What It’s Really Like to Be A Nonprofit Executive Director

nonprofit executive director

One of my favorite assignments to give my undergrad students back when I was teaching Nonprofit Communications at the Annenberg School at the University of Penn was called “You Are An Alien.”

The instructions? Read a hard copy of The New York Times cover to cover through the lens of an alien, and tell me what you learned about women (as an alien).

That’s it. That’s the assignment.

It sounds silly, but the undergrad seniors really loved it!

You see, what they picked up on was often quite revelatory. They uncovered deep biases and victim narratives. They discovered that most “experts” are men and that most bylines are written by men. They noticed that the featured photos and print ads told a certain story too.

So what does all this have to do with nonprofit executive directors?

Well, recently I thought it might be fun to play a similar ‘game’ with those of you who are connected with the Nonprofit Leadership Lab on Facebook — so I asked the executive directors who follow us to tell me they are executive directors without telling me they are.

Some of what they told me was quite funny. And, some of it was good, bad, and ugly as well…

TELL ME YOU ARE A NONPROFIT EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR WITHOUT TELLING ME YOU ARE…

The answers I got on my Facebook post were a lot like the responses I got from students who did the “You Are An Alien” assignment — revelatory.

Every single answer revealed some unspoken (and sometimes harsh) truths about what this job is really like for those who have answered the call to lead a nonprofit.

These answers revealed the real behind-the-scenes stuff that comes along with this gig that you won’t find in your typical nonprofit executive director job description…

So whether you are looking to hire a new ED, you work closely with your org’s ED, or you are a current ED who often finds themselves asking “Is this real life?”, I invite you to be an alien for a moment.

Check out this post and read through the comments as if you are an alien.

What you discover might surprise you.

I did this assignment too. Keep reading to find out what I learned about nonprofit executive directors as an alien below!

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT NONPROFIT EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS (AS AN ALIEN)

“I am the one that gets all the questions and must also provide all the answers.”

Being a nonprofit executive director sounds like a really hard job. But I guess it should be a really hard job because it sounds like an amazing opportunity to really make this strange world a whole lot better for everyone.

“I work to fix the most important problems in the world.”

Nonprofit executive directors can see problems in this world that other earthlings might overlook — and they are compelled to try to fix them. They have this deep belief that these problems can and should be fixed.

Sounds like if you all could fix some of the problems, it would be an awesome opportunity to have a job with real meaning and purpose.

“I’m a trouble-maker”

Nonprofit executive directors also like to stir the pot. They ask the questions no one else is asking. They challenge the status quo. They are champions of positive change.

“I’m a philanthropic jack of all trades.”

Nonprofit EDs have to be really good at a lot of very different kinds of things. They are passionate and want to do whatever it takes to further their missions.

“More, need to do more… always thinking, thinking and spinning…”

But with this comes a high tolerance for frustration and lots of long hours. It sounds like there is always more to do than they have time for…

“A vintage hearse approached me in the parking lot…it was an older couple with a map looking for directions. I gave them directions and wished them well. I also confessed that I was so exhausted that I honestly thought they may have come to pick me up.”

So many nonprofit executive directors are tired and burned out.

“I have more passion than bandwidth and resources.”

Because of these challenges, nonprofit EDs must be able to figure out how to take care of themselves and model that for other people because these jobs are really really hard.

“I’m an eagle and a mouse. I steer the ship – while managing the people onboard and navigating the rough waters.”

It’s a great role with a great purpose, but my spidey sense (yes, aliens have this too!) is picking up that there are problems with the jobs — that there is a lot of passion but a lot of pressure, that people in these jobs are undervalued, they often don’t really have the lived experience of the people they are trying to help (that something this alien really doesn’t get) and I bet it’s hard to stay in these jobs for a long time.

“I’m trying to raise enough money to pay my own salary again next year. 🤣”

Speaking of being undervalued, it sounds like these beings have to ​​either be OK not making as much money as they should or are determined to raise money to make sure everyone in the organization is paid equitably.

“I want to help you.”

The job of a nonprofit executive director is not easy. But their passion for helping others is what keeps them moving towards their mission on Earth.

A CALL TO ACTION FROM JOAN (NOT THE ALIEN)

Going through this exercise reveals quite a lot about how executive directors think about and experience their jobs.

If you are a board chair and you have a strong executive director, share this post, talk about its content, ask your E.D. how many of these quotes resonate for them. Ask this one question: What are some specific things that would have to be true to preempt you from burning out in this job?

If you are searching for a new ED (and as I often say, if you aren’t, you just missed a search or one is just around the corner), how might this list shape the questions you ask?

Of course, you’ll ask about leadership style and the last successful gift they closed. But maybe you’d add a few like this to your list:

  • Being an executive director is such an important job and we know it’s hard. Tell us about how you approach asking for help?
  • An executive director has to contend with multiple priorities from diverse stakeholder groups. What’s your strategy for prioritizing?
  • When stress feels like it’s getting the best of you, what do you do?

Hint: In asking these questions, you should hear and feel the passion the candidate has for the work and the possibilities and vision they have.

And I hope they talk about the importance of “touching the work” to ground them, to reset when the plates really feel like they are spinning.

Want to dig deeper into becoming the best nonprofit executive director you can be? Here are some lessons that focus specifically on life as a nonprofit Executive Director — from a basic intro for a brand new ED to running a great board meeting.

I hope you find them helpful.