Nonprofit Executive Dir

Roles and Responsibilities of a Nonprofit Executive Director

Roles and Responsibilities of a Nonprofit Executive Director


Article Donated by Randolph Grubb for the purpose of Leadership Training



The role of today’s nonprofit Executive Director (ED) is both exciting and challenging. The purpose of this paper is to outline the challenging roles faced by today’s ED. A nonprofit ED is charged with not only the duties of the normal for-profit CEO, but stringent fund-raising and volunteer recruitment efforts as well, making it a task sought by few. He or she also takes on the image of the organization by being its major spokesperson to the world, not to mention the challenges between balancing work and home life with such a demanding position. This is not a job for the faint of heart, but it can be incredibly rewarding if the right balance can be found.



In the world of nonprofit management, the Executive Director (ED) sits atop the hierarchal chain of command. Much like the for-profit CEO, the ED oversees the entire operation of the nonprofit organization. Furthermore, they are temporary caretakers of an organization that will likely long outlive their tenure as leader. There are multiple roles and responsibilities involved in serving as an ED, but there is no more important responsibility than a love for the mission of the nonprofit while relating to their work on a profoundly personal basis. This is the single caveat that separates the for-profit CEO from the nonprofit Executive Director. The for-profit CEO can distance themselves personally from the identity of the organization which they run, but the nonprofit ED has no such luxury. More times than not, the ED finds his/her identity in the organization which they serve. This solitary truth speaks volumes to their work ethic and their inability to relate monetary value to it. As in any job the work becomes obtrusive and even detestable at times, but a love for what they do and relating their identity to it sets the nonprofit ED apart.


There are multiple roles and responsibilities in serving as an ED of any nonprofit organization. For instance, the ED acts as a visionary, a change agent, a relationship builder, a community creator, and a resource wizard, among others. While these roles may sound rather commonplace for someone in a leadership position, they are especially challenging to the ED who has to fulfill these roles with limited resources while on a shoestring budget. Furthermore, as they serve in their role, they have a personal responsibility to oversee not only their personal growth, but also that of their staff as well. Finally, as any other member of today’s fast paced and ever changing workforce, they have to effectively manage the balance between their work and home lives. This responsibility is particularly challenging to the ED because the line between work and home life is often blurred by the fact that their personal lives reflect the identity of the organization which they serve. However, a healthy balance is crucial in achieving success as a nonprofit leader.


Role #1: Visionary


As a visionary for the organization, the ED is charged with motivating and inspiring not only their staff and volunteers, but the Board of Directors as well. The ED must have a passion for the mission of their organization and have a vision of what that mission can attain. Focus is attained through developing a strong and realistic strategic plan encompassing much thought and evaluation. “The vision must be shared by people inside and outside the organization, so it must be articulated, understood, massaged, and written down for all to see” (Carlson & Donohoe, 2003, p. 39).




The first responsibility of the nonprofit ED in their role as a visionary is motivation. Nonprofit organizations are often filled with vibrant, self-starting employees and volunteers, however this is not always the case. Playing the role of a motivator is crucial to the nonprofit ED. A primary means of motivation is by sharing your vision for the future of the organization. Obviously, the leader of any organization, be it for-profit or nonprofit, has a vision of what they expect the organization to attain while under their leadership. Employees need to have confidence that the leadership in place has a vision and knows how to attain that vision through proper actions. With a shared vision, employees and volunteers alike are moved to action, however, this is not the only means of motivation.

Forsyth (2006) offers several additional ways to motivate your staff to action. He states that “people are classically motivated by achievement, recognition, the work itself, advancement and growth” (Forsyth, 2006, p 22). People long to be recognized for their achievements in life and this naturally transfers into the workplace. A simple handshake and a hearty “job well done” go a long way to making employees feel as if they are meeting or exceeding the requirements of their job. However, on the flip side, if there is no recognition in the workplace, employees become demoralized and morale quickly drops.


Forsyth (2006) touches on a topic of particular interest to the ED in stating that people are classically motivated by the work itself. This is especially true in the nonprofit organization where many of the employees, and all of the volunteers, are not motivated by monetary gain, but by the work itself. Therefore it is especially vital to the ED to ensure that their work is channeled in a way to help the organization achieve the vision which has been lain out. If simply sharing the vision motivates people, then making them feel like their work is helping the organization achieve its vision is a win-win situation for all.




