Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.
Whether you are a new or aspiring nonprofit executive director (ED) or a board member considering hiring your first ED, it is critical to get clear about what the role entails. Very often, nonprofit boards look to hire an ED when they really only need administrative support. This can lead to goal and role misalignment and, as a result, dysfunction. Similarly, candidates for the ED position may have a confused idea of what the role entails. Some new EDs want to cling to program work because they find it rewarding; others will focus on administrative work and ignore fundraising.
The role of ED will look different in every organization, and that's okay. It isn't a cookie-cutter position, and it shouldn't be. But there are fundamental aspects of the job that are likely transferable to 90 percent of nonprofits in the United States. I've been an ED for five different nonprofits, all of them very different. Based on that experience, the following nine "buckets" framework may be helpful.
1. Leadership. The ED runs the place, which means all organizational stakeholders should see the him/her as the most visible and concrete embodiment of what the organization is about. For that to be the case, the ED must model good behavior and be able to articulate the vision, mission, theory of change, statement of need, and overall strategy and direction of the organization. S/he also needs to create alignment across the organization. That doesn't mean everyone must agree on everything, but it does mean everyone should be rowing in the same direction.
The ED is also the CEO, the Chief of Enthusiasm and Optimism. In any political campaign, even if the candidate is going to lose, he and the campaign manager must convey hope, optimism, and a bold vision — or the candidate's base of support will dry up. It's the same for EDs. At the same time, the ED must be comfortable embracing ambiguity, as sometimes s/he will need to forge ahead when the best option isn't always obvious. The ED should also avoid destructive conflict (personal and emotional) but embrace functional conflict (professional and healthy disagreement about strategy and direction). And s/he should do his/her best to squelch group think and mission creep.
2. Fund Development. The ED is responsible for all fundraising, period. The ED should be involved in solicitations of major donors and foundations and create the conditions for fundraising success within the organization. This means working to train the board and staff along with instituting the right software and tools to succeed. The ED cannot wholly delegate this. I have heard every possible excuse for avoiding fundraising. "I was brought on as a subject matter expert," or "I was told I didn't need to fundraise," or "We have an endowment." None of these impress me.
3. Board Support and Development. The board owns the nonprofit corporation. The ED works in partnership with and for the board. However, because the ED is staff, it is considered a best practice to assist the board in its operations, administration, planning, and information dissemination. EDs should do whatever is needed to build, strengthen, and sustain all board functions and activities, including meetings, policy reviews, and committee work. That said, the ED should work to build alignment, not necessarily unanimity, in board activities while also maintaining role clarity (division of labor between the board, the chair, and the ED). In the long run, the best investment an ED can make is to support his/her board.
4. Financial Management. An ED must demonstrate competence in reading, creating, and understanding financial documents, including budgets, cash flow and income statements, balance sheets, and statements of functional expenses. S/he should understand the basics of 990 tax returns, audits, and compliance. Creation of and adherence to financial controls are also important. Get training if any of this is unfamiliar. My favorite company for helping nonprofits is Fun with Financials.
5. Human Resources. The ED must ensure that recruitment, onboarding, management, and retention of staff are carried out with diligence and an attention to detail. This requires delegation, decisive decision-making, clear staff roles (job descriptions), and supervision of projects and meetings to ensure they are conducted efficiently, inclusively, and with respect. S/he also is responsible for establishing compensation guidelines, including benefits. And s/he must invest time in developing the organization's future leadership.
6. Operations and Technology. The ED needs to ensure that proper hardware and software systems are in place for fundraising, collaboration, document creation and storage, communication, and record keeping and archiving. As the organization grows, s/he will need to work with others to develop policies on technology use and upgrade timetables for future success.
7. Programs and Advocacy. The ED should work to create the conditions necessary for the organization to achieve its mission. Stakeholders expect the ED to set strategy for outcomes, not outputs. Don't just feed the hungry; work to end hunger. That may mean setting goals for policy or behavior change programs. S/he also is responsible for ensuring the quality and effectiveness of the organization's programs, should be on top of trends and developments in its sector, and, if possible, should try to establish him/herself as an industry thought leader.
8. Community Relations and Communication. The ED should develop and maintain strong relationships in the organization's area of work, in its region, among its peer organizations and donors, within industry associations, and with the media. S/he should encourage teamwork and transparency and communicate regularly with stakeholders and the public.
9. Compliance and Best Practices. The ED needs to ensure that the organization is in compliance with all laws and regulations and make sure that systems are in place to monitor compliance. Beyond legal compliance, the ED needs to push the organization to meet the highest standards for its industry and region. S/he should understand the legal frameworks involved in creating and running a nonprofit, including both federal and state rules and regulations, as well as any local regulations.
To access nine great free tools designed just for nonprofit executive directors, grab my toolkit.
Known as the "Nonprofit Fixer," Sean Kosofsky has been helping and leading nonprofit organizations and campaigns for twenty-five years. His career includes deep work on LGBTQ equality, reproductive rights, adolescent health, the environment, voter engagement, bullying prevention, and civil rights, and he has raised millions of dollars for charities, candidates, campaigns, and community organizations.