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Advice From An Executive Director | Be Prepared For Change In The Sector

Different colored crumpled pieces of a paper. In the middle is a lightbulb.

Mario Paz has spent the last seven and a half years as the executive director of the Good Samaritan Family Resource Center in San Francisco, which is pretty cool considering he came to the center as a child. Though Mario’s first executive director position has been challenging—dealing with the recent recession soon after starting—he advises people interested in becoming an executive director to be prepared for change and to embrace building community.

Why did you pursue this position as an executive director?

Throughout my career, I’ve always had different leadership roles. Prior to coming to Good Samaritan, I ran a department at a large social service agency in San Jose, which was actually larger than the agency where I currently serve as executive director.

My desire to work at Good Samaritan is a full circle; I came here as a young child. I grew up in the neighborhood and when I was recruited for the position, I felt like it was a calling. It was an interesting experience and it was not necessarily something I was pursuing, but it was an opportunity that presented itself that felt like the right thing, and the right fit for me. It was perfect timing.

What do you wish you had known before you took on this role?

I wish I would have known that the economy was going to go into a deep recession and it would be this huge crisis that affected our sector. No one anticipated how severe it was going to get. I’ve learned to manage crises well, and we navigated through the difficult recessionary period, in terms of fundraising and trying to build a sustainable organization.

There are a lot of changes occurring on our sector, so I was prepared for that. There’s always this issue of managing change constantly, but I wish I would have had the foresight to be be prepared for real difficult challenges around fundraising. But we got through it and it came together. I developed a lot of proactive planning to prepare for it and we go through it pretty well intact, fortunately.

What’s the biggest challenge facing executive directors today?

This issue of change. The nonprofit sector, like the rest of the world, as we’ve moved towards a global economy, is changing and there are a lot of pressures. The way you do fundraising has changed. The demands on our sector to be able to demonstrate our impact has changed. There’s a lot of pressures around being able to manage data that demonstrates impact. You have to be able to use technology effectively. You have to have staff that has increased skill sets and have more technical skills.

We suffer from low self-esteem also. We don’t promote ourselves enough in terms of how amazing the people who work in this business are. We’re a sector that is always going to be under-resourced. One of the things we’re able to do well, and we’ve always been able to do well, is to make a lot of things happen with few resources. We can squeeze a dollar out of every penny. We make things happen. There are people in the private sector who have all the money in the world and they still fail. In our sector, we are continuously going to be challenged by being under-resourced, managing all the changes that have to do with how our communities need to be served, and the demand for funders.

How can a newer executive director work to become better?

Executive directors, it’s ok for us to ask for help. We have these huge expectations placed on us: we should know it all and be able to do it all. But it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. It’s actually a sign of strength. Look to your board, look to your colleagues in the community for strength and support. There is a whole set of complexities that we have to manage on a daily basis and we won’t always have all the answers, but that is where you use your support system. I have my set of colleagues I talk to on a frequent basis and board members with whom I confer. Develop your own support system because our sector is constantly being challenged, so seek the help when you need it.

What advice or resources can you recommend for people interested in becoming an executive director?

Certainly, depending on the size of the organization, you have to be able to manage change well, you have to be able to wear many different hats, and you need to understand enough about human resources, financial analysis, budgeting, basic accounting. You need to know how to lead people and I believe, in our sector, you don’t manage people, you lead them. You need to lead people and give them the right support and tools so they can be leaders in their own right and have some faith.

You also have to have good political skills, understand the community context that you work in and the population you serve, and be able to navigate institutional partners, whether it’s the government, school districts, corporate funders. It’s a combination of skills and requires a good balance of technical, political, overall leadership development. That is key in order to be effective.

And don’t forget that our role is not just to provide services, but also to build community. The younger generation is much more technically trained compared to the executive directors who have been doing it for a long time. But what I see lacking in the younger generation is this passion to build strong community. They come in more with this service mentality—I want to be an effective service provider—but you forget you have to build the community you are serving.

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