Another responsibility of the ED in their role as a visionary is providing inspiration to all involved in the mission of the organization. Inspiration and motivation work hand in hand. Inspiration is a powerful tool in the hands of those who know how to wield its power. In the sixties our nation became inspired by John F. Kennedy because of how effective he was at sharing his vision for the future of our great country. The nonprofit ED is no different. Though they have a smaller audience with much fewer resources than John Kennedy, they can wield the same power he did in the sixties. The greatest way to inspire others is through a shared vision. Look at what our nation accomplished when Kennedy shared his vision of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the decade, an accomplishment many thought was impossible. Yet on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong left the lunar module “Eagle” to make man’s first footsteps on the moon, making Kennedy’s vision a reality (NASA, 2007).


Inspiration takes many forms. Choy (2005) writes that inspiration comes from many places as management inspires employees to love their work, however, motivation is a little different in the nonprofit organization. Most nonprofit’s employees inherently love their work because they relate to it on a personal basis, however this is not universal. Choy (2005) writes that there are four principles to help employees feel inspired about their jobs: be there, play, make their day, and choose your attitude. The ED should be there for their staff and volunteers. By instituting an open door policy and making their staff feel as if they can approach the ED directly, this creates an atmosphere of trust and loyalty. Also, the ED can create a workplace environment that makes their staff’s work seem like play. Furthermore, make their day by offering simple gestures of gratitude or writing notes expressing your thanks for their work. Finally, make sure your attitude is worthy of inspiration.




Another responsibility of the ED in their role as a visionary is providing focus to the mission of their organization. Focus comes through clarity. Visionary clarity for the nonprofit can only be achieved through a well outlined strategic plan. The strategic plan “is not a wish list; rather, it is realistic, based on what is going on in the real world, taking into account the forces and trends that will occur both inside and outside the organization within the time frame of the plan” (Smith, Bucklin, & Assoc., 2000, p. 4). The strategic plan is not the sole responsibility of the ED, but its content should reflect the ED’s vision for the future of the organization. Through outlining the ED’s vision in a strategic plan, focus becomes a major factor as employees and volunteers alike can then channel their efforts collectively.

Kaplan and Norton (2005) suggest that a new corporate-level unit is needed to oversee the strategic plan implementation, an Office of Strategy Management. This could be done in many different ways. Larger and more affluent organizations can simply budget for the creation of such an office. Smaller, less affluent organizations can take advantage of this through a few, well chosen volunteers. This office would answer directly to the ED who would oversee their operations, after all, they are charged with overseeing the implementation of his/her vision. This office could be a very useful tool, because as Kaplan et al. (2007) writes, “The [organization’s] failure to align their management process to strategy causes them to fall considerably short of achieving [the ED’s] strategy potential” (p. 8 ). Therefore it is crucial to the ED to focus the efforts of all involved with a well written strategic plan.




Strategic thought plays a big part of the visionary role of any ED, being perhaps the most important role of the vision process. The ED must understand the foundation and culture on which his/her organization was built. Each organization develops its own culture in order to meet the specific purpose for which it was found. The purpose of a nonprofit is to meet a specific need or to supply a specific product that reaches a specific customer. Such specificity requires strategic thought in order to increase the overall efficiency of the organization.


There are several things to consider in strategic thinking, according to Butcher, Turner, and Drenth (2006). The first thing to consider is risk versus uncertainty. These traits can easily bog down the process of strategic thinking, however nothing is gained in the absence of risk. Risk is a part of everyday life for everyone, so the risks involved in deriving and implementing a strategic plan must be identified and thought out ahead of time so as to make the process as smooth as possible. The next thing to consider in developing a strategic plan is scenario planning. Once the risks and uncertainties are identified, strategic thinking developed scenarios for overcoming those risks and uncertainties. Next is to reflect on past experiences. For those ED’s who are fortunate enough to serve a nonprofit that has been in business for many years have a record to look back on for how the organization handled different situations. The ED’s that do not have that luxury rely on their personal past experiences to see them through. The final thing Butcher et al. (2006) suggests is to peer into the crystal ball. This is a creative way for them to say how to consider the future wellbeing of the organization. In an ever changing global market, future considerations must be taken into consideration as strategic thinking takes place because the way the organization conducts business could rapidly change.




