Executive Director

How to Grow an Award Winning Board

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THE FIRST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR in a nonprofit organization can often be in a difficult position beginning in the first few months of employment, particularly if the organization has been run in the past by a cadre of volunteers, including the board members. Any organization, be it in the arts, senior services, intellectual disability, professional associations and so forth, that is managed initially by volunteers, because of an initial lack of funds, is vulnerable in this area.

Typically a group of people come together in response to a need in the community. Some of these people become the board of directors, but everyone pitches in wherever and whenever it is necessary to get the work done. For the board members, the distinctions between policy and administration are blurred – rarely made or observed. If the organization is successful, eventually growth will require that a full time, paid executive director be hired.

In other organizations a different situation may exist which leads to the same problem later on. Here we may find a singular individual whose energy, drive and enthusiasm carries everyone else along. This self-starter will typically be the founder and the first president. This person’s commitment is usually total and everyone else will defer to this person, providing support when asked but otherwise taking a back seat. If the organization succeeds, the workload may become too great and it is recognized that it would be nice to have some paid help before the founder/president burns out. A first executive director is then hired.

In both of these scenarios there may be a “honeymoon” period of a month or two but, sooner or later, problems can develop. In our first example, the board may find it hard to step back from the firing line and leave operations to the new executive director. Board members may feel that this is their organization and resent the new executive director taking charge in areas they formerly handled themselves. Or, in the second example, the founder/president may experience a similar difficulty in letting go of operational matters he or she once handled directly and interfere with the new executive director’s proper administrative authority. In either example the executive director may welcome such help during the first two or three months while getting into the groove but, eventually, conflicts develop and in extreme cases conflicts of this nature may lead to an untimely discharge of, or resignation by, the new executive director.

Such things need not occur. The board should have developed a proper job description, setting forth the division of responsibility and authority between board and staff, before hiring. If the board has not done this, or has not done it well, the candidate should insist that it be done before accepting the job. The candidate for the position might want the job badly, but not to do this before accepting the job is dangerous! It is difficult in the extreme to get such a job description worked out properly after the commitment has been made and the new executive director has been in the job for a while.

Writing the job description in this situation will best be a joint effort of the board (working through its search and/or personnel committees with the final product approved by the board) and the candidate. If your board lacks experience in writing job descriptions there is no lack of help. Try to obtain someone with personnel experience to serve on your personnel committee. If your organization belongs to a national association, the association may have specimen job descriptions you can refer to. Are there comparable organizations in town who have job descriptions you might review? Books available through organizations such as the Society for Nonprofit Organizations can help. And so forth.

But, in any event, establish the division of responsibility and authority between the board and the new executive director up front. Not to do so can be a virtual guarantee of difficulties downstream.

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