Letter to a New Executive Director

Somehow, on your way to becoming a great organizer, you became an executive director. Now what?

Somehow, on your way to becoming a great organizer, you became an executive director.

Suddenly you are reviewing bylaws, trying to make sense of a balance sheet, and wondering how your ability to organize people prepared you for this? Let me be the first to say: it didn’t. And that’s okay. You’ll figure out the bylaws and the books, or find other people who can, all so you can get to what you do best: organizing.

Look, none of us grows up dreaming of being an executive director, but now that you’ve become one, the organization is a canvas on which you and others can create. That is the gift of this job. As long as the canvas is worth the struggle, you keep painting.

I’ll soon be passing the baton for the organization I’ve directed for 14 years. In this year of transitions, many new directors are taking the reins. It has me thinking about the beauty and burden of this job, and gathering lessons to share with your generation.

My first director job was of a national organization, and one in deep crisis. There was little about my path that said I was ready – I had never been a director, had raised little money, and flunked math four semesters in a row - and yet there I was, meeting with an auditor, trying to understand a balance sheet.

You are not here to build a perfect non-profit organization.

Fourteen years later I’ve learned as much from what I’ve gotten wrong, as what I’ve done right. And yet, as a mentor of mine, the Rev. Eugene Barnes taught me, it’s only a mistake if you repeat it. I share these lessons in hopes that your path will be easier.

At the end of the day, as the director, you do three things – inspire people to reach for the stars, grow and align your forces for battle, and raise the money to pay for it. All the rest is how you do it.

Point people toward a new sense of what is possible. Listen to and engage your people, and build a vision around what you know they want. Then constantly tell the story of where you are heading, providing evidence along the way that you are in fact getting there.

You are not here to build a perfect non-profit organization. You are here to break rules, break through barriers, undermine the status quo, and create a new reality. If you catch yourself constantly in the weeds, trying to make every damn thing perfect, you will not be an inspiring person to follow. That doesn’t mean you don’t tend to the details, but if you focus on them over vision, you’ve lost the thread and will lose your people.

You grow forces, and you align them. You have members, a board, staff, and allies. You constantly grow those forces, align them, and go into battle. If you are not doing that, you are no longer organizing. And if you are waking up thinking about the money over your people, the chicken will come home to roost. I promise you that. Never lose track of your people. Always align your forces.

Focus on aligning external forces after you have aligned your own. A coalition of organizations that are themselves unaligned and not powerful equals zero new power in the world. It might catch the attention of funders, and masquerade as new power. More often than not it is just a series of doodle polls and more smoke and mirrors, and friends, we already have our share of smoke and mirrors. Get your forces aligned, then team up with others who have done the same.

Here’s a hard truth: It is easier to build external alignment than to align your own shit. That’s why we have so many unaligned organizations building so many external alignments.

Your job is to ask for money. The funder’s job is to say yes or no. It’s that simple. Figure out with your people what you want to do and go and ask for money to do that. Always in this order. Plan to ask many times, get rejected many times, and along the way you will get yeses. But you have to ask! All the tricks won’t add up to a hill of beans if you never ask.

Go get the money, but be clear on what for. Some organizations focus on growth, but lose track of why. They get big, but with no north star, and even less alignment. If the pursuit of the funds overshadows vision and alignment, you will build something as clear as mud.

When what funders want has gotten so in your head that you forget what you would do absent the need to raise money, step away and locate the beginner's mind you once had. Often the greatest visions and best ideas die when run across the lens of what philanthropy would support. Always know what you think regardless of how it will be received.

Here’s a guiding question: What would be lost if the organization you direct ceased to exist? The answer should be clear as a bell. There are many organizations that if they closed their doors, it’s hard to say what would be lost. Do not allow the organization you lead to join these ranks.

They say culture eats strategy for breakfast. I’d say, that’s an understatement. I’ve worked in organizations with a culture that inspired people to greatness. I’ve worked in cultures that were murky, and inspired us to, well, talk about culture. Figure out the culture you want to create, why that culture leads to greatness and support that culture. Most importantly remember that a culture that will challenge no one is likely to inspire no one as well. A powerful culture will indoctrinate, inspire, and train people all on its own.

A culture that will challenge no one is likely to inspire no one as well.

Find the balance between internal and external. As the director it’s a constant toggling back and forth in terms of where you put your energy. I’ve seen too many directors – me included - go too far in one direction. Early on I’d be out raising that money, and getting our financial situation in better shape, and then I’d look back, and think damn, our shop is a mess. Then swing back and focus on the internal, get things right, and then that money hole was coming up on us again. Simply being mindful will help you find the balance.

Gathering and developing talented and committed staff members – part of your forces – is one of the most important things you do. Nothing great will happen if you do not have great people. There’s a tendency to prioritize fundraising. It makes sense. But also prioritize people-raising. The best things that have happened in my time as a director can be traced back to exceptionally talented and committed people what we invested in. If I was starting over I would focus even more energy here.

Hire people who believe the organization exists for the members, and should treat the staff well. Beware of people who think the organization exists for the staff. Being clear on the difference will be good for everybody.

If you feel lonely in this role, that is normal. Many people feel responsible for the organization, but the success and failure of it all lies at your feet in a different way. I feel you, and want you to find ways that this weight be carried more evenly. I encourage you to build a community, in the organization, and outside of it. To delegate, to share power and responsibility with your board, with your senior team, with your people. You don’t have to be alone, but you will be, especially in the dark times, absent intention.

You don’t have to be alone, but you will be, especially in the dark times, absent intention.

When confused, remember that at the end of the day, this is the job: Grow and align your forces to go to battle, otherwise you have stopped organizing. Inspire your people to reach for the stars, or there will be few forces to align. And unless you are going 100% volunteer, go raise the money, and that requires that you ask for it.
I have not mastered what I’ve shared with you, not by a longshot. But if I was starting a new organization today, these are lessons I would apply. I hope they can be of service to you.

We need more power organizations that transform systems and are built to last. You are now leading an organization that could join the ranks of those that are truly impactful in people’s lives. An organization that people are clear on what would be lost if it ceased to exist. Enjoy the new canvas. I hope it’s as good to you as ours has been to me.