Why I Left My Executive Director Position

As an executive director, your departure brings about a huge change for an organization. It is challenging to know when it is time to leave, both for yourself and for the sake of the organization. How do you decide when it is time to go?

I had been the executive director of my organization for about 10 years when I began thinking about my departure. I loved the job, it had been a dream come true for me to run an organization that was providing community gardens across the city. I knew I could continue growing the organization and serving even more people. I also knew that I wasn’t as enthusiastic as I had been. I was getting tired of running the same fundraisers, writing the same grants, and taking care of the same tasks year after year. I could certainly keep doing it and doing it well, but I wasn’t sure that was the best thing for the organization. So, it was time for me to move on. I didn’t have a plan in place past that position, which surprised many people. They told me they couldn’t have left a job without knowing what was next. I knew that I couldn’t think about what I wanted to do next until I wrapped things up. Besides, I wanted to give the board as much notice as possible, so I wouldn’t be able to take another position until the new ED was hired.

Once I had made the decision to leave, the hardest part was deciding when to tell the board. I didn’t feel like it was something I could hint at. I felt like I just needed to decide and let them take the process from there. I had planned to wait until after our annual event when things would be calmer, but I realized that I couldn’t wait that long for my own peace of mind. I knew I was ready to go, and I needed to make that official. I wound up telling the board about a month before the fundraiser. They decided to keep the information private until later but they began preparing for a search.

Ultimately, the process took three months from the time I told the board until the time they selected the new executive director. In my experience, this is the minimum amount of time for the hiring process for a smaller organization conducting a local search. (As I have learned more about executive search, I recommend that the organization takes more time to do the process right.)

Now, almost two years later, I have people ask if I miss my job, or if I have regrets about leaving. I don’t. Although the organization has had to make some difficult changes, it will be better for those changes. And I can’t say that I would have done things differently or better. I miss some aspects of the position, especially no longer having the identity of an executive director. I have had to work hard to redefine my role in the community. Now, I am enjoying consulting and being able to work with a wide variety of nonprofit organizations in ways that I couldn’t before.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you are thinking about leaving your position. Take some quiet time to really think about them. There are no right answers, just answers for yourself to consider.

  • Am I still enthusiastic about my work? Am I excited to take on new projects? Is the work motivating? Are there new things I want to accomplish in this role?
  • Do you see new opportunities for the organization, but don’t feel like you are the right person to tackle them?
  • Are you able to keep your employees motivated and excited about their jobs?
  • Do you have other obligations in your life that are pulling your attention away from your position?
  • Are you afraid of what’s next? If it is best for the organization that you leave, you should go.
  • Are you concerned that no one can do this job as well as you can?

My story is only one of many. Feel free to share your reasons for considering leaving in the comments below. And please reach out to me if I can help you think through the process for yourself.

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