Dirty Work

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 24th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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How do we make the job of executive director more desirable?  Instead of serious efforts, we offer the standard line about the position of executive  director being the work of three for the salary of (less than) one. The position of executive director shouldn’t be a punchline, but it will stay that way until we do something to change it.

We are in that period in the sector’s lifespan that we knew was coming for more than a dozen years:  the exodus of baby boomer executive directors. We got a temporary reprieve, as indications were that it should have been gaining steam as the Great Recession unfolded and people were forced to delay retirement for economic reasons.

We already knew back then that there were way fewer people interested in filling the shoes of departing executive directors. And still, too many did nothing at worse, or way too little at best. We already knew back then what was stopping people from being  interested:  too much responsibility for too little compensation; a job too big for one person to do and still have much of a personal life, let alone try to do it  really well and have that personal life.  The  answers were on the wall, writ large, and still tings didn’t change.  We did not do anything, or enough, to make the job desirable.

The gates are now clearly open:  boomers are running for the door. Maybe the pandemic has changed some people’s thinking; I don’t know. Conversations I have had with many former executive directors reveal that those already retired are so thankful not to be in that job now, making me wonder if the pandemic isn’t pushing people out the door rather than keeping them in place. The pandemic has made this job even more untenable, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

So, what have you done and/or are you doing, to make the job of your executive director appealing to a successor?  If you haven’t  done anything, and your executive director already has a departure date in mind, even if it is many months away, it is probably too late to do much.  Unless you are sitting on a pile of unrestricted funds, you aren’t going to come up with a bundle of money to improve the position’s compensation now. And, if you aren’t sitting on that pile of money, you don’t have the resources to add a senior level staff member, or two to relieve the executive  director of some tasks. No, those actions take time.

If you hire now, you can certainly do so with the promise that you will begin redressing the situation immediately, but you may not then turn around and tell the new executive director to solve the problem. It must be addressed jointly by board and executive director. The risk with this approach, however, is that the newly hired executive may get overwhelmed and leave before the promise has been fulfilled.  

It’s far better to have faced the situation and resolved it before needing to search for the next executive director.  

The solution isn’t that complicated and is easily doable if you give yourself sufficient time.  It is as simple as looking at the job description and identifying which pieces of the job can reasonably be handed off to another,  and then seeing how those discarded pieces can be configured into one (or two) cohesive new positions, or a new position and some redistribution of other tasks to current staff positions (without overwhelming them), or considering creating co-executive director positions, or some other ways of ending with an executive director job that is compensated appropriately, can actually be done, allows the person to remain sane, satisfied and not stressed to the max, and is actually desirable. 

Then may come the harder part:   finding the money to allow for the change.  But it is all necessary to do, and to do now.

We can pivot on a lot of things:   a pandemic comes along, almost overnight, we figure out how to do our programs virtually. When a funder has money to support the work we do in community A, but they want it  done in community B, we do what needs to be done to expand our work.  When a key staff member leaves unexpectedly, we temporarily reassign parts of the job and don’t miss a  beat.  Sadly, except for those organizations with deep unrestricted reserves, the pivot needed to make this change isn’t a quick one.  But the future of the sector rests on our ability to create leadership roles that allow for reasonable work-life balance.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.