What are the skills of amazing executive directors?
August 20, 2015 7:12 PM   Subscribe

Let's assume I can get training in anything I want and have a supportive boss who will allow me to "practice" any skill I choose in my current position as a director. What skills should I learn to make the next big leap to head boss at a non-profit?

Let's assume I've mastered all of the skills for my current position (as a director at a non-profit), and I'm now starting to think about the next big thing - which at this point is either becoming a deputy or executive director at a similar non-profit. I've already chatted with some of these folks to find out what I would need to qualify for the position and it is all money, money, money (specifically donor cultivation, but also some grant writing). Aside from these skills, which I realize I absolutely must know, what else should I start to learn and get training with? Let's assume I have an amazing boss who will send me to any training I want and let me "practice" at my current organization any skill I choose.

Recommendations from those in "the know" (board members and current ED's) of course welcome, but for those who work at non-profits what do you wish your boss knew/did and what do you love that they already know?
posted by Toddles to Work & Money (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
- Volunteer/Board management & how to recruit great Board members
- Speaking to the media
- Knowledge of any and all legal issues that could arise, and making sure you're aware of all laws your organization needs to follow.
- Budgeting
- Marketing/branding, SEO
- An understanding of the technology your organization uses and staying up to date with what's coming down the pike and could be beneficial to your org. Understand your website, payment methods, database, etc.
posted by imalaowai at 7:55 PM on August 20, 2015

I'm about to term-limit out as a director at a non-profit with a mediocre-at-best ED, and I've also worked in the non-profit sector for a long time. Here is what I'd ask an ED candidate (sorry, it's a lot):

It feels like you kind of brushed aside the "money, money, money" - is that because you already know how to raise money and put together a solid annual fundraising plan? If you're assuming you'll have a development director to do that, do you know a solid fundraising plan when you see it? Do you like asking people for money? Do you like reminding people that they said they'd give you money? On the grants side, how do you cope with the pressure of deadlines and reporting requirements? Are you an organized person?

How are your people management skills? Are you comfortable having difficult conversations with staff? Could you fire someone if you had to? Can you ensure that your team is not just doing what they like and what they think they're good at, but what really needs to be done (even when it's tedious, hard or not fun)? Can you keep track of everything that's going on without getting into the weeds yourself?

Do you like big picture thinking? Can you imagine yourself putting together a strategy for your organization that focuses on the long term, while a thousand forest fires continue to erupt every day?

Board members come in all shapes and personalities. Can you deal with the meddler? The one who makes promises and never comes through? The know-it-all? The no-show?

Do you understand budgets and finances, cash flows and forecasts?

Most of all: Will you miss actually doing the work your non-profit exists to do? That is the biggest issue I have with the ED at the non-profit on whose board I serve. She is a program person at heart and can't stay away from it, even when it takes her time and attention away from the important (and often daunting) responsibilities she holds as CEO of the organization.

As far as training, there are lots of universities that offer post-bacc non-profit management certificates through their business or law schools. I wish we'd sent our ED through one, rather than assuming she'd learn on the job.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:02 PM on August 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Oooh, already great suggestions. Not thread sitting, but would like to ask a follow-up question...
When thinking of this: a mediocre-at-best ED
What makes someone not so hot?
posted by Toddles at 8:28 PM on August 20, 2015

Raising money is one thing - but how you use it is another. Do you have any financial acumen? Have you managed a for-profit business's finances before? Business school or at least multiple business classes focusing on economics and financial planning are absolutely essential for anyone leading an organization. Money management makes everything else possible.
posted by missmary6 at 9:48 PM on August 20, 2015

This might seem obvious but you really need to know the sector your non-profit is in as well as intimately knowing stuff in your geographic region. What are similar non-profits in your field doing right/wrong? What does the field look like in the next 10 years? The board and your staff will expect you to know the big picture and help lead them there. Be able and ideally have already built relationships with like-minded non-profits so you can partner with them and share ideas. At the ED level your fellow EDs are your peers.

Managing the relationship with the board is huge. It's a delicate balance between keeping the experts on your staff going and a very invested group of outsiders with a keen eye that will make well meaning suggestions with their money behind them. You need to be able to find allies in that group. You also need to be able to recognize when it is time to let them go.

Time management. By the time you are an ED you should have this one down but I have met very few that actually have it nailed as well as they think they do. Most are bottlenecks. A nicer way to say it is really knowing when you need to weigh in on a decision and when you can let your staff do it and trust their vision is as strong as yours. Don't be the reason that stuff is late or last minute.

Hire experts in their positions and get out of their way otherwise what is the point of having a staff?

Most non-profits have a large fundraiser once a year. Are you comfortable with public speaking to a large group? Are you used to dealing with the press? Can you tailor the message of your non-profit on no notice to match the audience that you just got introduced to?

You didn't ask directly for resources but Compass Point has a slew of excellent training classes that could serve as a broad starting point.
posted by ladyriffraff at 9:58 PM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Speaking to the media

I really can't emphasize this enough, and would expand it to speaking--publicly and privately--in general. Seek out some media training, something that covers everything from what clothing colors flatter you on t.v. to resting facial expressions and euphemisms to avoid.

I'd also suggest some additional legal training on issues relevant to organizations. Separation of entities, lobbying regulations, financial ethics, contracts, etc. We deal with complicated donor situations as a matter of routine--e.g. donors x, y, and z all want to fund project A but x needs to do it anonymously, y and z can't disclose publicly that they work together, and project A needs to receive these funds in a single disbursement to be able to use it without special strings attached by its home institution. Having an ED who is a whiz at managing these situations will help people enjoy working with you, and possibly be more willing to bring complicated-but-useful opportunities to your attention.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:13 AM on August 21, 2015

What size non-profit are you thinking? 10 staff members? 50? 100? 1,000? The skills an ED will need will vary widely depending on the size of the org. At a small organization, they may need to be able to do the books - not because they will do the books themselves, but because they will need to be able to understand them and maybe catch problems. At a larger organization, the COO (or Finance/Admin Director) will manage the finances so the ED just needs a COO they can trust. Same for things like grant-writing.
posted by lunasol at 8:35 AM on August 21, 2015

I am a recent board member on a non-profit board, but I've been in a volunteer management position for a few years. Our ED is fantastic, and my favorite skill of theirs, is how they can gently guide us, as the board who has way less nonprofit experience than they do, to get to decisions. They know when to press us for answers, when to leave us to our own devices, and when to try to guide us to a particular place. They never TELL us what we should do, but rather guide us there with well-placed questions and fact-finding missions.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 7:15 PM on August 21, 2015

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