The ED’s final responsibility in their role as visionary is evaluation. Evaluation includes following up on all aspects of the strategic planning process to make sure all aspects have been considered and everything is moving forward smoothly and effectively. The process of evaluation includes not only the macro view of the overall effectiveness of the organization, but the micro view into the nuts and bolts of the organization as well. With the scarce resources today’s nonprofits have to operate on, financial scrutiny is a must. Evaluations of all the organization’s activities must be done to ensure precious resources are not being wasted, and that all resources are actively moving the organizations agenda forward. “When a nonprofit is seen as serving its community effectively, it’s a fair guess to say that a remarkable Executive Director is leading this organization” (Carlson et al., 2003, p. 59).


Carlson et al. (2003) have outlined several methods which may be employed in evaluating the effectiveness of the nonprofit organization. These methods include interviews, focus groups, surveys, audits, questionnaires, observations, documentation or literature review, and case studies. These methods are used to “capture reactions, feeling, learnings, or changes in anything from objective numbers to subjective attitudes” (Carlson et al., 2003, p. 61, Exhibit 6.1). This list may seem daunting, however, while it is the responsibility of the ED to lead an effectiveness evaluation, they do not have to personally conduct the evaluation, or personally fix any problems which may arise. Their purpose is to provide direction for the evaluation and to provide leadership for any changes that must take place.


Role #2: Change Agent


In the ED’s role as change agent, they must stay aware of ongoing trends in the scope of their organization while monitoring internal changes which may be taking place as a result. They must also manage these changes by providing leadership to stakeholders to set new goals, create new plans, and make any needed changes happen. This process includes the gift of persuasion in helping others come on board with the ED and accept the changes as proposed in order to work toward a common goal. As in anything, the element of risk is always there. The effective ED is not afraid to try new ideas in achieving the overall goal of remaining effective for their cause.




The first responsibility for the ED’s role as change agent is to be aware of any new trends which might be impacting their organization’s area of focus. For instance, the internet has opened a whole new world for businesses around the world to expand their customer base by creating a web page which allows them the opportunity to inform interested viewers about their product or service. The nonprofit is no different. They can capitalize on the internet as well by building a well designed and informative web page which is specifically designed to impact the reader with the cause of their organization.


Bersin (2005) conducted a survey of over two hundred business executives and found that over 70% of them believed they were well informed about their particular industry and the ongoing trends within it. However, they also said that they spend a significant amount of their workweek specifically devoted to keeping on top of their industry, 37% of them saying they spent more than 4 hours per week. Bersin’s (2005) point being that staying up on the latest trends in your industry requires time, and in most cases a significant amount of time. This may seem like an unattractive proposal to the already overburdened ED, but it is extremely important to stay informed on ongoing trends in order to remain relevant. Although staying informed may seem burdensome, the ED should already have a passion for the mission of their nonprofit. Therefore spending some time reading periodicals or networking with other ED’s in the same general field of expertise should not be a burdensome task. The time spent reading and networking can, and should greatly affect the way the ED looks upon their organization and change it for the better.




Another responsibility of an ED in their role as change agent is to monitor and provide leadership for any changes implemented. Most people by nature are opposed to change, therefore strong leadership while facing, or going through change, is a must. As the change agent, all eyes, including those of the Board of Directors and the public, will be on the ED to see how they implement and oversee any changes made. Depending on the change made, it could be a make-or-break decision on the part of the ED. This is why it is imperative for the ED to not only stay on top of industry trends, but also keep people skills sharp to implement them when needed.


“One of the most important and most challenging aspects of implementing Policy and Governance is monitoring whether and how well the policies are being put into practice”, writes Moore (2001), a self-proclaimed “governance coach” (p. 1). Everyone involved wants to know how the changes are being monitored and whether or not they are making a difference, especially the Board of Directors. Monitoring reports should be made up by the ED and given to the Board to keep them informed on what is going on within the organization, and more importantly, to let them know that the ED is on top of it. A well informed organization is a smooth operating and happy organization.




