Updated: Jun 14
When I asked a former executive director how she learned to do the job, she laughed and said it took, “a lot of Googling, trial by fire, tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth. It's not a model where it’s ‘here's how you effectively weather this challenge,’ you know what I mean? It was just sort of like, ‘geez, let's try to get through it.’”
She’s right - the path to leadership doesn’t come with a map or a set of instructions. Those who have been in an executive director role know that the path to leadership is full of twists and turns. That’s part of how you learn to navigate the challenges that come with leading a nonprofit.
Still, typical nonprofit leaders rise through the ranks quickly and assume the mantle of leadership at a relatively young age. These leaders are full of passion, enthusiasm, drive - and sometimes bravado. But without years of management experience, some parts of the journey can be hard to navigate.
While there’s not a step-by-step instruction manual for how to lead a nonprofit, a lot can be learned from the experience of others. That’s why I want to share learnings from my personal experience, the stories I’ve collected, and my work with leaders.
Nonprofit Leadership 101
Based on my work in the nonprofit sector, there are nine important lessons that every executive director learns at some point in their career. Understanding these aspects of the job early will help as you navigate your leadership journey.
One: Boards can be the greatest challenge or greatest support.
Support from the board has a huge impact on an executive director’s performance as a leader, overall job satisfaction, and ultimately, the nonprofit’s success. Fostering supportive relationships between the executive director and board members should always be a priority. There are several ways to do this, which I outlined in a recent blog post.
Two: Not making a decision, is making one.
Taking ownership of decisions is part of an executive director’s job and you’ll need to be comfortable pushing forward your vision for the nonprofit’s future. Remember that not making a decision, is in fact, a decision itself.
Three: Nonprofit leadership is hard, so be brave.
Leading a nonprofit means facing vulnerability and emotionally-challenging decisions. Executive directors should be ready to facilitate tough conversations and receive candid feedback. Strong leaders have the courage to embrace feedback, even when it’s negative, and then the maturity to reexamine their strategies and make changes.
Four: It’s okay to fail.
Like I said earlier, nonprofit leadership is hard and not everything goes according to plan. Know that it’s okay to fail. Mistakes are part of the job. Rather than view mistakes as a threat, view them as an opportunity to learn and course correct when needed.
Even More Real-Word Advice from Nonprofit Leaders
Whether you are an aspiring executive director or a brand new leader, there are some specific challenges or hurdles to expect as part of the job. You should also know that certain situations will require you to adapt your working style to be the best leader you can be.
Here are a few more pieces of real-world advice from other nonprofit leaders, along with tools and resources to help you during your leadership journey.
Five: Get comfortable with ambiguity.
“When you're an executive director you can have a strategy. How am I going to engage staff? How am I going to document our impact? How am I going to raise money? But being an executive director is almost like being a parent; it's hard to predict the challenge. Being grounded in what's important to you, what you believe, and what the endgame is [is important]. Because the challenge is - the job changes.”
To be decisive under pressure requires a tolerance for uncertainty. How do you know if you’re making the right decision without all the information at hand? Executive directors must be comfortable dealing with this type of ambiguity and making decisions nonetheless. To make effective decisions in the face of uncertainty, base decisions on your core values, which are transcendent.
My challenge for you? Know what your core values are.
To build decision-making skills that will help you accommodate uncertainty and change requires intimately understanding your core values. This will help you be intentional about the decisions you make and which opportunities you pursue, which I explained in this earlier blog. Productivity expert, Heather Chavin has a great exercise that can help you pinpoint what your core values are.
Six: Advocate for yourself.
“Get paid your worth. It's an awful job, right? I mean, it's very intense. And to be paid $80,000 for that kind of wicked intensity is foolishness. So [leaders] need to know what their salaries should be and they should demand it. Because at the end of the day they have to fundraise their own salary anyway. So if you want that salary, go raise it.”
Keeping overhead costs low is sometimes important for nonprofits to achieve their vision. However, having strong leadership at the helm is also important, and attracting the best leadership requires a competitive salary. Executive directors must be ready to advocate for the contributions they’ve made and then negotiate a reasonable salary.
My challenge for you? Determine what you should be paid.
Do your homework and ensure you’re being paid on par with other executive directors of similar sized nonprofits in your region. When it’s time to negotiate, don’t do it via email - this is a conversation that should happen in person or on a call. Also, consider other ways to negotiate compensation if a raise isn’t currently feasible, such as additional time off or 401(K) contributions.
Seven: Trust your strengths & get support where needed.
