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January 20, 2022
Principles for Executive Directors
By Stephen J. Lemire

Nonprofit executive directors have access to more peer support groups today where they can share best practices, but they often work without a peer in their organization. The following principles may help them navigate their daily challenges.

1) Respond to all e-mails, phone calls, requests, and questions. Always send thank you notes.

You are the face of your organization. How others perceive your organization will be impacted by factors ranging from your professionalism to your interpersonal skills.

2) Act socially; behave professionally.

Both as the public representative of your organization and as its senior manager, you need to be approachable. However, keep in mind the appropriate roles that you must play in every situation.

3) Be guided by, and update regularly, your strategic plan.

You need to regularly work with your board and your staff to continue to meet the goals and objectives of your strategic plan. The most effective plans are those which are dynamic, not static.

4) Encourage organizational growth and change.

We’ve all heard the response, “because we’ve always done it that way”. Take that as a warning signal to ask “Why?” and “What else had been tried before?” In many cases there are better and more efficient ways to go about your business as your environment changes. (See #3)

5) Accept no complaints unless followed by recommendations.

An organization can quickly de-evolve into a negative environment. When, instead, staff and board members can feel increasingly valuable for their input, suggestions, and contributions.

6) Seek out methods of professional development. Keep learning.

Don’t fall victim to the potential isolationism which can quickly sap an executive director’s enthusiasm. Sharing best practices with other executive directors, serving on external committees, taking interesting courses are all ways to maintain your energy and to continue to bring a fresh perspective to your many roles.

7) Create and foster external alliances.

Working with other organizations in your field or other different types of nonprofits helps you to bring new strategies back to your organization. It can also help to identify new partnerships around issues such as joint funding initiatives and group purchasing efforts.

8) Ask for help when needed.

You are not expected to have all the answers. You are expected to find the best answers. Seek help as needed from board members, staff, peers, etc.

9) Get excited; not impulsive.

For each new idea that you have, you must weigh it on a continuum that ranges from “deliberate” to “impulsive”. Use your excitement to roll out the idea in a timely manner, but be sure that it is tempered by asking appropriate questions to ensure that this is “the right idea at the right time”.

10) Leave people laughing and smiling.

As in #1 above, you are the face of your organization and you want your organization to be remembered by its various constituents. Making a pleasant and lasting impression is a sure way to do this.

Stephen J. Lemire, the former executive director of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association and the Massachusetts Business Group on Health, works with executive directors on professional development and peer-to-peer training. Call him at 978-452-1436 or email
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