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6 Guiding Principles For Nonprofit Executive Directors

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Over the course of the coming year many of you will be either placed in the executive leadership role of a charity or looking to enhance your performance as an existing leader. I have had the privilege of working for and with many of the best leaders in this sector since 1983.

Perhaps it is time to share what seem to be the common guiding principles of those top leaders. Hopefully, they will beneficial for anyone in a leadership role at any size nonprofit. Here are six guiding principles every nonprofit executive director should hold dear:

1) They Function as the Official Leader of the Fundraising Team

Anyone, who has been in fundraising as a profession or a volunteer, knows that every major donor, foundation and sponsor has a strong desire to have a relationship with the CEO/Executive Director.

If that leader does not embrace this role the ripple effects on this key part of revenue generation can be strong, if not disastrous!

However, if fully embraced ever increasing levels of fundraising success can be achieved and built upon.

2) Building Alliances and Partnerships is a Key Strategic Area

This ties into the leadership role described above and moves it into whole new areas. The new areas encompass not just revenue generation, but also expense containment, the delivery of services core to the mission and complementary services.

Such alliances and partnerships can also be critical in recruiting staff and volunteers and in come cases even board members.

In some situations it can lead to mergers and acquisitions, which allow the proper scaling of the organization to truly deliver on its mission!

3) Nothing Stands in the Way of Delivering the Mission Critical Services

Even if the leader is not an operations guru, this must be front and center. Depending on the size of the organization there might be a COO of some sort of general manager of operations.  Finding the right person for that role is every bit as critical as managing it alone.

Delivering on the promise of the mission and properly reporting it is perhaps the single most common thread I have personally seen in great nonprofits.

One other key facet of success in this area is a constant drive for improvement. This will range from small incremental operational changes, to improved staff and volunteer productivity to scaling such excellence for the long term.

4) Finance is Understood and is Operated Above Reproach

Once again the size of the organization will be a determining factor whether the various areas of finance, budgeting and reporting are done alone or with the help of designated CFO or finance manager. Either way, the highest level of honestly and ethical standards are critical to the trust of everyone outside and inside the organization.

History is riddled with previously successful charities where mistakes in this area either completely destroyed the organization or greatly diminished its ability to perform its mission.

The filing of the 990 forms to the sharing of financial data with the board and financial supporters must be above reproach year and year. None of the other guiding principles can be fulfilled without this!

5) Marketing and Communications Enhance the Mission

In larger organizations this area is often where “silos” begin. The concept of “silos” is where one part of the organization operates without being aware of that other areas are doing.

The executive director must insure that there is open communications among departments such as fundraising, operations, finance and marketing.

Once such a dilemma is avoided, then the brand and mission can be greatly enhanced by the proper flow of communications from this department. Being at ease in being part of such communication, is the mark of many superb nonprofit executives. It ties in closely with the first two guiding principles.

6) Human Resources is a True Differentiator

Any organization is only as good as its people. This is especially the case in the nonprofit world where there is often a need to attract the best team members while paying wages and benefits below what the commercial sector is paying.

The executive director must set the tone and establish above average processes for human resources to flourish under such conditions.

In addition to recruiting and hiring, human resources can be quite impactful to the culture of the organization. The existence of a superior culture is the most common denominator of highly respected nonprofits.

The six guiding principles above are the ones I have seen the most often. If you think I have missed any, please let me know in the comment area below. I wish you only the best in your leadership role!


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  • Tracie Bliss

    As someone who has and does work to support finance and operations for not-for-profit Executive Directors, I would add that the best of them not only manage but are true leaders. They consider themselves part of the greater whole that their organization represents and they treat all of their staff as equals. They are always open to new ideas from all levels of stakeholders.
  • Joseph K. Goepfrich

    Jay, I have found these guiding principles to be true in my role as Executive Director of my organization. I would add one more - be humble and treat your role as a precious gift from those you lead and those who lead you. Joe Goepfrich Executive Director Child & Family Services of Southwestern Michigan.
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