Building A Better Executive Director



Without initiative, leaders are simply workers in leadership positions.
Bo Bennett






I am going to tell you  something that I have learned over the past 25 years….You want a better organization? You have to start with a better Executive Director. You have to start with better leadership.

What does an average  executive director do every day? They organize fundraisers. They work with their board of directors. They write grants. They provide direct services and programs. They motivate volunteers. They deal with the news media and handle marketing. They manage staff.  They manage budgets and are in charge of  the financial numbers.  They make sound legal, ethical decisions.  Many do all these things before 11am.

They build the ark while animals are climbing on board.

The  to do list that I just ran through literally came off the top of my head. They do all of the above and so much more. I honor the hard work that they do everyday… and because of that I want executive directors to  be honest with their boards and funders.


You need to be better equipped to do the work. What could honesty look like ?

1. You need staff and resources. Stop being a martyr. You can not do everything . You only have so many hours a day. You need help. Help from your board and you need staff. The next time a funder asks what they can do to help, tell them the truth. You need an investment in staff and infrastructure to help you move your mission forward.


2. You need professional development. Have you looked  at your to-do- list for this week? It is NUTS.  How many people do you know that are experts in finance, legal issues, HR and fundraising who also can give a great  keynote address while writing a killer press release ? Ummm…not many. The nonprofit world traditionally  equates professional development with travel and large fees. We now have distant learning programs, certification programs at local colleges and webinars and tele-classes. Travel is not necessary just good content and training. Make it  a key part of your budget– just like your utilities and programs to upgrade your skills. There is a clear link between individual development and improvements in organizational performance.


3. You need a plan.You need a strategy.  You cannot have a program without staff, technology, space, systems, evaluation, research and development. It is crazy talk to say that you can separate money spent on programs from money spent on the support of programs or that you need no money to support programs.  You need a real plan to finance the work. You may have limited access to expertise and skills needed to take  you to the next level. You may  need to invest a little in your future (time as well as money), to discover ways to grow your capacity (and connect with peers and expert resources who may be able become allies down the road)


4. You need coaching.  You may have started off  managing  programs and now you are at the helm of a huge organization. The skills that brought you there are not the ones that keep you there. Again, you do killer work but sometime you feel overwhelmed  keeping all the balls in the air everyday. Some days you just want a unbiased ear to help you think through next steps, or offer advice on working with your board or that difficult employee.  Coaching can have enormous value as a stand-alone strategy for developing leaders and their organizations. Many organizations are waking up to this critical point and are looking for leaders that understand the value of coaching.


5. You need time off. Renewal. Self Care.No smart phone, no email.  No staff. We all need to time to invest in things that bring us pleasure and make us happy.  It can be extremely isolating running an organization. Many don’t feel like they have the time – to look up from what is in front of them, step away from their desk and the huge pile of work and take time away. You can do it. You must do it. It is the only way that you will be at your best  and be of service to others. As you attend to the needs of others it is vital that you attend to your own needs.

What else do you need and how can you get it?







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