Valuing and Supporting Executive Directors

June 24, 2020

Executive Directors (EDs) face many pressures, including fundraising, leading the staff team, setting strategy, and maintaining relationships with many donors, funders, partners, and community members. They may struggle to meet the differing expectations of staff, board, and key community stakeholders. Since most nonprofits are chronically under-resourced, they are holding a great deal of day-to-day management of their organizations as well. ED jobs are now more challenging than ever.

Last year, we did a lot of listening to EDs across Washington and summarized what we learned in our Executive Learning Needs Assessment. Among other things, we affirmed that EDs have different challenges, learning needs, and support needs at different stages of their career. In addition, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color EDs face additional challenges as they grapple with systemic and institutionalized racism.

After hearing from many nonprofit Executive Directors (EDs) that they feel isolated and would like more support, Washington Nonprofits has begun to explore how we can best serve people in this special role. The two potential program offerings that rose to the top were:

  • a retreat with opportunities for renewal, affirmation and relationship building, and
  • a forum for conversation about nonprofit transformation.

We also learned from an action research project in 2018, Lifting Up Diverse Leaders, that many leaders from marginalized groups value mentoring, coaching, and other relational forms of support over formal training and learning opportunities. One thing is universal: given how busy executives are, the offering must be compelling, or they will not make the time for it.

We are experimenting with several different offerings to see what is most valuable.

  • Through a partnership with the Community Consulting Project (CCP), over 30 EDs from our member organizations have received pro bono professional coaching over the past two years. Feedback from this program has been very positive, and we are grateful for CCP’s generous support.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington Nonprofits has hosted a virtual ED Coffee Hour every few weeks (upcoming dates: July 2 and August 5). These have been run as drop-in opportunities for EDs from our member organizations to connect, share information and support each other. The first four meetings had an average of 45 registrants. Participants have been predominantly white leaders.
  • We hosted a session for EDs only at the Washington State Nonprofit Conference on May 20. This facilitated conversation had 133 participants.
  • We are supporting several Black leaders and leaders of color to plan gatherings for Black, Indigenous, People of Color EDs in Washington. The original plan was to start with an in-person gathering in May, but we were forced to postpone due to COVID-19. Instead, an emergency meeting of Black, Indigenous, People of Color EDs was held virtually on June 18. Approximately 150 EDs participated in this first meeting, and the group is planning another meeting on July 1.

So far, all these offerings have been appreciated and well utilized. We know and appreciate the need to support our all of our leaders to maintain a strong non-profit sector. We are supporting BIPOC EDs to caucus and organize because we recognize that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leaders still face discrimination and bias in the nonprofit sector, as documented by research like the Race to Lead reports. We are also supporting it because this is what one group of nonprofit leaders is asking us for. Centering the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leaders ensures that they receive the support to succeed.

We at Washington Nonprofits have been on a learning curve on what it means to be white and how we as an organization can stand in solidarity with the BIPOC community and our BIPOC members. We invite all of our membership to learn with us.

We look forward to continuing to learn and create programs to support all of our leaders and members. Please continue to share your ideas and needs with us to help us provide what you need to succeed.

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