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The Executive Director Job Is Impossible

A classic stereotype in the nonprofit sector is the Stressed-Out Executive Director. We all know them. They are working long hours, pulled in too many directions, have an overflowing inbox, and are deeply frustrated with the lack of appreciation others have for their endless sacrifices. They make self-deprecating jokes (with a touch of bitterness) about how they have no social life. We are in awe of what they accomplish, but nobody wants their job. Why should we? Long hours, high stress, lack of appreciation… It sounds awful.

So why do we keep doing this to ourselves? For small nonprofits, that’s easy to answer. Not only do we have deeply-instilled stories of the importance of the Savior Leader Who Can Do It All, but also… We often can’t afford to pay one person a good salary to run the organization, much less hire multiple staff.

I met with a volunteer Executive Director the other day, who is working day and night to keep his nonprofit going, even donating his own house to serve as the nonprofit’s facilities. He listed off an impressive array of local and county government grants he has received, and the many amazing programs they powered. And then, the moment of horror: he told me that everyone has advised him to not ask for funding to pay his own salary.

He told me that funders don’t want to pay for “overhead” to pay the salary of the person making it all happen. This attitude somehow prevails across the nonprofit sector, and is most often exhibited towards grassroots community-based organizations led by and serving communities of color. This attitude needs to stop. But I can’t change that today.

So, setting aside the systemic forces of an inequitable funding system, we need to own our power as nonprofit leaders and start telling a different story. One of resilience and sharing leadership. One of a different, healthier, and more effective way to run a nonprofit. For small nonprofits (here loosely defined as organizations with ten or fewer employees), there are some amazing models that we can adopt, and we can tell funders that we need these models in order to be successful. Let’s redefine expectations for nonprofit organizational structures, and set healthier standards for the kind of funding necessary for us, and our organizations, to be successful. Here’s some options for what we can do instead:

The Co-Executive Directors

Structure: Two (or more) executive leaders who report to the Board and are equals in the hierarchy of the organization. Sometimes, each leader has a specific role delineated and a sphere of decision-making. In other organizations, the co-leaders decide everything together.

Works Well When: There is extremely high trust and strong relationships between the co-leaders, the organization‘s values center shared decision-making across the organization, and the leaders communicate heavily. One success story is Management Assistance Group.

Difficult When: The leaders’ personalities clash, they have low trust, they didn’t have a choice in who they worked with, there is confusion about roles, the organization feels too top-heavy without a good range of levels of staff responsibility, or there is board reluctance to adopt this structure.

The Executive Director and the Senior Leader

Structure: The Executive Director supervises the Senior Leader. There are two classic ways to structure this model. First: Executive Director and Managing Director, where the Executive Director is externally-facing (fundraising, partnerships, public speaking) and the Managing Director is internally-facing (supervising staff and programs, managing operations). Second: The Executive Director and Deputy/Associate Director, where the Executive Director manages most areas of the organization (supervising staff and programs, fundraising, etc) and the Deputy/Associate Director only has full responsibility for one or two areas (often operations).

Works Well When: There is high trust, the Executive Director is comfortable letting go of control, and the decision-making model is clearly understood.

Difficult When: The Executive Director can’t let go of power, the board is not comfortable with the Executive Director being more hands-off, the staff are confused about who decides what, or all other staff are entry-level and there are no intermediate positions for staff to grow into.

The Executive Director and External Operations Support

Structure: The Executive Director supervises all program staff and fundraises, and an external organization manages all aspects of operations, such as human resources, financial management, and legal. This most often looks like fiscal sponsorship or outsourcing portions of operations to different entities.

Works Well When: The Executive Director is comfortable letting go of day-to-day operations management, and there are high-quality and values-aligned operations support organizations that are accessible to work with.

Difficult When: The operations support organization does not do high-quality work, the Executive Director wants more control over exact policies/systems on the operations side, or the external provider sets policies/procedures that don’t align well with the Executive Director’s needs.

So how do you transition to a new structure?

The common concern is “How can we afford this?” A better question is “How can you afford not to?” Are you really doing the best for your mission and your community when your staff are overworked and stretched thin? Are you really most effective when the structure is a pyramid, with one person on top making all the decisions and everyone else on the front lines?

We’ve separately written about the importance of paying a living wage, and at some point intend to delve deeper into salary ranges across the organization. As a bridge while you build up your budget, you could consider paying both leadership positions good wages, with neither receiving an inordinately large salary compared to the rest of the staff. And start budgeting now to increase those salaries so that they do fit the right salary range for your area. The investment is worth it. You will be amazed at how much more you are able to accomplish.

Once you have taken the impressive step of deciding to adopt one of these structures, congratulations! Now it is time to tackle to the hard work of structuring your culture to support different ways of doing the work. Thankfully, organizations like the Building Movement Project and Management Assistance Group have done excellent work researching the key components to the success of these approaches. At Rainier Valley Corps, we learned that taking a different approach to how we make decisions was crucial to our success as we grew. We have an Executive Director and Managing Director structure, and we love it!

What structures have you found successful? How can we get rid of the impossible Executive Director job?

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3 Comments

  1. This is a good breakdown. I can add one more, a twist on the ED/MD structure.

    I’ve seen a few organizations over the years where the ED is primarily internally focused (finance, operations, fundraising, staff leadership, etc.) a senior leader with deep issue expertise is the main public face of the organization and leads the program work. It’s far less common than the “traditional” ED/MD structure you describe above, but I have seen it work fairly effectively when there is there are skillful low egos on both sides of the equation.

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