Do Executive Directors Still Want to Learn?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 11th, 2008 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Do as I say, not as I do. Is that the message executive directors are sending the rest of the employees and the board of the organizations they lead? Our anecdotal evidence has me worried.

After many months of market research and planning, The Nonprofit Center launched Executive Director University (EDU) in March. EDU is designed to meet the call that we heard from executive directors: “we want to learn in groups of just other executive directors and we want topics tailored to our needs, our position in the organization, our challenges.” And so we responded by creating EDU. We built it, and so far very, very few have wanted to come. What is this all about?

Peter Brinckerhoff, who will be the keynote speaker at The Nonprofit Center’s Annual Strategies Forum in June, recommends at least 40 hours of professional development annually. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were all doing that! But alas, the reality of nonprofit budgets as they are currently developed do not provide for that. Nevertheless, plenty of executive directors are investing in professional development—but for the other employees in the organization. And of course, we’re all for that. As Brinckerhoff says, “A stewardship organization knows that lifelong learning results in innovation, continued excellence, and effective mission provision.”

Our workshops on all different aspects of fundraising are packed, if not sold out. Yet our workshop last week on “Maximizing the Executive Director’s Role as a Fundraiser” had to be cancelled because only three executive directors signed up. Do executive directors all know how to maximize their role in raising funds on behalf of the organization? Have they learned from a fellow executive director who has raised funds for both large and small organizations? The week before we also cancelled the class on “Legacy and Succession Planning” because no one enrolled.

Executive Directors, hear me: it is inevitable that at some point you will be leaving the organization that you will have invested heavily in for some period of your life. Do you not want to leave the organization in the best shape possible? make the transition for your successor as smooth as possible? Give the organization the greatest chance of not missing a beat when you step down and someone else takes over? Perhaps the other staff who you supported to come to the financial management workshops, the fundraising workshops, the supervision workshop, will keep the organization afloat while the new executive director figures things out.

And while I am at it, is it any wonder that your board thinks it knows it all and won’t consider engaging in its own professional development? It is simply following your lead.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have a deep appreciation of the demands that nonprofit EDs face and I personally understand that professional development comes in many forms. There are those of us who find it in the stack of books next to our beds. There are others of us who find it via peer-to- peer-learning, or a coach or mentor, or a longer list of options. But the point is we need to be constantly engaging in developing and refreshing—and perhaps most importantly of all, modeling.

“Lifelong learning is an area where you have to lead in both word and deed. First, the organization needs to value continuing education in its budget, in its personnel evaluations, and in its board and staff meeting. You, as a steward need to attend training of varying types, ad then report what you’ve learned to others…”
       -Peter C. Brinckerhoff, Nonprofit Stewardship: A Better Way to Lead Your Mission-Based Organization

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