The responsibility as manager under the role of a change agent is to work closely with all stakeholders involved to set goals, create change, and make change happen. “[C]hange is an ever-present feature of organizational life, both at an operational and strategic level… [t]herefore, there should be no doubt regarding the importance to any organization of its ability to identify where it needs to be in the future, and how to manage the changes required getting there” (Todnem, 2005, p. 369). Managing change can be a slippery slope if plans and goals are not in place. Carefully thought out plans and goals should be a crucial part of any change before actions are put into place. Of course, plans and goals are made by gathering all information crucial to the change and taking them into consideration. However, things happen along the way to make some things more, and some things less, crucial to the overall goal of the change. These unexpected changes are specifically why measures must be taken to make alterations easier as the implementation process progresses. The main thing for the ED to remember during this process is to remain flexible, yet firm in their resolve.




A further responsibility in the ED’s role as change agent is that of a persuader. Persuasion is an art that many have, but few really know how to harness effectively. As stated before, most people are not likely to accept change willingly. However, through the art of persuasion, most people will tolerate change if they understand how much more efficient the organization can be to meet its prescribed goals, and hopefully in the process, make their jobs more efficient.

Conger (1999) states that many people see the art of persuasion as something reserved for shifty-eyes sales people, who are perceived as being devious, certainly something the common person wishes to avoid. Though persuasion can be used negatively, its better use is to be harnessed into a powerful negotiating tool which, through the work of a skilled individual, has the ability to bring differing viewpoints together for the common good. “Effective persuasion becomes a negotiating and learning process through which a persuader leads colleagues to a problem’s shared solution… [persuasion] involves careful preparation, the proper framing or arguments, the presentation of vivid supporting evidence, and the effort to find the correct emotional match with your audience” (Conger, 1999, p. 17). The effective ED will know, or learn how to harness this ability in order to bring their staff together to implement the changes needed to make the organization as effective as possible.


Risk Taker


The final responsibility of the ED as a change agent is that of a risk taker. Anytime there are changes that have to be made, no matter what they are, risks are involved. Two of the most common risks are the manner in which the changes are implemented, and whether the staff will accept them. However, the biggest risk is whether the change is really going to make a difference in the overall effectiveness of the organization. This is something that requires much study and oversight because change is not worth making if it does not generate a new level of effectiveness for the organization.


Lai (2008 ) suggests the best way to implement risk taking change is to encourage risk taking and innovation within the organization’s staff. “When a company becomes too entrenched in rules, regulations, guidelines and policies, it kills creativity and innovation … An organization that does not challenge its people to think, create, innovate and contribute will only give rise to more people with a ‘why rock the boat’ mentality” (Lai, 2008, p. 38 ). Companies and organizations that create such an innovative culture enjoy a diverse staff that is not only able to accept change, but realize that some changes fail. When, and if, the change fails, these organizations have the innate ability to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and get things back on track. Without this mindset, failure many times creates a doomsday atmosphere. Once this stigma has been attatched, recovery becomes more difficult and could be devastating to the organization. The effective ED knows how to create, and manage this type of creative atmosphere to make their organization as effective as it can possibly be.


Role #3: Relationship Builder


A truly great ED must have the ability to be a relationship builder. Relationship building includes being a great communicator, effectively managing their staff and volunteers, and knowing how to effectively support their Board of Directors. “To do this, you must be a powerful communicator, believe in the beauty of teamwork and collaboration, be genuinely curious about engaging with everyone you meet, and carry the respect of your community” (Carlson et al., 2003, p. 93). Relationship building is yet another crucial role in the overall effectiveness of the organization the ED serves.




The most important responsibility of the ED within the role of relationship building is communication. Effective communications are the most important things people do in everyday life. Without communications in some form or fashion, the world as we know it would cease to exist. As Locker and Kaczmarek (2007) simply state, “[w]ork requires communication” (p. 2). The way in which people communicate with each other determines the effectiveness of everything they do. “[C]ommunication is the way people get their points across, get work done, and get recognized for their contributions” (Locker et al., 2007, p. 2). Success or failure in anything can always be traced back to effective communications, or the lack thereof.


In the case of the nonprofit, as in many other organizations, information or a service is the product (Locker et al., 2007). In this case, communications plays an important role and determines the effectiveness and the overall success or failure of the organization. For the nonprofit organization, the ED sets the standard for communication practices. Their ability to effectively communicate with staff, volunteers, and Board members is crucial to the effectiveness of the product or service of the organization. Effective communications has a trickledown effect. If the communications is effective and informative from the top, then the effectiveness of the communications trickles down all the way to the end consumer of the product or service the organization offers. This is why it is crucially important for the effective ED to have and maintain a high level of communication skills.


