Do you have your eye on an executive director role for your career future? Good for you! But since “you can’t know what you don’t know,” we asked seven nonprofit executive directors what they wish they knew before they took the job. Here’s what they told us:
Managing relationships is key
Everything you do as an ED, from managing staff, to stewarding donors, to working with an all-volunteer board of directors, relies on creating positive relationships with the people around you. You’re not only the keeper of organizational vision and strategy, but at the heart of this job, you’re the chief relationship officer.
“The humans are the hardest but most rewarding part of this job," Tiffany Melius, executive director of British Columbia-based New View Society, told us. "And the challenges will never be what you think they will be. So keep your expectations open and roll with the punches.”
And those challenging interactions aren't just in the community you serve—often, they may stem from internal sources.
“I wish someone explained that a huge portion of being an executive director is managing a board of directors," said Kristin Dunn, the executive director of Camplify NC. "They have their own agendas, personalities, vision, and leadership styles."
Having the right board can make or break an organization. Recruiting like-minded people onto your board is when the job becomes more exciting and momentum builds, Dunn told us—but the wrong board can create a negative culture and burnout.
And Ashley Alaniz-Moyer, the executive director of the Hispanic Scholarship Consortium, stressed the importance of finding allies and advocates early on.
“I wish I knew to find my advocates earlier," she told us. "Despite my expertise/title/degrees, my voice was often ignored in my early days as an ED. I can't change everyone's prejudice, but I can find my advocates who are happy to pass the mic to me to amplify my voice.”
You need balance and boundaries
When you have the good fortune to go to work on a mission you care about, it can be easy to throw yourself in head-first—especially during the initial honeymoon phase of a new role, when everything is exciting and high energy. But the expectations and habits you create in the beginning can follow you for your entire tenure as an executive director. So be mindful about how you establish boundaries on your time and balance work demands with your own needs.
And setting those boundaries early is crucial to ensuring they're maintained later, said Dana Arviso, a former nonprofit executive director. "This was the hardest lesson I learned as an executive director," she said. "Trying to establish healthy boundaries and having them pushed back on over and over is the main reason I left. Now I put boundaries on my time from day one.”
And making sure that you have a life outside of work is absolutely crucial. Having other hobbies and interests can help you redirect negative energy and avoid burnout.
“Find something outside of your job that you're passionate about," said Heidi Holliday, executive director of Consensus. "Your life should be more than your work. I discovered dance during my first term as an ED, and it made me healthier and happier.”
Know what you don’t know, and be a systems thinker
In leadership roles, there can be an unspoken pressure to have all the answers and get everything right. It’s important to recognize that it’s simply not practical or possible for one person to know all the answers!
“There will be times when you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. There will be times when you really don’t know what you’re doing," said Tara Aesquivel, an executive director in Los Angeles. "It’s okay. It’s not your job to know everything. It’s your job to figure things out, and that’s a lot easier when you have a support network of other people that are or have been EDs. No one knows this role like other people that have had the title, even if in different sectors or with vastly different budgets.”
Instead, strive for seeing the big picture, knowing how to get the information you need to make sound decisions, and creating a network of other talented leaders who can support you during the tough times.
“The system you’re fighting against will always pull you in the direction you DON’T want to go," said Phi Pham, executive director of Building Beats. "Be intentional and apply systems thinking when working to dismantle the system of patriarchy/supremacy. Come with a vision and roadmap but know that even a well prepared plan will always have unexpected detours.”
Are you aspiring to be an executive director? Or are you an executive director with some tips? Share them with us on Facebook.
Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.