Survival Tips for Lonely Executive Director

| by Tom McGuire

Last week’s PhilanthropyBiz addressed the crucial topic of developing productive, long-term relationships with volunteers. We presented a step-by-step method for identifying, engaging and motivating the people who can be your organization’s most valuable asset.

Today, we want to focus on supportive relationships for specific individuals in your organization, and especially for your executive director.  A popular book and movie of the 1960’s was entitled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  In my years as director of a nonprofit, I often thought someone should write a book called The Loneliness of the Executive Director.

Think about it: in many communities across the country, the executive director of a human service agency, a housing coalition or an arts group can sometimes be the only person doing that particular kind of work. In addition to the constant demands of providing services, raising money and advocating for the agency, the E.D. must frequently deal with a sense of isolation that comes from having a unique, often misunderstood job.

I found that several kinds of relationships are essential for an executive director to nurture, not only for his or her own morale, but for the vitality and well-being of the organization:

  • Professional colleagues and fellow executive directors.  It is both uplifting and enlightening to compare experiences with someone who’s going through the same thing.  Often that person is the only one who can truly understand and, more important, be able to offer useful feedback on difficult situations.

At Armstrong McGuire, we frequently encourage executive directors (as well as other staff members) to participate in the local, state and national associations that represent their organization’s issue area. The services these associations offer are important, but by far the greatest benefit of participation is developing the peer relationships that sustain and support each other throughout the year.

  • The Chair and other key members of the board. In addition to the loneliness mentioned earlier, an executive director has the unique challenge of working for a board that may have as many as 30+ members. Anyone who has served as an E.D. knows that it is impossible to answer to every member of the board (…although some will expect it).

When working on the issue of board/staff relations, we advise clients to be absolutely clear about how the executive director reports to the board—whether it is to the chair or to a personnel committee. It is the chair’s job to make sure that all board members observe that arrangement, and that no individual member tries to undermine it.

The relationship between board chair and executive director can be the most productive one in the organization…or the most destructive. A healthy relationship that respects each side’s talent, contribution and role will set the tone for success, whether in a campaign or in a program initiative.

What relationships do you consider important for your organization’s success…and how do you create them?  Join our conversation and share your experience.


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