Staff and Volunteer Manager


Another aspect of the ED’s role of relationship builder is how they interact with their staff and volunteers. Managing paid staff is tough enough without the influx of a volunteer workforce. However, because of the shoe string budgets of most nonprofit organizations, they must include a volunteer workforce in order to reach the masses with their product or service.


Managing a staff is much like being a shepherd, according to Leman and Pentak (2004). As a manager, a shepherd intimately knows each of the sheep in his/her flock, and vice versa. In fact, once sheep get to know their respective shepherd, they will not respond to any other call than that of their own shepherd. This leaves the shepherd/manager with many responsibilities. They are charged with getting to know the condition of their flock, which includes getting to know each person individually through regular engagements, and being open to questions and follow through. Next, they are responsible for getting to know the SHAPE of their flock; Strengths, Heart, Attitude, Personality, and Experiences. Through the SHAPE of each staff person, the ED can make a determination that they are properly suited to the work at hand.


After the initial process of getting to know the condition and SHAPE of their flock, they can then move on to helping their sheep identify with them. This is done through building trust, setting high standards of performance, communication of values and mission, and letting them know how they fit within the organization. Another important factor in this identity process is creating a safe haven in which to work. It is important for the staff to know that they will be shielded and protected from outside persecution. As the ED, the buck stops here. The ED should be totally responsible for their flock and be willing to take the heat for anything that happens. Finally, the ED as a shepherd should be willing to not only guide their flock, but also discipline them when necessary. These suggestions by Leman et al. (2004) are great for the ED in their role as the shepherd in striving to make their organization as effective as possible.




The final responsibility of the ED in their role as a relationship builder is that of a support person to the Board of Directors. Carlson et al. (2003) states that “the single most important factor in determining the success of a Board is how well it partners with the Executive Director… If the relationship is healthy, the organization thrives… If [it] is poor, the organization suffers” (p. 95). Therefore, the relationship the ED has with their Board is crucial to the overall success of their organization.


In their responsibility as a support person to the Board of Directors, the ED should have an open line of communication with each board member to let them know of their individual roles and responsibilities. With this should be included a clear description of the ED’s roles and responsibilities as the leader of the organization. When everyone knows of their own individual roles and responsibilities, the Board can hold the ED accountable, and vice versa. However, the main role of the ED here is to be familiar with each Board member’s role in order to effectively communicate with them and hold them accountable. When clear lines are drawn and open communication is established, the ED has a much easier time in their responsibility as a support person for their Board of Directors.


Role #4: Community Creator


As a community creator, the nonprofit ED works collaboratively with outside organizations to further the overall goals of their organization. “These collaborative approaches are built on mutual benefit, and they reward the individuals involved, their nonprofit organizations, and the broader community… Thus the term community creator” (Carlson et al., 2003, p. 143). In their role as a community creator, the nonprofit ED is charged with creating a visible organization, building strategic partnerships with similar outside organizations, and embracing diversity within their organization. Creating a warm and inviting atmosphere free from discrimination allows the effective ED’s workforce to embrace diversity in order to help expand the products and services their organization provides, and to help them be as effective as possible.




The first and most important responsibility of an ED in their role as a community creator is to create a visible organization by engaging external stakeholders. Examples of external stakeholders could be clients and families of clients, donors and prospective donors, and vendors your organization purchases from. However, community leaders and politicians, landlords, neighbors, and the media could also be described as external stakeholders. Basically any individual or organization that touches, or could touch the ED’s organization should be considered an external stakeholder. The effective ED should know how to engage these external stakeholders and keep them informed about their organization.




Another responsibility of an ED in their role as a community builder is building relationships with outside organizations to more effectively work toward common goals. “Many Executive Directors find that through short-term collaborations as well as formal structured strategic alliances they can better fulfill their mission, especially when faced with the breadth and complexity of the changing community needs and increasing competition for donor dollars” (Carlson et al., 2003, p. 155). For a smaller nonprofit to reach the masses with their product or service could be challenging to say the least. However, a group of smaller nonprofits working in collaboration with one another could reach a broader base and greatly expand the effectiveness of the product or service they offer. This could be challenging, however, as many organizations with differing views may wish to work alone. Take religious based organizations who have differing theological views for instance, it would require setting aside some fundamental foundational beliefs for some religious nonprofits to work with nonprofits from other denominations. In this case, it may be better for them to work on their own and not make a collaborative effort.


