Define Executive Director . . . if you can

Have you read some ads lately on job sites by non-profits wanting to hire executive directors?  If you haven’t, take a look.

In my opinion, boards of directors are confused as to what an executive director is.  They seem to think that anyone can take on the job.  They also believe that an executive director should do everything – everything – secretarial, accounting, social media, budgeting, strategic planning, business plans, fundraising, secretary to the board, management and take out the garbage – you guessed it – everything under the sun !!!  What CEO anywhere is expected to be a “jack or jill ” of all tasks – every single job in an organization?  

This approach is setting up for failure anyone taking up the job of executive director – or . . . more likely  . . . burn out And the members of the board will be quite unhappy because not everything will get done as they had anticipated in their quest to avoid reality of performing their own role as board members.  

Why does this happen?  Because board members want to be “served”.  They want to be the executives of the organization without doing the work.  After all, executives have people “doing stuff for them”, don’t they?  Yes, but executives cannot just “dump and run”.  They have to work and produce something of value for their clients or employers.  There is work associated with any role.  Are the board members raising enough money to have the organization properly managed if they do not wish to manage it themselves?

 Board members who think that it’s okay to expect their executive director to do it all are living in la-la land They wouldn’t expect it of themselves and yet, they expect unrealistic levels of work from someone else. 

The board members have the responsibility to make sure that the organization is well run.  Someone on their way to burn out won’t produce that kind of result.  Someone using the organization to further their own careers while being paid by the organization will be neglecting something.  It happens all the time.  The executive director, understanding that they really can’t do it all, will focus on using their role in the organization as a networking opportunity for career advancement or securing a better job.   

Not only are expectations unrealistic but  totally unfair.  In board members’ own offices, individuals are expected to do one job.  They have office administrators, managers, secretaries, communications specialists, events co-ordinators and many other roles – each person  fulfilling a particular role with specific tasks and a job description requiring specific skills to do the job.  No job description ever contains the words:  doing every task required by this enterprise.

How can someone take care of databases, answer the phones, do bookkeeping and at the same time be “the face of the organization”, create detailed budgets, track finances, hire people, manage the affairs of the organization, train new staff and board members, attend copious numbers of meetings and fundraise?  

What will happen?  Disappointment for all concerned.  

And the pay????  Well, the board members think they’ll save money by rolling all the tasks into one job. They won’t.  When the executive director leaves, there’ll be a huge clean up to do while the organization itself will be underserved.  Many organizations have died because of this kind of approach.

What if you’re an executive director already in this position Try to talk to the board members about re-setting expectations and design a set of priorities.  Or quit.  Or hire someone on your own to do all the administrative jobs which, of course, will defeat the purpose since the pay is already quite meager.  Or use the current role to network yourself into a position with another non-profit or in the private sector.

 According to Wikipedia, an executive director is:

  “An executive director is a chief executive officer (CEO) or managing director of an organization, company, or corporation. The title is widely used in North American non-profit organizations, though many United States nonprofits have adopted the title president or CEO.[1]”

 The role:  “The role of the executive director is to design, develop and implement strategic plans for the organization in a cost-effective and time-efficient manner. The executive director is also responsible for the day-to-day operation of the organization, which includes managing committees and staff as well as developing business plans in collaboration with the board. In essence, the board grants the executive director the authority to run the organization.[citation needed] The executive director is accountable to the chairman of the board of directors and reports to the board on a regular basis – quarterly, semiannual, or annually. The board may offer suggestions and ideas about how to improve the organization, but the executive director decides whether or not, and how, to implement these ideas.
The executive director is a leadership role for an organization and often fulfills a motivational role in addition to office-based work. Executive directors motivate and mentor members, volunteers, and staff, and may chair meetings. The executive director leads the organization and develops its organizational culture.[2]
As the title suggests, the executive director needs to be informed of everything that goes on in the organization.[citation needed] This includes staff, membership, budget, company assets, and all other company resources, to help make the best use of them and raise the organization’s profitability and profile.”

I ask any board member anywhere to tell me how they arrive at the notion that an executive director can accomplish profitability and profile through sound management practices while stuck entering data into a database and answering the phones?

Avoiding reality has consequences.  An organization serving a community cannot afford such a luxury.

Lorraine Arams
On Contract Only





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