Nobody wants to fail. It can lead to job loss and a decline in professional stature, and can be very difficult emotionally for the nonprofit executive.
Here are Weisman’s lessons learned about executive director failure and how to prevent it from happening to you:
- The top executive isn’t learned in fundraising strategy and receives no training. Weisman cites a recent study by Amy Eisenstein that concluded that if the nonprofit’s CEO or development professional receive training, the organization raises $37,000 more annually on average.
“What you find with executive directors is that they are industry experts,” Weisman said. They might have been a banker who cares about children, a parent who has lost a child, or a scientist, she said.
“But they have no fundraising experience,” Wesiman said. They then walk into their new job at a nonprofit and find out there is no development director in the organization and receive the shock of their lives, she said.
“You have to get training in fundraising,” she said.
The training the administrator should seek is similar to the training a board member should have—but with additional background information on issues such as budgeting for a capital campaign, feasibility studies and fundraising software, Weisman said.
- A poor relationship with the board chair. For Weisman, what’s key to an effective relationship with the board is a great relationship with your board chair.
“One of the things I preach is the need for a ‘prenuptial’ agreement between the executive director and the chair,” she said.
The agreement should be a verbal one and specify how often the two will meet, the types of information the chair wants to receive, how each party defines an emergency and issues surrounding what is “personal time” for each person.
Other issues important to your chair can arise from this type of conversation as well. Weisman spoke with an executive director who didn’t want to have meetings that involved alcohol due to personal struggles with it. “That is a very personal type of conversation,” she said.
An example of personal boundaries and time: When Weisman served as chair of a board, she told the executive director that if he wanted to call Weisman by 5:30 a.m., that was fine. But by 9:00 p.m., Weisman preferred not to be disturbed. The executive director said he was recently separated from his wife and had his kids on weekends and Wednesday nights. He asked Weisman not to call during these times.
The “prenuptial” should be verbal, Weisman said, because it gives you and the chair a chance to really talk through the issues. “There needs to be some give-and-take, some compromising, and this needs to be done verbally,” she said.
“Have this meeting in person and not over the telephone, so you can negotiate,” Weisman said. “Also be sure to ask for your chair’s pet peeves, along with nailing down communication preferences such as email, text or phone contact.”
- Unrealistic expectations on the part of the board. Boards have a tendency to say things such as “We are going to see revenue increase by 25% next year” and leave their executive director speechless, Weisman said.
When working for a board like this, Weisman said, it pays to be direct. “When boards say something along these lines, I turn it back on them and ask how much it would cost to raise their bottom line by 25% in one year,” she said. Then Weisman asks why the board member thinks that something that would be too pricey in their business will work for the nonprofit.
It can pay to bring in an outsider to make points like this to the board, Weisman said. You need someone the board will respect but that can be direct with them as well. “We usually have a conversation like this and it works because I really want to know why they think something can work at the nonprofit but not their business,” she said.
- The issue of the board and fundraising. This is where the expectations of the executive director are often set unrealistically. Board members haven’t been trained to fundraise, but the CEO still expects them to do it, Weisman said.
“If you work in a hospital, you can’t even empty the trash without training,” she said. “In the nonprofit world, we take highly successful people and ask them to fundraise without training. We set up board members to fail and that’s not nice.”
A similar issue with fundraising expectations that are out of whack occurs with small and midsized organizations, Weisman said. “Executives often expect to receive the same level of gifts that people give to larger organizations,” she said.
Weisman once had a client who was spitting mad because her board chair gave a very sizeable gift to a prominent organization but a much smaller one to the organization where he was chair.
“It can take years to build up the kind of trust to secure a very large gift,” Weisman said.
Executive directors sometimes assume that a C-suite person in a business on their board can get company funds for their organization. “There are just too many issues in play to assume this,” she said. “You may have a controversial cause or serve a small population, and a corporation may not choose to get involved in your cause. They already have a philanthropic portfolio and you may not be in it.”
- Executive director “burnout.” The executive director should make it a personal priority to step away from the front lines and feed his or her soul, Weisman said.
That’s because executive directors often face very difficult choices in their position. An example from Weisman: Let’s say you have two calls come in, one from a donor and one from a family member of someone you serve. Which call do you take first?
Doing your job properly means you take the donor’s call, Weisman said, if you have a good staff that can handle the family concern. “This burns people out—getting pulled in two directions,” she said.
The burnout issue can be fixed by setting goals and boundaries, Weisman said. Have lunch once a week with your donor and call donors first thing in the morning and last thing before you head home, she said. Then every single morning have coffee with clients in your sheltered workshop. “By doing this, you give yourself some metrics,” Weisman said. “You make your donor calls, and then go back to your mission self.”