Navigating Nonprofit Leadership…Without Losing Your Mind (Pt.1)

I absolutely adore the nonprofit sector. I love that it is mission-driven, service-oriented, and aimed at solving some of society’s biggest problems. I love the grassroots nature of many of these organizations, and the way they learn and adapt to the needs of their communities. But what I love the most are the two ingredients that give the sector its heartbeat: the people who lead these organizations, and the passion they infuse into everything they do.

The people who lead nonprofit organizations are some of the most passionate folks I’ve ever met: these are the advocates, the activists, the change makers, the doers. Unfortunately, these are also the people who will work themselves to the bone to make sure their organizations are making positive impacts in their communities. The fact is, there’s always more to do, and never enough time or resources. This is the reality for many small and midsized nonprofit organizations and the executive directors who lead them. 

So, how does an executive director effectively position him/herself to lead when the day-to-day realities get in the way? How does an executive director excel as a leader if he/she is too busy with all the “doing” that goes into managing a nonprofit organization, its programs, and its people? 

I believe the first step in empowering a nonprofit leader to do their best work is to provide them with an understanding of the things they should be most heavily focused on. Once a leader is clear on where they should be spending their time and energy, he/she can start figuring out what they need in terms of time, resources, and professional boundaries, to be the best leader they can for their organizations. 

In Part 1 of this post on nonprofit leadership, I am focusing on six fundamental leadership duties that every executive director must be familiar with. Next time, I’ll offer some practical tips to help nonprofit leaders find balance and maintain their sanity in the face of competing priorities. 

OK, here goes: Six leadership fundamentals that every nonprofit executive director must know…

Human Resourcing – even if your nonprofit has a human resources professional on staff, the executive director is still one of the most important people involved in recruiting staff, board members, and volunteers. It is the E.D.’s responsibility to ensure that the organization has the human resources needed for good governance, operations, and programming. This includes nurturing a strong board of directors, hiring and training staff and volunteers, and creating a culture where everyone feels valued and appreciated along the way.

Financial Management – the nonprofit executive director must have a solid understanding of their organization’s finances, financial cycles, and revenue projections. While it is true that the nonprofit board is fiscally responsible for the organization, the E.D. is often responsible for creating the annual budget, developing forecasts and projections for the board, and identifying new fiscal issues that arise due to strategic organizational shifts or other changes, whether foreseen or unforeseen. 

Fundraising – the E.D. is also chief fundraising officer for their organization. Sure, some of the fundraising work can be delegated to grant writers or other paid development staff, but the largest donors and grant funders are going to expect face time with the leader. A nonprofit E.D. must be comfortable with fundraising and donor relations and be prepared to spend a great deal of their time doing this type of work.

Program Knowledge – although the nonprofit E.D. should NOT be spending the bulk of their time implementing their organization’s programs, this person should be the primary person out in the community talking to people about the programs as part of their fundraising and community relations duties. This means they must know enough about each program to clearly articulate their activities, their impacts, and their needs to donors and other community stakeholders.  

Planning – the E.D. should be thinking at least 2 years ahead at all times – about programming, about staffing, and about the organization’s board. On the program side, the E.D. should be considering trends related to the organization’s target population and thinking about how programs might need to change or expand to accommodate shifting community needs. On the staffing side, the E.D. should be conscious of growing staff needs to meet program growth and professional development goals. And, in terms of the board, the E.D. should be thinking about what expertise will be lost through term expirations or term limits, and what types of expertise and representation is needed moving forward to maintain a strong organization.

Community Relations – the E.D. should be spending more time out in the community than sitting in the office. Their role is to be out there creating new relationships and nurturing existing relationships – with the board, with major donors, with the organization’s natural partners or collaborators, and with other major community stakeholders. As the face of your organizations, the E.D. should be the first person that comes to mind when your organization comes up in the community. 

Next time, I’ll share a few practical tips to help the nonprofit leader maintain their sanity among competing priorities…and stay focused on leading!