Having spent the last two years working as a coach to stressed-out new executive directors (EDs), I think there are a lot of misconceptions around what it takes to really succeed as a leader of a nonprofit.
We paint pictures in our minds of all the lives we’ll be able to change as an exec and how great it will feel to wake up every day full of hope and purpose. Part of it comes from the stories that are shared; just yesterday, for example, I was watching a series of TED talks featuring powerful speeches from some of the most inspirational social entrepreneurs of our day. Yet while I admit these talks are great for motivation, they definitely don’t paint an accurate picture of a day-in-the-life of a nonprofit executive director.
Saying that, I’d like share four of the most common false expectations new EDs have about what nonprofit leadership will be like:
Nonprofit Leadership Misconception #1: I’ll be spending most of my time helping people hands-on and seeing lives changed.
More realistic expectation: You’ll be working in the office dealing with administration, legal issues and human resources while your programs team helps people hands-on. Unless you intentionally take the time to get out and see them, you probably won’t see many of your clients at all.
Nonprofit leadership misconception #2: Fundraising won’t be a big deal. Who wouldn’t want to donate to such a great cause?
More realistic expectation: Fundraising is complicated. Applying for grants is a very technical, strategic process. Developing donor management programs can require a lot of administrative dollars and resource development staff members are notorious for burning out of the job fast.
Nonprofit leadership misconception #3: I’ll feel joyful and passionate all the time because I’m doing meaningful work.
More realistic expectation: You’ll have good days and bad days just like any job. With more responsibility always come more headaches and the ED job is no exception. Many experienced execs admit that instead of feeling joyful, they feel jaded and sceptical about helping people because they have been taken advantage of so many times.
Nonprofit leadership misconception #4: I’m young, I’m a hard-worker, I can go the distance. I don’t need help.
More realistic expectation: Leading a nonprofit will be one of the most stressful things you’ll ever do. Without help, you most likely won’t last more than three years on the job. To achieve success as an ED you’ll need to strategically develop an engaged board of directors (harder than it sounds), create an advisory team of other EDs you can mastermind with (always humbling), and hire an executive coach (often expensive). You cannot do this alone. Period.
As I read back over what I’ve written in these four points, it definitely sounds like I’m trying to discourage anyone from taking the next step into becoming an executive director. I’m not. Like anything in our lives, how we manage our expectations does a lot to set ourselves up for success or failure. Being an executive director is an incredible calling but does not come without its immense challenges (like any type of leadership role).
My final words of advice to anyone considering this career step is to get a realistic picture of what the job involves by getting to know other executives, hearing their stories and then make an informed decision from there. Too many new execs burnout because they weren’t ready – take the time to set yourself up for success. You and your future stakeholders will be glad you did!