For those organizations who have generic fundamental bases on which they were founded, it would be easy for them to partner with similar organizations to increase the effectiveness of their organizations. The U. S. Department of Labor’s Center for Faith-Based & Community Initiatives (n.d.) offers a checklist of items to consider before partnering with another organization. One thing to consider is developing a target strategy by outlining the organization’s targeted market. Another thing to consider is being familiar with other organizations which they may wish to partner with. Getting familiar with other similar organizations brings to the forefront the strengths and weaknesses of a possible partnership. Finally, the most important thing to consider is that any partnership has to be mutually beneficial. An unbalanced partnership simply will not work.




The final responsibility of the nonprofit ED in their role as a community creator is to create a welcoming environment free of discrimination so as to create a diverse workforce. “The smartest employers are those that ask their employees what life at work is like and what might make that world better” (Joyce, 2004, p. F06). One of the best things and effective ED can do is to model the diversity realized in the world around us and create the same type atmosphere in the workplace. On the surface this may sound like a bad idea, however, workplace diversity offers some great advantages. It is important that the organization’s product or service be tailored to attract as broad a base as possible to make the organization effective for its cause. When an organization employs a diverse workforce, they gain instant feedback from a wide range of cultures. Having such a diverse group involved in creating and updating products or services is invaluable to any organization. Furthermore, creating a diverse workforce gains the organization favor within the community the organization serves. Anything that gains an effective edge over competition, and makes an organization more effective in the process, is worth perusing.


Role #5: Resource Wizard


The final role of the nonprofit ED is their role as a resource wizard. As a resource wizard, the ED is responsible for recruiting volunteers, mentoring the next generation, generating funds for their organization, and being a good steward of what he/she is given to maintain trustworthiness. This role is perhaps the most difficult role of the nonprofit ED, and one which keeps many for-profit executives out of the nonprofit world. A regiment of constant volunteer recruitment and continuous fund-raising efforts keeps the nonprofit ED on their toes. This role is the main reason why the nonprofit ED must have a genuine love for the work of their organization, because this area is where they will spend the majority of their time.




The first major responsibility of the ED in their role as a resource wizard is in recruiting a constantly changing volunteer workforce. A volunteer workforce is crucial to the overall mission of the nonprofit. Volunteer workforces become even more crucial in tough economic times such as the world is experiencing now. As prices on everything imaginable goes up, fund raising efforts produce less, resulting in lowering an already shoe string budget to the breaking point. This is precisely why the effective ED will be proactive in seeking out and recruiting volunteers who relate to the product or service their organization produces. This is where the ED’s ability to sell the organization to potential volunteers is crucial.


Geller and Salamon (2008 ) offer several tried and tested strategies that nonprofits can use in attracting and retaining a quality volunteer workforce. Some of these strategies include selling the mission of the organization to potential new volunteers. If potential volunteers know what the mission of the organization is and they can relate to it on a personal basis, therein lays the basis on which a person can generate a desire to carry out the organization’s mission. Furthermore, the organization may see fit to re-design their work environment to attract a more stable volunteer workforce. A simple re-defining of the roles the volunteers play in the organization could drastically affect the number of volunteers attracted. Of course, more passionate volunteers want to work closely with individuals so they can see firsthand the effectiveness of the mission whereas others may want to play a more conservative role. Each person is different, but this is where the effective ED can play a major part by clearly defining the role each volunteer should play.




Another important responsibility of the ED in their role as resource wizard is being a mentor to the next generation. Unfortunately, mentoring has become a lost art in today’s self based society. It used to be a corporate norm to pair long time, seasoned employees with new recruits to help them get a better idea of what the job entails. This still happens on some levels, but hardly ever in the executive level. The next generation of leaders are out there ripe for the picking. The effective ED would know how to search out promising young executive recruits and take them under their wing to show them the ropes of running a top notch nonprofit.


The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (2007) recognizes the need and importance of mentorship. They write, “mentoring may also be more important than ever for organizations themselves, since linking up a mature mentor with a promising protégé is an excellent way to keep valued up-and-comers from jumping ship and taking jobs elsewhere” (University of Pennsylvania, 2007, p. 1). They recognize that lifelong employees are a thing of the past in today’s workforce. It is not uncommon for the average worker to work for multiple organizations during their working lives. In most cases, this leaves the organization with a gap they quickly need to fill which could ultimately lead to the degradation of their workforce. For-profits and nonprofits alike should recognize the need for mentorships in the workforce, and the effective ED would know how to implement such a program by setting the example themselves.




