Expert Advice

Can I Be an Effective Director of a Nonprofit When I Have Only Served On Its Board of Directors?

| Updated May 15, 2018

Real responses to real-life questions

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, is joined by executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jesse Bethke Gomez, for the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

Can I be an effective director of a nonprofit when I have only served on its board of directors?

I have been serving on the board of a local senior support nonprofit for several years and have spent many hours working to assist the organization. My professional job is in marketing and sales.

Our nonprofit is currently conducting a search for a new executive director. At the last board meeting, the chair approached me and told me that they’d like to offer me the job. She based her reasoning on my long-standing commitment to our senior support mission and my experience in marketing. Fundraising is a constant challenge for our nonprofit and my marketing experience has been helpful.

At first, I dismissed the idea, but after thinking it over, I’d love to walk away from my rather humdrum job and immerse myself in the cause I love. I’d take a reduction in salary, but I have a healthy savings and could make it work.

Is it typical for executive directors to be recruited from the board? Could it be a problem that I have no “on the ground” nonprofit leadership experience?

Kathryn says ...

This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer. There are some who feel that an executive director can be effective if he or she is dedicated to the organization's mission, willing to learn whatever is needed and is committed to being the trailblazer for the organization.

Other professionals are attempting to raise the bar for nonprofit executive leadership and support the expectation that executive directors should have degrees in either nonprofit management or business. Lacking those specific educational credentials, the expectation is that executive directors qualify via extensive experience running a nonprofit. There also are many programs, which are growing in popularity, that provide nonprofit management certification through tutorials and/or mentorship, some of which are available online.

The truth is that the skills and experience required to successfully run a charity or nonprofit are increasingly grounded in business expertise of many types. While caring about mission is critical, commitment alone won’t provide the know-how to develop the best and most effective services, create a multi-faceted and sustainable funding strategy, build capacity, lead employees and volunteers, support your board of directors or manage growth or crisis.

I have been an executive director in the past, for both small and large organizations. It’s one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs I have ever had. I went on to become founder and CEO of two for-profit companies and these positions weren’t as difficult as being an executive director (although I loved every minute of those jobs).

I think many folks underestimate the knowledge and experience it takes to run a high-impact nonprofit. My opinion is to pass on this opportunity, for the sake of the organization. Nonprofits are businesses, and need to be run as such. If you are serious about a wish to change your career path and head toward nonprofit executive leadership, use some of those savings to go back to school, become certified or find a current executive director who is willing to act as a guide and mentor in preparing you for this exciting step.

Jesse says ...

The fact that you have raised this question already puts you on the path toward obtaining clarity and perspective. Let’s start with your role as a board member. Many nonprofit boards are now moving toward adopting language in their bylaws that as part of their fiduciary oversight role, a board member may consider employment with the nonprofit, typically after a period of time has passed from completion of his or her service on the board.

Such a policy strengthens the resolve nonprofit boards have about their oversight role, stewardship, transparency and accountability among themselves, and with internal and external constituents.

Today there are thousands of executive directors who are on some path toward retirement in the United States. The transition of an executive director is among the most stressful events for a nonprofit organization. Planning for continuity, succession planning, recruitment and selection of the executive director truly asks the best from all who are part of the organization. It is a time that the role of the board is especially important in providing continuity.

Before considering taking the position, you might want to step back and consider the following — how do other board members really feel about one among them pursuing the opportunity to serve as their executive director, and how might other internal and external stakeholders view such an executive search outcome?

Given your role in serving on a board for a nonprofit enterprise and your interest taking on its executive director role, you have heard the call to serve and I wish you the very best in the pursuit and preparation of what can be a very rewarding journey in making a positive a difference in the lives of others through executive leadership of a nonprofit enterprise.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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