Demystifying the role of the E.D.

This post by YNPN Detroit Board Member La’Leatha Spillers first appeared in her blog… Please check it out for more amazing insights into the nonprofit sector!

The nonprofit Executive Director (ED). Quite honestly even with my 10 years of nonprofit experience this is a role I initially chose to stay far away from. I mean let’s be honest how many of you have seen the role of the ED as attractive? If you’re like me most of what I saw was someone who was constantly running around putting out fires, dealing with the difficult board or committee member of the day, juggling grant application deadlines to get funds to replace the funds that were lost last fiscal year, hiring and sometimes firing people, rushing from meeting to meeting and the list goes on and on. Does any of that sound like fun or even remotely attractive? No! Who wants to live like that and have a job where you are constantly stressed out and running around like a chicken with your head cut off? No one! Well, that was partly why I feared the ED position. I love the nonprofit world because it has allowed me to have a work-life balance unlike my previous industry of advertising. I enjoy interacting with the community and touching the lives of those we serve and it just always seemed that the ED, while committed to the mission, never really got a chance to really touch the people but more or less had to be concerned about EVERYTHING from the building, to HR stuff, staff issues, budget and finance, etc. – all things that I feared. But why did I fear those things? I feared them because quite honestly I didn’t want to have to be totally responsible for everyone and everything ALL the time. Plus, if I were ever to become an ED I would totally feel like everyone that worked at the agency was my responsibility. I couldn’t imagine having to lay people off because the agency lost a grant or having to deal with a difficult board member or employee.

Well that was only one side of the ED story. Only recently have I seen the ED position as attractive and that’s because another fellow under 40 yr. old nonprofit dynamo is my current President/CEO. She has truly opened my eyes and also caused me to rethink becoming an ED. Not only that but in the past two years I’ve made a conscious effort to seek out nonprofit executives as mentors and to gain additional training like my nonprofit graduate certificate from Eastern Michigan University. During that time I had an opportunity to be taught by an American Red Cross chapter CEO, a current and past president of AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) and a nonprofit finance VP just to name a few. This gave me a chance to ask them the not so dumb questions that I had like “Look shoot it to me straight, what’s the role of an ED really like?” Because guess what, the more and more I learned and asked questions, I thought to myself “Hey that’s something I can do…I think?” Only after one of my awesome mentors, a current ED for another nonprofit, said to me “La’Leatha you would be a fabulous ED!” did I really start to believe in myself, my experience and my abilities. Don’t get me wrong I’m not going to run out and become an ED tomorrow however it is on my radar screen and in my target range before I turn 40. She took me to lunch and said “Listen here are the things you need to know and if you don’t know them learn um.” Wow what a novel idea right…someone taking the time to actually show us under 40 something’s what you really need to know about becoming a nonprofit ED… (insert sarcastic face). But let’s be honest while the nonprofit field has become more of a deliberate career path, how often do EDs really take the time to groom and show potential future EDs the ropes? That’s why many under 40 something’s leave the field because they feel there just aren’t opportunities for career growth or they go from nonprofit to nonprofit seeking that growth. I know that many nonprofits are swamped but if we truly are the next generation of nonprofit leaders, while we can certainly learn some things on our own, wouldn’t it be nice to have a deliberate career path of training much like in the business world. A young business school graduate is almost immediately taken under the wing of someone at corporation X and shown the ropes. Remember the “Management Trainee” programs from the 80’s? Why don’t nonprofits take the time to do the same?

From my experience and conversation with my fellow young nonprofiteers, I find that many fear or aren’t interested in the ED position for the same reasons I was, fear of the unknown and is that something I can really do and I don’t want to sucked away from actually touching the people I serve. Well just like one of my mentors breathed belief into me by simply sharing her experiences and knowledge, I hope that this post may do the same for someone else because there are many of us who are quite capable if we just believe in our skills and talents and know what we’re getting into and what’s expected of us. I mean a doctor, a nurse, social worker, etc. they’re trained and know what is expected of them but does anyone every do that for future potential nonprofit executives? No…so here goes. Here is what my mentor shared with me and I hope that by sharing it with you maybe, just maybe a light bulb will go off for you saying “Hey I can do that.” My personal confidence in becoming a future ED was built on my experience, continued training and because someone took me to lunch and broke it down for me.

Things you should know as an ED

  1. Understand strategic planning
  2. Know the difference between mission vs. vision
  3. Have a handle on the org chart
  4. Understand some basic HR law and practices (evaluations, hiring practices, staff issues)
  5. Understand budgeting
    1. Profit and Loss statements
    2. Audits
    3. Cash flow
    4. Know how to read contracts and don’t take it lightly
      1. Full-time, part-time, contractual employment
      2. D & O insurance for agency leadership, board members (you should have it)
      3. Building and equipment insurance
      4. Learn how to build morale with your employees
        1. Raises vs. bonuses (bonuses are preferred because it’s one time)
        2. Have an Open Door policy
        3. Understand the role of the board
          1. Schedule appointments to get to know them as individuals
          2. Build them up
          3. Develop an agency culture
          4. Be a great writer. Can you tell your agency’s story?
          5. Grant writing

After I scrambled to write all this down, I did become slightly overwhelmed and I think she saw the look on my face. She said “You’re not going to be an expert in all of these areas but have some knowledge of them and have balance in all the areas. Then hire the best people on your team but you’ve got have some knowledge in these areas to be a great ED.”

Great resources for future nonprofit EDs

NGen: Moving Nonprofit Leaders from Next to Now

Young Nonprofit Professionals Network


3 thoughts on “Demystifying the role of the E.D.

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this information! It is sad but true how hard it is for a young nonprofit professional to find a seasoned and experienced nonprofit executive to groom and mentor them for nonprofit leadership roles and positions. Personally, I am experiencing the difficulty and have had to teach myself from my experiences. Continue to share your words of wisdom! Nonprofits should definitely take time out to offer on-the-job management training as offered by corporations.

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