The Hardest Job I Ever Had, Revisited

As I sat down to write this week’s blog post, I realized the topic I had in mind was one I’ve already written about – the challenges of being a nonprofit executive director or CEO.  I pulled up the old post to see what is still relevant and (no surprise!) little has changed. In fact, the job may have gotten even harder, if that’s possible.

The last couple of years brought an influx of grants and gifts to support program expansion and infrastructure, but many of those one-time gifts must now be replaced with new donors to fund ongoing operations and staffing levels (which, by the way, is even more difficult with rising inflation). The pandemic mandated long-needed advances in technology for many organizations, but it also created challenges associated with building team culture when staff members no longer come into an office to work.

Salary divides are getting greater between nonprofit and for-profit entities, making it difficult to attract qualified employees. Days now consist of back-to-back Zoom (or Teams or Webex or Google Meet or you get the picture) meetings with only rare breaks to go to the bathroom or eat, much less do actual work.

It’s no wonder we are seeing so many ED/CEO retirements and resignations. It’s a tough job.

If you have a minute, read my original post below on this topic and – it bears repeating:

If you get a chance, make an executive director's day by telling them they are doing a great job. They don't hear it nearly enough.

Originally posted June 19, 2021

With respect to my work, I am what author Po Bronson calls a journeyer in his book What Should I Do with My Life? For me, that has meant pursuing several different – and at the time, fulfilling – careers. These include having spent significant time as a management consultant, information technology director, commercial freelance writer, nonprofit executive director, and now as a consultant in the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors.

And, by far, being the executive director of a public charity was the hardest job I’ve ever had.

I’ll explain this statement by sharing a couple of thoughts on what it’s like to be a staff member, in any role, at a public charity:

• Nonprofits are expected to do all the same things as for-profit companies but without the same infrastructure. Imagine trying to do your job with a computer that randomly reboots itself daily because the technology is out of date. Consider bringing a product to market by relying on a cadre of volunteers who have competing priorities. How accepting would your employees be if they received below market salaries and no benefits? Or if a single individual was expected to fill three different roles, two of which are functions they have never performed or been trained to do. These are too often the realities of working in a public charity.

• And no matter how hard you work, how smart you are, or how dedicated to the cause you are, it is never enough…because the problems we are trying to solve are bigger than one person or one organization. So, you have to learn to be satisfied with doing what you can in the best way you can. You have to accept that helping some is better than helping none. And you have to learn to live with the feeling of never being able to do enough.

Now, let’s layer on the responsibilities of an executive director:

• To start, you get to be the person who has to guide the staff through the mental and physical roadblocks outlined above. You have to be the one to say no when the resources just aren’t there, while simultaneously being the positive force that keeps the team motivated and focused on the good work they are doing.

• The ED is the face of the organization and that means spending time with A LOT of people, usually on their schedules. Breakfast and lunch meetings with donors and donor prospects. Board and committee meetings after work hours. Weekly staff and direct report meetings. External task forces, speaking engagements, and meetings to discuss collaborations. That leaves approximately 30 minutes a day to answer emails and get through your to-do list (assuming you work until at least 8pm). Need concentrated time to tackle a bigger project? That what weekends are for.

• Speaking of boards, they play a much bigger role in a nonprofit than in a for-profit, and it’s the ED’s job to keep them informed and happy. If you think having one boss can be stressful, imagine being accountable to fifteen people, each with a different degree of understanding of or interest in the organization’s work.

• And, finally, the buck stops with the executive director. Just like any CEO – and yes, an ED is a CEO – the executive director is responsible for EVERYTHING that happens within the organization. Parts and pieces lie with staff members, but the ED must ensure money is coming in the door, programs are well executed, regulations are followed, supporters and volunteers are satisfied, and the team is performing to its full potential. It’s a lot. And there is no one, other than another ED, who can really understand, so it’s a lonely road to travel.

Why do we do it, then? Why do we work in nonprofit? Why do some of us aspire to be an executive director? The answers are as varied as those who work in the sector. For me, knowing I’ve played a small part in making the world a better place has been worth the challenges. I am where I want to be in my journey.

If you get a chance, make an executive director's day by telling them they are doing a great job. They don't hear it nearly enough.

Listen to Po Bronson speak about his book What Should I Do with My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question on NPR:

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