Nonprofit executive directors (EDs) face many challenges as they work toward achieving their missions. How best can they lead while they juggle multiple demands?

On February 27, via a special webinar with Foundation Center West (a service of Candid), Sean Kosofsky, the “Nonprofit Fixer,” shared expert tips on how EDs can elevate their leadership. From the Bay Area to Southern California, dozens of community members joined one of our seven regional partners for a webinar viewing party and discussion.

Here are some key takeaways:

Invest in building rapport and trust with your board members

Executive directors who are high performing are often those who invest heavily in board relationships. Make sure you build trust and understanding between you and your board.

  • Focus as much on getting to know your board members as you do on getting results.
  • Connect with your board chair regularly and support them in their role, including shaping board meeting agendas together.
  • Build majority support for things you want in advance of board meetings so there are no surprises. This also helps board members feel that they are a part of your decision-making process.
  • Keep the board informed, but don’t overwhelm them with too much information.

Clarify the roles and responsibilities of each board member

Without this clarity, you will be confused about whom to take directions from and which assignments are a priority. Likewise, board members will be confused about who gets to assign work, leading you to have multiple bosses and mismatched priorities.

  • Clarify who your supervisor is: they oversee your assignments, collaborative work, and performance evaluation. Have these conversations and confirm the outcomes in writing.
  • Discuss and agree on what level of decision-making authority you have with time-sensitive high-level items, such as joining coalitions, signing on to joint statements with allies, or handling emergencies.

Embrace your role as the top fundraiser for your organization

As tempting as it is to delegate fundraising to someone else, don’t do it. Donors often want to hear from the Executive Director.

  • Enlisting others to move resources to the work you care about can be a joyful process if you embrace it. If you aren’t good at fundraising, learn it. If you don’t enjoy it, try to change your perspective.
  • Don’t wait for assignments; seek them out! Ask your finance committee chair and development director “Where am I most needed?”

Set your staff up for success early on

Many nonprofit workers make sacrifices to work for an organization whose mission speaks to their values, and you want to acknowledge that. At the same time, you have a duty to the organization, your board, and your stakeholders to get results, and that at times can mean letting go of low-performing staff. Setting your staff up for success is an ongoing process that starts early on.

  • Write thoughtful and detailed job postings.
  • Ensure a diverse pool of candidates by going beyond the normal posting boards.
  • Be diligent about screening and when possible, check references that aren’t on the candidate’s list.
  • Monitor and check in with employees regularly, even high-performers, and address problems quickly when they arise.

Resist saying “yes” if it takes you away from your strategy

Being strategic means making tough decisions about resources. If you say yes to every coalition, every joint project, every shiny new idea, you will diminish your time, money, and staff capacity.

  • Review your goals, make tradeoffs, and decide what your priorities are.
  • Make your strategic goals public so everyone understands why you might say no to their request.
  • Focus on doing a few things well, instead of too many things poorly.

Know the ins and outs of your organization’s finances

Some EDs never check their organization’s financials before their first day, and at times, things can change dramatically between your job offer and your start date. Don’t be blindsided by a bad financial situation.

  • If you need help understanding financial statements, which is common for first year executives, ask to meet with your organization’s accountant.
  • Produce and review the balance statement, the income statement, and the
    cash flow documents monthly.
  • Insist that board members stay informed and never conceal shortfalls or cash flow problems from them.
  • Don’t skip a paycheck (or three) because you don’t want the board knowing there’s a revenue rough patch.

Secure an employment contract

Remember, you are supervised by volunteers who don’t work at your organization (i.e. the board). Set both you and your board up for alignment earlier on by signing an employment contract. Any executive director operating without a contract is incredibly vulnerable.


Catch the full webinar recording here. And be sure to join us May 15 on our next webinar to explore fundraising for natural disasters. Stay tuned for a lineup of community watch parties near you!

This webinar is funded by a grant from The California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness). Created in 1992 as a private independent foundation, Cal Wellness’ mission is to improve the health of the people of California by making grants for health promotion, wellness education and disease prevention.

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