Strong Executive Directors Lead Healthy Nonprofits

by | Jul 12, 2017

Henry sits patiently at the back door every night. He parks in the middle of the metal threshold, so it’s hard to avoid stepping on him in the dim porch lights. He’s consistent, every night, from dark till, well, whenever he gives it up, which is after I’ve gone on to bed.  The dogs and cats take a quick sniff as they walk past Henry on their way to a late-night stroll.  Several times a week I step on Henry, pulling back just as I feel his squishy, plump body under my shoe.  Other times, I inadvertently roll him several inches.  But he never hops away. He just waits. 

I spent weeks trying to figure out what Henry was after, why was he there night after night? But I couldn’t figure it out. I just knew he was determined, highly focused on some task.  By now, you probably guessed Henry is a plump grey-green toad.

I think I figured it out. Henry faces the back door which has a large window ending inches above his spot on the threshold. It is now my studied opinion Henry is bug hunting. Light through the window must ensure his success, night after night.

It’s a funny thing how success encourages a person to return to the work, day after day or in Henry’s case night after night. Even staring down dogs and cats and or lightly squished by a shoe has not deterred Henry.

I know nonprofit executive directors like Henry, determined and focusedAs donors, how would we recognize the Henrys? Will finding one or two keep our donations safe and ensure our intended purpose?

The larger the gift, based on your giving capacity, the more important it is to find strong executive directors.

That said, there are no perfect executive directors. There are great ones – highly successful, who raise a lot of money to their cause and highly dedicated ones working long hours to ensure delivery of services. Both have attributes that make some more likely than others to be successful.

  • Convicted about the work the organization does every day
  • Self-starters
  • Passionate about their cause
  • Sound judgment guides decisions
  • Listen to clients, volunteers and staff, board members and very importantly – they listen to donors.

I know a lot of fine folks with some or all of these attributes, but they don’t always make good executive directors because they lack other critical skills needed to run the organization every day.

Here are a few skills critical to the long-term success of an executive director:

  • Budgeting and fiscal accountability
  • Leadership and management ability
  • Public speaking ability
  • Strategic planning and vision for what’s next

The smart executive director knows what they don’t know and seeks training and additional education in many different forms. Like the best baseball players or your grandchild who has a batting coach, they work hard to learn from those who have more experience.

How can you, the donor, assess the organization based on the skills of the executive leader? Ask questions of friends who support them, board members, friends and family who volunteer.

The least helpful answer is, she’s great.  Or, I really like him, he seems passionate about the work. None of those answers tell you anything about the attributes and skills important to run a healthy nonprofit organization.

A healthy nonprofit has an executive director plus one or more board members who understand their financial picture. For a donor considering a significant gift, that may be one of the most important skills to ferret out. 

The executive director should have a strategic view of their future that goes beyond a grand vision. As a donor, you want to know they have the skills to put legs under the vision. Look for a sound plan.

The executive director is one side of a triangle, with board leadership and the work that needs to be done making up the other two sides. Identify nonprofits with all three sides, and you’ll be on your way to giving well.

What executive director skills are important to you before you donate?


  1. Gail

    I hope lots of EDs will read this and take it to heart.

  2. Nancy Crawford

    Great article, Dawn. Good reminder to me in several areas. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ann McKusick


    Enjoy your newsletter! Practical and insightful.



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