chair. Her co-pilot.

The most important indicator of a healthy nonprofit is the relationship between the E.D. and the board chair and it needs to be a relationship.


If you haven’t gotten a call, breathe. Please don’t get mad or even worse feel any kind of ‘oh poor me.’

First, you have limited emotional bandwidth. Save it for your family.

But as it relates to your board chair, I want you to repeat what Tracy Baron Phillips’ husband said to her when he, as a board chair, realized he had not called to see how his co-pilot was doing.

“I wasn’t thinking.”

He totally should have called his co-pilot but he didn’t.

It doesn’t make him a lousy board chair.

It doesn’t mean he doesn’t support his E.D. 1000%.

It means he is human in a terrifying world.

People who are terrified or grieving or <insert scary word here> don’t hit on all their pistons. They just don’t.

I hope Tracy’s husband doesn’t beat himself up too much and I hope his E.D. just appreciates the call when it comes.


Let’s help board chairs to connect the dots. They may not be thinking, but let’s not let them entirely off the hook. Here are three ways you can give a board chair a gentle nudge without making her feel bad.

  1. Share this blog post. I tried really hard to write this with a light touch. Could you forward it to your chair? You could always be a bit surreptitious and have someone else send it on your behalf. 🙂
  2. Outreach to another board member. Perhaps you have a board member with whom you have close ties and you can softly talk about the importance of board members touching base with staff – it’s a hard time personally and leaders have been jumping through hoops to move staff remotely, keep services going, etc.
  3. Give your board members an assignment. Talk about the need for your team to be appreciated. At your next board meeting, give each board member a person on your team to call. But don’t make it about you. The goal is simple – to check in on them personally and to thank them for going above and beyond.

Here’s the ideal:

You cut your board members some slack and you hold them gently accountable. They hear the voice on the end of the phone and they realize that this one simple thing will be meaningful to you or your team member and give them the gift of a little dose of purpose.

And you will remind them that in a time when every single thing feels so complicated, a phone call of appreciation could not be easier. Or more needed.

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