“You feel so on the hook. I think the one number one thing that I would tell [new leaders] is: you don't have to have all the answers and you really shouldn't have all the answers. You're not the knower of everything just because you're in the leadership position. I wish I had embraced that more.”
One common piece of advice I hear from executive directors is how important it is to have a strong sense of self-awareness about your strengths and weaknesses, and to build your team around them. Anytime a nonprofit leader faces a challenge or decision, they must be real with themselves about their skills, vulnerabilities and blind spots. At the same time, they need to be real about what their organization needs to move forward with its vision. This requires a posture of candor and leading from a place of honesty, which I explain how to do in this blog post. When people are open about what they don’t know, they are able to find the support, lessons and practice time to get better.
My challenge for you? Do something today you don’t know how to do.
Bonus if it’s in front of your team. For critical areas that you’re less skilled in, look to others for support and delegate tasks. Sharing responsibility with another team member conveys a message of trust and confidence. Becoming self-aware of your knowledge gaps will also allow you to assess whether you have the right team members and approach in place to achieve the organization’s objectives.
Eight: Don’t take things too personally.
“A CEO of any business has to have the stomach for the ups and down, and you can't take it all personally when you're down.”
Not everything is smooth sailing when leading an organization, so be ready for the ups and downs. During the down times, don’t take it personally. Be generous to yourself. While it’s challenging, as an executive director, you need to be able to separate your sense of self from a program’s success or failure. Otherwise, you’ll risk burning out quickly.
My challenge for you? Reflect on an unsuccessful time during a leadership role and advise your past self from your current viewpoint.
This will help you keep things in perspective. Sometimes, we find ourselves concerned about an issue that will be a speck in the rearview mirror by the time next month rolls around.
Nine: Be ready to embrace the intensity.
“You get to do a lot of things and wear a lot of hats. If you are an entrepreneur and you want to do that kind of stuff [nonprofits are] a great place. But, the mission and purpose-driven person has to make sure they can get purpose from the bigger picture work.”
Nonprofit work is a job and while the end result is fulfilling, the day-to-day work is intense and sometimes thankless. From strategic planning, fundraising, management and governance, the responsibilities of an executive director are key to the sustainability of the organization. To handle this intensity, I encourage you to reflect on which activities are fulfilling to you and why. With this level of self-awareness, you can align your passions and strengths with your organization’s strategic plan. As a result, you can maintain your energy and enthusiasm while enabling your organization to grow and thrive long-term.
My challenge to you? Subscribe to my newsletter to receive our Nonprofit Leadership Skills Assessment Tool, which helps you identify the tasks that bring you joy at work.
Like I explained in one of my more recent blogs, many people are drawn to the role of executive director because they are passionate about the cause. While it is expected you will be dedicated to the organization’s mission, the day-to-day work of problem solving, relationship building and fundraising is arguably more relevant. Remember to consider what will continue inspiring you beyond the program and clients.
Summing It Up: 4 Key Behaviors
To thrive in nonprofit leadership and navigate the challenges that arise, the advice shared above can be summed up in four behaviors:
1. Be Vulnerable: Whether it’s facilitating a tough conversation or course-correcting an initiative that fell flat, nonprofit leaders must be willing to admit uncertainty and commit to openness and honesty.
2. Have Courage: Experienced nonprofit leaders know that fear and concern are part of the role. They are ready to embrace emotionally-challenging work and they accept the unintended consequences of their decisions.
3. Show Self-Awareness: Be real with yourself. Strong executive directors understand their unique strengths, passions and knowledge gaps as they relate to their organization’s strategic plan.
4. Be Committed: Lastly, embrace the responsibility of leadership and understand the work can be intense, challenging, emotional, and immensely rewarding. At times you may feel lonely, isolated, stressed, and overwhelmed. It’s important to break this cycle to avoid burnout and sustain your energy to lead effectively.
These behaviors and advice are the kinds of things I explore with my coaching clients. A coach can often help by providing support and camaraderie, as well as a safe space to celebrate successes and troubleshoot challenges.
While there is no map to perfectly plot your path to leadership, these tips can help you navigate your leadership journey and will hopefully help you avoid some potholes along the way.
If you thought this blog was helpful and want more educational content on nonprofit leadership, please subscribe to my newsletter. In it, I share biweekly content on topics such as: leadership development, improving workplace relationships, navigating nonprofit responsibilities, maintaining work/life balance and more.
In the meantime, do you have other advice for aspiring nonprofit leaders? If so, I’d love to hear it, so share your experience in the comments!