An absolutely crucial role to the nonprofit ED in their role as resource wizard is being an effective fund-raiser. Fund-raising is a must in the nonprofit world where much, if not all, of the organizations operating budget comes from philanthropic donations. The term wizard in resource wizard was chosen to “reflect the amazing ability of the Executive Directors who mix and match dozens of fund-raising streams, each with different expectations, time frames, and reporting requirements and transform them into innovative programs that make a difference in the lives of those they serve” (Carlson et al., 2003, p. 177). This diversity truly is the work of a wizard who can manage chaos, and still manage to be successful in the overall mission of their organization.


Smith, Bucklin, and Associates (2000) offer several ways the nonprofit organization can be successful in their fund-raising efforts. First and foremost, recognize that relationships are the key to realizing potential donors, and even retaining previous donors. Philanthropists want to feel like their contributions are making a difference to the cause they support. The effective ED builds personal relationships with such individuals or corporations by letting them know how their donations are being put to good use to drive the mission of the organization. Second, the organization must create a case for support. Every nonprofit, no matter what the cause, has a case for potential donors supporting their mission. The mission has to be defined in such a way so as to be able to reach potential donors effectively in order to create a case for support. Third, set goals for fund-raising efforts. By setting goals with realistic budgets, this puts limits on fund-raising efforts. Finally, the organization must choose which types of fund-raising approaches they will employ. Differing approaches include membership solicitations, contributions above membership dues, special appeals, acquisition mailings, and special events (Smith et al., 2000). No matter what the approach, it has to be effective in raising the funds needed for the organization to thrive.




The final responsibility of the nonprofit ED in their role as resource wizard is the responsibility of stewardship. Being a good steward of things that others place into the organizations control is crucial to staying above board in everything the organization does. The effective ED should not be above reproach. They should run their organization openly so as to maintain trustworthiness within the scope of their organization. Any hint of impropriety going on could be potentially disastrous for the effectiveness of the organization. Hernandez (2007) writes, “Leaders have a tremendous amount of responsibility to act not only as caretakers, but also to act as role models for future generations… Their behavior has a strong influence on the development of future leaders” (p. 121). The essence of being a good steward in the business world is putting self aside and working toward the larger common goal.


Hernandez (2007) goes on to state that stewardship goes hand in hand with personal moral principles. Personal moral principles drive the act of stewardship. Furthermore, “[l]eaders generate morally courageous behavior by fostering relational, contextual, and motivational support in followers” (Hernandez, 2007, p. 125). In other words, morally sound leaders help generate morally sound followers. It is a top-down effect. The effective ED who allows their morally sound principles drive their stewardship behaviors will in turn help create sound stewardship principles throughout their organization. This is a win-win situation for any organization.


Professional Development


Another important role of the nonprofit ED, which is considered a more personal role, is professional development. This role includes overseeing not only their personal professional development, but that of their staff as well. A nonprofit ED should never become complacent in their responsibilities and not strive for more personal development, although sadly many times this is the case. Personal professional development is perhaps the best thing for the ED and their staff to remain effective in their day to day careers.


Personal Professional Development


A major part of personal professional development is continuing education. The effective ED should never stop learning. There are numerous online Universities that enable continuing education to be as convenient as possible. With time ultimately being the main problem with continuing education, online studies all but eliminate that problem by allowing individuals the opportunity to study as time allows in their schedules. Without having to set aside a set time every week to attend a University in a classroom setting, online continuing education is the wave of the future. This is not to say that the nonprofit ED should feel the need to enter into a full curriculum leading to a degree. There are numerous stand alone courses which can offer insight into business practices that may be extremely helpful to the ED without the need to escalate into a full scale curriculum. The main point being that there are alternatives out there to the time challenged ED seeking to better themselves in their careers with continuing education.


