A most difficult job

Saturday February 23, 2013

After many years of advising and participating with Vermont nonprofit organizations I have come to the conclusion that the job of the executive director is an impossible task.

Vermont has 8,336 nonprofit entities in good standing, registered with the Vermont Secretary of State's office. It is no wonder then, that as an economic force, the nonprofit industry accounts for about 15 percent of the Vermont's Gross State Product.

By state statute, The Non-Profit Corporation Act (Title 11B), requires that every nonprofit have a chief executive officer, responsible for the affairs of the organization. The person filling such a position is appointed by the organization's board of trustees. I have often wondered why on earth would anyone ever seek such a position?

Imagine for a moment that you are the executive director of a nonprofit with $300,000-500,000 in annual revenue. You arrive at work and lined up outside your office, in gauntlet fashion, are your organization's employees, the board of trustees, the volunteers, the donors, the regulators from local, state and federal agencies, vendors and the grant making decision makers -- all waiting for a piece of you.

Opposite them and forming their own line, are the organization's attorneys, outside CPAs, consultants representing the fields of marketing, strategic planning, insurance, banking, investments, fundraising, lobbying and human resources -- all advising you, for a fee of course, on how to help you do your job.

Observing how you navigate the line and depending on your organization's specific mission, are your patrons, customers, attendees, constituents, clients and patients, ready to pounce on you for the least mistake.

Each and every day you are willing to run this line -- in many cases for less than $40,000 in annual salary, no pension benefits, health care insurance, mileage reimbursement and with minimal, if any, other benefits. Indeed it is a very lonely job, that requires skills in many areas -- and so why do our nonprofit executive directors do it?

The personal attributes required of an executive director are numerous. Having to contend with the first line of "greeters," noted above, demands a high level of skills in communication, diplomacy, tact, patience, shrewdness, political awareness, mediation, steadiness and fortitude -- all delivered with a smile, of course.

To survive, it is imperative that the executive director carry some level of skill in which to deal with the second line of technocrats.

The professions -- legal, accounting/tax and management consultants have in recent years discovered a financial annuity in the nonprofit industry -- and they are in a race to be first in line at the "gold mine."

Executive directors of most Vermont nonprofits do not have the luxury of delegating a labor issue to his or her human resources department -- they wear the HR manager's hat. Ditto for an OSHA or tax compliance matter -- they must wear the safety officer's hat as well as that of a chief financial officer.

Probably the largest of all hats the executive director must wear is that of chief revenue generator -- whether it be in running events, overseeing capital or annual fund campaigns -- the organization runs on cash and it is cash the executive director must bring in. And if unable to do so, he or she must, quickly, get a resume in order.

Having to contend with the "players" in the above mentioned lines, it is no wonder the executive director has so little time to focus on why he or she took the job in the first place which was to serve the organization's constituents and stakeholders.

It is never pleasant to read in the papers the announcement of the departure of a non-profit executive director and recently, there have been many -- voluntarily or involuntarily. And when I do read about such a departure I come back to this question -- did the organization's board of trustees, have any idea of the job they were asking the executive director to perform?

I've observed a few things about boards of trustees. On a positive note, there is a dedication given by individuals, with an unselfish commitment of time, talent and treasure.

However, there is a negative side and it is unfortunate. Too many board members do not understand their role. Reading Title 11B would be of some help. Many are not properly trained nor mentored. For some, they believe it is their personal prerogative, as a board member, to interfere in operations and direct the executive director.

And even more disturbing, is to not take the time to understand the many hats their organization's executive director must wear.

Nonprofits play a vital role in Vermont. For many, their executive director is "the glue" that holds them together. It is time for those who serve on boards to understand the importance of the role of the executive director. It does not have to be the most difficult job.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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