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Why Are the Executives Leaving?

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

I asked a former Executive Director what advice they would give a mentee who was just starting out in the Executive Director role.

You know what they said?

“I would tell them to leave”.

Interviewing, surveying and hearing the stories of 38 former Executive Directors of nonprofit organizations has taught us a lot. Of those surveyed:

  • 51% left the Executive Director role within 4 years

  • 60% did not take another Executive Director role once they left

  • 45% had left the nonprofit sector completely at the time of our interview

When you consider that every organization these leaders represented spent time, resources and social capital bringing this leader onboard and up to speed, it is staggering that both the individual organizations and the nonprofit sector as a whole completely lost this talent investment over half the time.

Now sometimes it is best that an Executive Director leaves an organization. It is also important to recognize that 23% of respondents left in purposeful and positive manners, eagerly taking new positions or following a planned leadership succession.

Yet even with all of this taken into account, 77% of the former Executive Directors we connected with left the role dissatisfied.

The Executive Director role is challenging to succeed in. When given the chance to share their top reasons for departing, the three that rose to the top were:

Isolation/lack of support (27%) 

You can't even really have a bad day because everyone's looking to you.”

Work life balance (24%) 

“It always was, just let me get through these two weeks, and, let me remind myself to pee,

remind myself to eat”

Unrealistic expectations from the board (24%) 

Even our best board members probably weren’t lying awake at night worrying”

If you're interested in learning more about the research and how our programs provide a generative space for nonprofit leaders to do their work in a supported, professional manner, join my newsletter for more insights, stories and actions for ambitious nonprofit leaders. And in the meantime, keep up with me on LinkedIn!


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