November 20, 2017
 
Front Line Lessons for Executive Directors

By Wendy Blom

Wendy Blom
Nonprofit executive directors, especially at smaller organizations, juggle, manage, hire, fire, innovate, cultivate, and learn—every day—but those challenges need not be overwhelming if you follow basic guidelines.

The following fundamental management lessons were learned, and continuously reinforced, during my 11 years as executive director of Somerville Community Access Television, but they have applicability across the nonprofit sector.

1. Stick to the mission.
Your organization’s mission statement is what you, the staff, and the board signed on to do. Update the mission if necessary, but try not to go out on tangents that may dilute your resources and energies. Chasing what is “cool” at the moment won’t strengthen the organization and may make your organization appear insubstantial to long-time supporters.

2. Cultivate welcome.
In all points of contact with your community, both inside the organization and out in the streets, demonstrate an openness to new ideas and new programs, and an inclusiveness toward all races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and skill levels.

3. Keep up with technology.
Invest each year in technology that is critical to your mission. This helps attract and retain quality staff and enables your organization to deliver services effectively.

4. Serve the most vulnerable.
If you serve the general public, make an extra effort to serve your community’s most vulnerable residents through special events, classes, presentations, or whatever is appropriate. Serving vulnerable residents adds tremendous value to your organization and it does not go unnoticed.

5. Hire people who are passionate.
Hire staffers who are passionate about their jobs and let them shine. Make sure that their work serves the mission, and then allow them to be creative and innovative. Let them take credit for their achievements and encourage them to grow in their jobs. But keep monitoring and supervising!

6. Pay attention to your board.
Don’t expect that the right board of directors will just fall into place. Invite new board members in judiciously and strategically. Give the board members clear expectations about their role in guiding the organization. Keep communication open among all the members.

7. Save for a rainy day.
Although each nonprofit has a different financial situation, try to maintain a conservative approach to spending so that you can accumulate funds in an investment account. The annual earnings on the account supplement the operating budget each year, but also are available for potential big expenses such as relocating the organization. It also will serve as a buffer to keep programs afloat for a while if other income drops.

8. Cultivate your clients.
There will be great variation in the audience(s) you serve. Some people will appreciate whatever you do, while others will need special attention, and still others will need heavy hand-holding. Be sure all staff are on board to these realities and are able to respond appropriately.

9. Learn from colleagues.
We are very fortunate in Massachusetts to be surrounded by deeply experienced nonprofits. Get together informally with executive directors from other organizations to pick their brains, share best practices, and also commiserate about the difficulties we all encounter.

10. Nurture your private life.
A happy executive director is a more effective leader. Don’t allow your family and outside friends to take a back seat to your work. Also, keep doing what it is you love about the job. If you got involved with your organization because you love the fundamentals of what your nonprofit does, don’t entirely give away that part of the job. Make the time to do what you enjoy most.

Wendy Blom served as executive director of Somerville Community Access Television from 2004 to 2015. Email her at blom.wendy@gmail.com or call 781-449-3850.
October 2015

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