What is the Primary Role of a Nonprofit Executive Director?
I have worked for many nonprofit executive directors in my long career. I either reported directly to the executive director, consulted in a variety of roles with them, or served in the executive director position. When looking back in analysis of those I reported to, the experience, knowledge and success of the executive directors were all over the map.
Every person in that leadership role showed different traits, management skills and ability to lead. With respect to fundraising, I would give these individuals a cumulative grade of C-, as those in leadership positions felt fundraising was somebody else’s sole responsibility. I always wondered if these nonprofit organizational leaders received proper training, orientation and guidance or did they obtain these positions through politics and having the right connections? Let us look at the roles of a nonprofit executive director.
The Small Business Chronicle states that nonprofit organizations are structured differently than for-profit organizations, with a few exceptions. The nonprofit leader performs many duties in ways like their for-profit counterparts. One key role of the nonprofit leader is to serve as a liaison between the board of directors and the organization. The executive director oversees many functioning department heads in the organization such as marketing, fundraising, programs, HR management and accounting.
The smaller the organization, the more involved the executive director is in operational decisions. The leader is concerned both internally and externally as the public face with the smoothy running and effective perception of the organization. The nonprofit executive must have a spotless reputation and must drive the organizational mission.
A Board Effect blog notes that the executive director of a nonprofit wears many hats and must wear them equally well. Their leadership styles impact performance as they must lead and manage. They must have a vision and implement strategies well. It is imperative that they have strengths in both raising funds and communication. They are a jack of all trades that must adapt various leadership styles as situations change. A show of positive energy, humor and creation of excitement is a must. They need to manage well and ensure programs and services are excellent and relevant. A quality candidate will have experience, a successful track record, excellent interpersonal skills and have a quality character.
According to Boardable, the qualities that make an executive director stand out are effectiveness, strong communicator, flexibility and a cultural fit. It is important for the person in this position to pursue board member success, attract a dynamic team, lead and manage, plus engage stakeholders for maximum impact. Knowledge of the organization and ability to constantly prioritize areas for improvement are a must for positive leadership outcomes.
A blog by TechSoup indicates that the role of the executive director will be different for every organization. No two organizations have the same history, focus and aspirations. While nonprofit organizations may be different, much of the executive director functions are basically the same. The executive director must be visible, engaged and present in the moment.
This position is ultimately responsible for fundraising and must be deeply engaged in high level institutional fundraising. Leaders must understand financial management, human resources, operations and technology, programs and advocacy, plus compliance and best practices.
It cannot be stated enough that nonprofit leadership roles require excellent communication with face-to-face resource development attributes, according to MPOWR Envision. This effectiveness goes hand in hand with board development, long-term mission focus and technology sophistication. Leaders must attract and recruit the best employees. They need to be trustworthy and take personal responsibility for ultimate success or failure. These executive directors must practice skill improvements and create an atmosphere that empowers others.
A blog by Joan Garry mentions five attributes of a great nonprofit executive director. These are authenticity that implies trust and transparency; conviction that implies one’s honesty, equality, kindness, compassion and empathy; a spirit of joy that the organization they are leading is making a difference and helping others; a large degree of humor that keeps an atmosphere light and engaging; and a great degree of fearlessness that leaders must make a variety of hard decisions that must be carried out quickly and for all the right reasons.
A Nonprofit World article answers the question about what a role of an executive director of a nonprofit should be. It states that many organizations have weak boards, few major gifts and leaders that would rather have a root canal than make a solicitation call on a wealthy prospect.
Because of the financial impact of any nonprofit organization, the nonprofit leader must lead the fundraising program. Many individuals, corporations or foundation leaders expect nonprofit leaders to solicit them. The CEO of the nonprofit organization must spend a significant amount of time in direct fundraising.
Can your present nonprofit leader answer yes to every one of the following questions?
- Is fundraising part of your job description?
- Do you, your development department, and your board work as a fundraising team?
- Do you go out on solicitation calls frequently?
- Do you keep your development staff informed about what is going on throughout your organization?
- Do you meet with your development staff regularly?
- Do you work with your board and development staff in making presentations to foundations and corporations?
- Do you consider fundraising to be a key part of your job?
- Do you set a positive fundraising tone for your whole organization?
In addition to these questions, the nonprofit executive director must share continuous and consistent organizational operational information to the development staff for the staff to determine priorities and strategies for fundraising.
In my opinion, the leader of a nonprofit organization plays many roles with many constituencies. The primary role of this position should be fundraising. This element alone consists of marketing, public relations, communications, programs, finance and many other interwoven elements.
If you intend to hire a nonprofit leader soon and fundraising is not high on the top candidates list, move on until you find the right fit for your organization. It all starts at the top of the organization.
F. Duke Haddad, EdD, CFRE, is currently associate director of development, director of capital campaigns and director of corporate development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition, he is also president of Duke Haddad and Associates, LLC, and freelance instructor for Nonprofit Web Advisor.
He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the past 13 years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis on education administration, master’s degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University in business administration, with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also done post graduate work at the University of Louisville.