Hiring the First Executive Director for Your Organization

You’ve started your nonprofit organization and it has grown with the help of an amazing team of volunteers. But now it is getting too successful. You and your fellow volunteers have full-time jobs and can’t devote the time to the nonprofit that it really needs. What’s the next step? Hiring someone is a big decision and has the possibility of growing the organization significantly. But it also comes with a lot of challenges as the current board and volunteers are used to doing things their way and need to be ready to let someone else take over.

Hiring that first staff person can make a tremendous difference for your organization. It levels up your work in a way that is hard to imagine in advance. Having paid staff means you have someone with the time to devote to the work and to building relationships in the community. It also means someone who has professional experience in nonprofits or who has the time to dedicate to learning about how nonprofits best work. And finally, having paid staff often leads to more stability in your organization as compared to an all-volunteer group. Funders and potential partners will take your organization more seriously if you have paid staff – they know you are going to be around and doing the work long-term.  

As a board member of the Southern Heights Food Forest, I helped them make this transition some years back. We were lucky to make the transition while the organization was fairly young and to have had two fantastic directors. I saw first-hand how much of a difference it made to have a part-time paid staff person. We finally had one point person for everything who could keep the entire project and its priorities in their head. It meant that all of our resources were much better directed, especially the volunteer labor.

It is important to remember that the first employee doesn’t necessarily have the title of executive director. At the Food Forest, our second person hired didn’t feel ready for that title so we called her a coordinator. After a few years, she had grown her skills and had more paid hours. The board and the coordinator agreed that she would now be the executive director.

You can also hire an administrator or company to administer your nonprofit and handle the day-to-day work. There are a number of companies that do this work for a fee. This especially works well for membership organizations where the administrator can take care of handling membership payments and event planning. This article will help you think through what position to hire first.

How do you know if you should hire someone? Here are some key considerations:

  • Most critically – do you have stable long-term funding sources? Don’t expect to find someone who is willing to work for free until they can raise the amount needed for their salary. The board needs to do the upfront fundraising to at least have a year of funding in hand.
  • Does your organization have the money to pay the costs of having an employee? This includes taxes and payroll processing software at a minimum. (QuickBooks Payroll is a good first software to use.)
  • Do you also know about employment law or have someone you can ask? Make sure you have the basics covered to avoid a costly error.
  • Do you have an insurance agent who can get you set up with Workers Comp insurance and other important coverage?
  • Finally, has the board of directors created HR policies? A good employee manual will go a long way toward setting clear expectations upfront. (A sample employee manual for nonprofits) Financial policies set up checks and balances to keep everything clear. More policy details for new nonprofits.

What about the less concrete steps to hiring an employee?

  • Do you have a strategic plan? This will help guide your first employee when they start to work. If you don’t have one, take a couple of hours at a board meeting to at least agree on some priorities for your first employee. It will be hard to hire someone to lead an organization if they don’t know what’s expected or the organization’s strategic priorities. Share this plan with the candidates.
  • Create a job description. Decide which responsibilities the paid staff will have. Talk about what this looks like as a board and what control you will have to give up. This will be an ongoing discussion but it is better to have it upfront than not at all. Detail exactly what you are delegating to the executive and be prepared to stick to it.

Sandy at Get Fully Funded has additional valuable advice on hiring your first staff member.

I’m happy to talk through your questions about hiring your first employee – just contact me to schedule a time to talk.

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