A Day In The Life Of An Executive Director

Nonprofit Executive Director

You know those pharmaceutical commercials that tell you the drug is going to save your life but that side effects include everything from loss of all motor control in from your waist down to brain aneurisms to a you-know-what lasting longer than four hours?

That’s kinda like being a nonprofit Executive Director, the person in charge. Here you are trying to save a teeny-weeny part of the world and the work is exhilarating. You feel lucky beyond measure.  It could be a big victory (passing a law to lower the NYC speed limit) or something smaller (a thank you note from a client).

And yet there are side effects. And if you are not careful, these side effects will control your day. I see it with clients all the time. The job that controls them and not vice versa.

And so this week I offer you a glimpse at a “typical” day in the life of a nonprofit Executive Director. Or at least I hope it’s typical since, overall, it’s a pretty good day.

For comic relief, an object lesson and perhaps a quick look in the mirror.


6:00 am
My alarm went off so I could head to the gym. I decided to check my email really quickly. Who was I kidding? There was an email from my board chair sent at 3 FREAKING am. My first bad choice of the day. Will it be the last? Nah. Skipped the gym.

7:00 am
Dog needs to be walked. Alex came downstairs looking all fresh and rested. I don’t look like that at all. She rolled her eyes at me and said, ‘Sure I would love to walk the dog because you do it every morning (NOT).” Then she laughed. It was a frightening maniacal laugh.

8:15 am
Emails read. Still quiet in the office. Time to make a list. I tried to mix it up – some firefighting, some time to write a board update memo, a list of calls to make. I put an asterisk next to things I cannot leave the office without doing. Helps me control my day. At least a little. Please let some of these things actually happen!!!

nonprofit executive director gets too many emails

9:00 am
My assistant arrives promptly. Best decision I ever made was to spend a bit more money on an assistant who is a partner and not just a ‘point and shoot’ implementer. He anticipates and partners with me to get things done. Just seeing him at his desk gives me such comfort.

9:15 am
I actually prepared for the staff meeting with an agenda. Feeling good. I thought about what might make the meeting worth attending.

9:30 am
Staff meeting was so good today! No one nodded off! Maybe because we actually had an agenda for once? Everyone shared a story about a recent external or internal thing that went really well. I took notes — great material for major donor pitch. And the staff writing the upcoming e-appeal actually now has some current material. Staff said the meeting felt energizing. Could we have discovered the secret sauce?

nonprofit executive director meeting agendas

10:00 am
Coffee with a donor prospect. Our research said she has significant means. She seemed so interested in our work. I made the ask. She declined politely and didn’t even offer to pay for my coffee (Really?) And a parking ticket was waiting for me. Back to the office less than empty handed. Sigh.

11:00 am
Time to get through some phone calls. Some to donors, some to board members, and others to set up important meetings. The staff meeting gave me some great stories to tell. Folks were impressed. Felt really good. Especially after that coffee meeting.

12:00 pm
Planned to have lunch with clients in the dining hall – something I do like NEVER. Something always gets in the way. Two staff members are at my door to share latest crisis. I thought, well so much for that plan but then I decided to try the boundary thing. I told them I had 15 minutes and it worked! I would do the boundary thing for a donor lunch but I have always seen the client lunch as kind of a luxury. I really need to get my priorities straight. The lunch recharged my batteries and I found myself looking forward to the afternoon.

1:30 pm
New energy led me to write a really upbeat note to the board. I introduced them to several of the folks I had lunch with – their stories and how our organization has literally saved their lives. I couldn’t wait to get notes from board members about the note – something like “sending this to 10 donor prospects right now!” Still waiting. 

2:30 pm
I took a few minutes to count the emails that came in since this morning. Why do I EVER think this exercise has any value? I need to just assume that I always have the most and move on. The life of a nonprofit Executive Director.

3:00 pm
Meeting with senior staff to discuss the performance review process. I know this stuff is important but it’s torture for me. I know I know. I’m a pleaser but can’t I just tell everyone they are doing great? (Well maybe except for the IT guy who answers every one of my problems with ‘why don’t you just turn the thing off and restart it’?) I pay him for that????

nonprofit executive director performance review

4:30 pm
Back to back meetings. I just love that. Who needs to breathe? This is my not-so-regular meeting with my board chair. Every meeting starts the same way. My board chair says, “So what’s up?” This is as much thought as she (or I for that matter) had given it. We acknowledged that we have to change it and agreed to devote our next meeting to create a more meaningful agenda for our meetings. She’s smart and has a lot to add – structure would be great. I really need a partner at the board level and we both have to work on that.

6:00 pm
More emails have piled up since I last checked (but who’s counting). I put on my noise reduction headphones (every ED should have a pair) with some favorite music and bear down and plow throw a boatload of them.

7:00 pm
I reviewed the morning to do list. It wasn’t perfect but I got a lot done. And I touched many aspects of my job in one day. I even accomplished something that wasn’t on my list. So I added it and crossed it out. Silly, I know, but it gave me an even greater sense of accomplishment about the day. Yes, I understand that’s unusual behavior.

8:30 pm
Home. After dinner, Alex suggested this new series on Masterpiece Theatre called HomeFires. About women’s power and how they made a difference during WWII. I made a terrible screaming sound. “I can’t even watch people changing the world. I must watch Dancing With The Stars.” I fell asleep with my husband just before they awarded the Mirror Ball Trophy to someone I’d never heard of.

10:00 pm
Crawled into bed. Did not check email (I’ve learned THAT lesson.) As I nodded off I thought about my lunch in the dining hall with our clients. Found myself struck by the fact that one conversation like that trumps the frustration, chaos, and messiness of a day in the life of a nonprofit leader.

Made a mental note that touching the work is not a luxury during my day but an absolute must for any nonprofit Executive Director.

nonprofit executive director tired

So tell me about a typical day for you. What sustains you through the chaos? Did these journal entries ring true? Did I miss anything? Looking forward to your comments!