Staff Professional Development


Professional staff development is an entirely different story. All efforts should be made by the ED to make professional development of their staff available. Along with this, tuition reimbursement should be added to the annual budget by the ED and their Board. In making professional development available to the staff, the organization makes a clear case for continuing education which is not only helpful to the employee, but beneficial to the organization as their base of knowledge expands. Some could make a case that employees may take advantage of such a system and move on to more prosperous jobs once receiving a degree. Though this is a very real possibility, the organization still benefits from their expanding knowledge while they are still working there. On the other hand, the employee could stay longer than originally anticipated after earning their degree which greatly benefits the organization. Either way it is a plus for the organization, and the ED should push, and promote, continuing education for their staff.


Some Final Thoughts


Along with all the roles and responsibilities listed in this paper, there are other, more personal, responsibilities the effective ED should take into consideration. One is finding a healthy balance between home life and work life. The ED cannot be or remain effective in his/her job if they cannot find that healthy balance. The burn out factor is high in the nonprofit ED world because of this very issue. “Whether the problem is too much focus on work or too little, when your work life and your personal life fell out of balance, stress – along with its harmful effects – is the result” (Mayo Clinic, 2008, ¶ 3). The job of the ED is stressful enough without throwing in the stressful effects of not having a good work-life balance. However, this balance is difficult to find because the ED will likely find their identity with the mission of the organization which they serve. Being an ED is not really a job, it is more a lifestyle because the individual filling the position has such a profound personal connection to the organization. This personal connection is what makes them so effective at their jobs, however, this can also make them less effective if the proper balance cannot be found.

The Mayo Clinic (2008 ).offers some great suggestions on striking a healthy work-life balance. Their suggestions include keeping a log for a week to see how much time the individual spends at work and at home. Once the log is complete, the individual can look back and see where some changes could take place to create a better balance. Another is learning to say no when asked to take on extra work. This may not apply to the ED because they cannot simply say no when asked by the Board to take on a specific project. However, the effective ED can use their powers of delegation to hand off non-essential work to subordinates in order to free them up to spend more time at home. Another of their suggestions is to efficiently manage time. This is a must for the ED because the breadth of their job requires them to be great time managers to remain effective in their position. Another great suggestion is to take time off for recreation. Exercise is a great way to work off the frustrations related to work performance and clear the mind. This alone can easily make the ED feel more confident in the tasks they perform because of the clarity of thought that results from exercise.


Along with a healthy work-life balance, the ED should spend time thinking about their transition out of the organization. As stated in the introduction, the ED is a temporary caretaker of the organization they serve. If the ED has been the caretaker for many years, a transition out could devastate the organization if not carefully planned. The thoughtful ED knows when a transition out is appropriate for everyone involved.


Finzel (2000) suggests that leaders should start planning their departure the day they start. Through a well thought out mentorship program, the prudent leader develops a pool of successors able to fill the job when they leave. Too often leaders sabotage their successors in order to make themselves feel better about the job they did. This behavior is not an option for the nonprofit ED; humility must prevail in order to make the organization, and their successor, as effective as possible. “To end well, we must not get too wrapped up in our own indispensability… Humility is the key to finishing well and passing the torch on to our successors” (Finzel, 2000, p. 171). The effective ED will leave the organization in an appropriate manner, and in better shape than where they found it.




With all the challenges faced by today’s ED, what makes their job seem like such a glamorous position? Who in their right mind would want such responsibility? What is the appeal? The appeal is simple. It is the ability to have the personal satisfaction of being able to be a part of changing people’s lives for the better. No matter the product or service of the nonprofit, the perception of its members is that they are changing the world for the better. What better feeling can an individual have than feeling like they are a part of something bigger than themselves while working towards a goal that they have a profound personal connection with? This is how the truly effective ED should feel as they work with an organization that upholds the values they hold so dear.


Through their roles as a visionary, change agent, relationship builder, community creator, resource wizard, and more, the nonprofit ED truly sets the tone for the organization they serve. This is why it is imperative that the ED live their lives with passion and humility. In the challenging role as an ED, it is not good enough to put on a front with these attributes. The ED’s passion and humility must be heartfelt and sincere as all eyes are trained on them at all times. The ED must flesh out these attributes with their lives while embracing this crucial role. Carlson et al. (2003) goes so far as to say that “the role of the Executive Director is one of the biggest and most challenging roles you will ever love” (p. 227). The role of the ED is a daunting task which is why a true love for the mission of the organization they serve is a must while considering this role. While it is not to be taken lightly, the role of the ED is an incredibly rewarding career.




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