4 common misconceptions about being a nonprofit executive director

Having spent the last two years working as a coach to stressed-out new executive directors (EDs), I think there are a lot of misconceptions around what it takes to really succeed as a leader of a nonprofit.

We paint pictures in our minds of all the lives we’ll be able to change as an exec and how great it will feel to wake up every day full of hope and purpose. Part of it comes from the stories that are shared; just yesterday, for example, I was watching a series of TED talks featuring powerful speeches from some of the most inspirational social entrepreneurs of our day. Yet while I admit these talks are great for motivation, they definitely don’t paint an accurate picture of a day-in-the-life of a nonprofit executive director.

Saying that, I’d like share four of the most common false expectations new EDs have about what nonprofit leadership will be like:

Nonprofit Leadership Misconception #1: I’ll be spending most of my time helping people hands-on and seeing lives changed.

More realistic expectation: You’ll be working in the office dealing with administration, legal issues and human resources while your programs team helps people hands-on. Unless you intentionally take the time to get out and see them, you probably won’t see many of your clients at all.

Nonprofit leadership misconception #2: Fundraising won’t be a big deal. Who wouldn’t want to donate to such a great cause?

More realistic expectation: Fundraising is complicated. Applying for grants is a very technical, strategic process. Developing donor management programs can require a lot of administrative dollars and resource development staff members are notorious for burning out of the job fast.

Nonprofit leadership misconception #3: I’ll feel joyful and passionate all the time because I’m doing meaningful work.

More realistic expectation: You’ll have good days and bad days just like any job. With more responsibility always come more headaches and the ED job is no exception. Many experienced execs admit that instead of feeling joyful, they feel jaded and sceptical about helping people because they have been taken advantage of so many times.

Nonprofit leadership misconception #4: I’m young, I’m a hard-worker, I can go the distance. I don’t need help.

More realistic expectation: Leading a nonprofit will be one of the most stressful things you’ll ever do. Without help, you most likely won’t last more than three years on the job. To achieve success as an ED you’ll need to strategically develop an engaged board of directors (harder than it sounds), create an advisory team of other EDs you can mastermind with (always humbling), and hire an executive coach (often expensive). You cannot do this alone. Period.

As I read back over what I’ve written in these four points, it definitely sounds like I’m trying to discourage anyone from taking the next step into becoming an executive director. I’m not. Like anything in our lives, how we manage our expectations does a lot to set ourselves up for success or failure. Being an executive director is an incredible calling but does not come without its immense challenges (like any type of leadership role).

My final words of advice to anyone considering this career step is to get a realistic picture of what the job involves by getting to know other executives, hearing their stories and then make an informed decision from there. Too many new execs burnout because they weren’t ready – take the time to set yourself up for success. You and your future stakeholders will be glad you did!

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Natasha is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits – an online training company dedicated to equipping new nonprofit Executive Directors with the skills and support they need to enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying careers. 

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  1. Someone shared this with me today on social media…and then I “paid it forward” Thank you for a wonderful article!

      • EAGREEN
      • December 12, 2013

      I never thought ANY of these things! Do new ED’s really think that? That kinda makes me think they aren’t experienced enough to have the job if they really believed that when they started….

      1. Many founder EDs have tons of optimism but not a lot of management capacity on the backend which can lead to tons of stress. I’m so glad to hear this wasn’t your experience.

    1. Hi Simone, I’m so glad you liked the article. Let me know if you have any questions at all : )

    • Sherry Rind
    • December 12, 2013

    A person holding those misconceptions probably hasn’t spent much time as a nonprofit volunteer. I don’t think I’m going too far in saying that volunteering on the administrative end–heading a fund-raising project, working on prospect research, helping write a grant, serving on planning committee–is essential for anyone planning to become an ED. Getting to know others is good networking but getting to know the job first-hand is equally important.

    1. Thanks for your comment Sherry. I totally agree!

    2. I can certainly relate to the four points, although I didn’t really think about them much at the time. I am a VOLUNTEER director – first it was at a state level, then at national. I never in my life thought I would be in such a position but found myself taking on the challenge because… well, because I HAD to, really. It is a calling for me, and I’ve never regretted my decision, but it has been a very steep learning curve.

      I’m coming up on two years as national ED and have definitely struggled with some near-burnout. I would LOVE to connect to a few folks who have been in similar situations (volunteering full-time, and working full-time, squeezing in family time) trying to do a good job with little support and experience. I could use an advisory team, as Natasha recommends.

      Perhaps a fifth point might be something like “It’s very lonely at the top.” I find it difficult to have friends within the organization, because I am the authority figure and even those I’m closest to, who understand that I’m just a volunteer like they are, will still have an “agenda” a lot of times, or I still have to be careful how I express myself when I feel like venting. Basically, I can’t. Wow – so much to learn!

      1. I am with you Brenda. I am a full time volunteer Executive Director and a part time worker and student. Most of the time I enjoy my job as E.D it is very rewarding but full of challenges as well. I find my self doing a lot of everything, wearing different hats because we do not have paid staff and have to rely in a few group of volunteers who are already doing a lot of work with the CEO. The CEO and I each put in more than 50 hours a week, but there’s always so much to do. The only two Board members that we have live out of state. I want to go out and network to get more volunteers and new members for the Board of Directors who are locally but finding the time is a very difficult task.

    • Tracy
    • December 12, 2013

    Thanks for this article. I never wanted to be an Executive Director and then somehow I became the interim and then just the ED. I lasted 4 heartbreaking years. This article explained everything I went through and it’s nice to know it just wasn’t me. I have been suffering from ED PSTD. It’s been 2 1/2 years since I was an ED. 13 years in non profit total and now I am s afraid to take another leadership role.

    1. Hi Tracy, you’d be surprised how often I hear stories like that. I love your expression PSTD, that’s exactly how it feels. What was your biggest issue as ED?

  2. Pingback: Four Tough Truths About What It’s Like To Be An Executive Director | Next Level Nonprofits

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