Being promoted to acting executive director can be an honor but comes with its fair share of stress. You are suddenly taking on a new set of high-level responsibilities while still trying to maintain your existing work. There’s a huge advantage to the organization to temporarily fill a position internally. It is a fairly fast and simple process, but there are significant challenges to overcome.
The nonprofit sector here in Lincoln has many fantastic leaders doing great work. Some are executive directors and program managers, other are committed case workers and fundraisers. How can you be part of this cadre of people? Here are some beneficial tips to become a true nonprofit leader.
Leading for Justice by Rita Sever is well worth reading for anyone who supervises or manages others at a nonprofit. She has put so many nuggets of wisdom into this book. You will get a wide variety of great ideas on how to work with people more effectively, efficiently, and most importantly, in a way that they feel valued and heard.
She addresses every relevant topic for supervising people, including supervising remote staff, dealing with burnout, holding staff accountable, and much more. Some of her advice covers things I’ve learned the hard way, other suggestions were completely new to me. I appreciated her emphasis on making sure you are holding regular one-on-one meetings with staff to make sure everyone feels heard and to clear up problems before they become big issues.
She also shared a lot of good information on the role of HR, at what point an organization needs an HR professional, or at least someone who has that duty formally added to their position. While HR professionals can sometimes emphasize potential legal consequences to actions more than staff want to hear, they are a valuable partner in the health of an organization and the happiness of its staff. HR is someone who is not the boss but is someone people can go to with problems. They are looking out for employees’ well-being and helping train supervisors. All of these important roles are vital to an organization’s success.
Sever weaves in a focus on justice throughout the whole book. She includes many lessons that she has learned along the way as a nonprofit staff member, leader, and consultant. This includes ways to see your own privilege and questions to ask yourself. She also talks about the need to understand the unwritten rules in your workplace so you can examine them more closely and how they might impact those who aren’t part of the group in power.
Leading for Justice is available on Hoopla or at your favorite bookstore.
Communicating effectively and quickly to your stakeholders in an emergency is an important part of building trust within your community. Imagine the difference between hearing through the grapevine that an executive director was fired, versus hearing from the organization directly that there’s a change in leadership and a plan to move forward with an interim or acting leader. In the first situation, you don’t know what has happened or why, and you don’t have any idea what is happening. It seems like the firing happened suddenly and without any thought. In the latter situation, you know the board took careful and thoughtful actions. Even if you disagree with their process, you know that the board recognizes the repercussions of their decision.
Lack of board engagement is a frequent complaint I hear from executive directors. They feel like they never hear from their boards and when they do, it is negative. There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes the board isn’t asked to do anything interesting or thought-provoking so they lose interest in the work. Other times they aren’t sure what their role as a board is, or what their role as an individual board member is. To help have better board meetings, I’ve suggested two books: Boards on Fire and The Art of Gathering.
In this article, I want to specifically address how to start a meeting so that everyone will stay engaged. A great beginning will make for a great meeting. I highly recommend taking the extra time to engage your board members at the start with one of these questions.
Becoming a strong executive director takes a wide range of skills. No one can be strong in every single area, of course, but you do need to have the basics down in each and know where you can improve. The skills listed below are all ones you can learn with practice.
When I first became an ED, I had a variety of skills from my previous nonprofit position, but there was a lot to learn. The biggest areas of growth for me were financial management, fundraising, and HR, as I came from an organization with whole teams for those tasks. Other skills I had already. I was passionate about the cause, and cared about helping others. I had written and managed grants of all kinds. I had managed staff, and programs. Especially in those first few years, I spent my time learning the areas that I wasn’t as strong in.
Below are a few of the broader skills to consider developing if you are interested in an ED role. The good news is that they are applicable across all sectors. All my ED knowledge was quite valuable in my later roles as an interim ED in very different types of nonprofits.
Interviewing someone for an executive director position is not as easy as hiring for any other position in a nonprofit (or business for that matter). Making a good hire is critically important to the organization. It’s frustrating when I see board members rush through the process or assume it is easy to do.
Here I provide some sample questions you can use in initial screening interviews and second-round interviews.
Inevitably all employees are going to leave their position. You’ve prepared through good succession planning, but there’s still a huge advantage to talking with the departing person before they go and getting their input on the organization. Take time to do an exit interview and make use of the information you receive.
There are many advantages to conducting interviews. Besides the information you gather, it just helps the employee feel valued, even when they are leaving. And you know that a former employee can be an ambassador for the organization in the community, so it helps to end on a high note.
There are a few pitfalls to watch out for during exit interviews. If at all possible, the employee’s direct supervisor shouldn’t conduct the interview. If that’s your ED, can a board member with some HR experience do it? You’ll get more candid responses. You could also contract with an HR professional to conduct the interview. Also, make sure to prioritize the interview so it actually happens. Holding exit interviews consistently is key to gathering a better picture of how staff feel about the organizations. Finally, if the departing person doesn’t want to do it, don’t force the issue. Offer to let them give you written feedback instead.
You can even consider holding board exit interviews. There’s something about having a final conversation that helps people be more introspective and share information you might not have otherwise heard. Plus it just gives the board member a positive feeling to know someone cared enough to interview them at the end of their service.
Here are some useful questions to ask.
- Why are you leaving your current position?
- When did you start considering moving on?
- What prompted you to look for other positions?
- Were you given the resources you needed to do your job well?
- What did you like most about your job?
- What did you like least about your job?
- What are you most proud of from your time with the organization?
- What skills and qualities should we look for in your replacement?
- Do you have any recommendations for the organization for the future?
Exit interviews are a great way to get feedback on your organization. As part of a consistent evaluation process, they will help you see how you can improve.
A wide range of terms are used in succession planning and the type of plan you create varies depending on your current stage in the process. I covered the basic types of planning necessary for all organizations in my article on succession planning. In this article, I will provide an overview for those organizations that have a long-time executive director who is planning far in advance for a transition.
It’s easy to get to the end of a year on your nonprofit board and realize that you haven’t taken care of essential tasks for your organization. An easy way to keep tabs on all of the tasks of a board of directors is to create a board calendar that you refer to as you develop each board meeting agenda. This will systematize your work and make it much simpler to check off the tasks.
Here is a starting list for your board calendar of tasks and events to include. The document itself should be reviewed and updated annually.