Those Daring Leaders Of Non Profits

A nod to our friends at the Non-Profit Law blog for noting that CompassPoint Non Profit Services and the Myer Foundation who teamed up three years ago to bring us the report I blogged on, Ready to Lead, studying trends in emerging leadership of non-profits, has come out with a new Daring To Lead, studying the status of non-profit executive directors.

The last time they studied this topic was 6 years ago, before the recession. Their new findings are worrisome in terms of the lack of succession planning but encouraging in respect to the amount of enthusiasm and lack of burn out the majority of executive directors feel in the face of the recession. Their three main findings deal with those topics: succession, the recession and executive director morale.

Finding 1
“Though slowed by the recession, projected rates of executive turnover remain high and many boards of directors are under-prepared to select and support new leaders.”

Due to the recession impacting their retirement plans, fewer executive directors left their positions than planned. A small percentage (9%) of respondents cited the lack of an appropriate successor as a reason for remaining. So while there hasn’t been as large an exodus as was once feared, little has been done to prepare for that eventuality.

“Executives and boards are still reluctant to talk proactively about succession and just 17% of organizations have a documented succession plan. Even more problematic is the extent to which many boards are unfamiliar with the dimensions of their executives’ roles and responsibilities. Just 33% of executives were very confident that their boards will hire the right successor when they leave. Performance management is a critical means of being in dialogue with an executive about success and its metrics, yet 45% of executives did not have a performance evaluation last year…Without consistent, meaningful engagement in what the job requires, many boards are under-prepared for their critical role in executive transition.”

The report also cites some numbers which indicate a series of mishires by boards and unclear expectations by boards and executives. One of the biggest challenges executive directors face is establishing an effective partnership with boards and getting the support they need in the early years of assuming the new role.

“It appears that many boards see executive transition as ending with the hire, when in fact leaders—nearly all of whom are in the role for the first time—need intentional support and development as they build efficacy in the executive role.”

Finding 2
The recession has amplified the chronic financial instability of many organizations, causing heightened anxiety and increased frustration with unsustainable financial models.

Hardly a surprise that many non-profit leaders are worried about whether their organization will continue to exist in these difficult economic times. Many executive directors reported having less than 3 months of cash reserves. According to the report, the common guideline is to have between 3 and 6 months. Many first year leaders are faced with the most daunting of situations.

“Thirty-two percent (32%) of executives in their first year on the job have less than one month of operating reserves; in other words, those on the steepest part of the learning curve often have the smallest margin for error.”

It it any wonder than that a listening tour by Building Movement in 2004 found a lot of prospective leaders in the next generation, while chomping for greater responsibility in their organizations, were reluctant to assume the executive position. (My post on their report here)

Finding 3
Despite the profound challenges of the role, nonprofit executives remain energized and resolved.

The very encouraging news in the face of all this.

“Forty-five percent (45%) reported being very happy in their jobs, and another 46% reported that they have more good days than bad in the role. Levels of burnout, especially given the economic climate, were low; 67% of leaders reported little or no burnout at all. In fact, leaders distinguished between burnout, which they associated with disengagement and ultimately leaving the job, and the realities of fatigue and elusive boundaries between their work and personal lives that go with the job. Forty-seven percent (47%) of executives reported having the work-life balance that’s right for them, while a significant minority (39%) said they did not.”

One of the biggest challenges executive directors reported they faced was human resource management. Attracting people, retaining them once they were trained and had skills to find better work and motivating those that stick around toward a unified organizational goal comprise a tough task for these leaders. There seemed to be a loose process of delegation and sharing of responsibility that didn’t approach formal mentoring.

“And a large majority (81%) reported having someone on staff that they trusted to make important organizational decisions without consulting them. Explicit executive mentoring of other staff was a relatively infrequent practice, with 31% of executives reporting being in an explicit mentoring relationship.”

The leaders themselves eke out a rough system of acquiring leadership training/mentoring/coaching/peer networking to improve their own skills.

Few executive leaders spend significant time interacting with boards of directors. 55% responded as spending less than 10 hours a month on board related activities which is at best 6% of their time. According to the report, other studies have found that executive directors who spend 20% of their time on board related activities are most satisfied. Most of those responding to the Daring to Lead survey were dissatisfied with their board relations.

As succession planning has been one of my favorite topics, you know I am going to suggest people should read the results. It is only 20 pages long. They make suggestions at the end about how to improve the overall situation. The general thrust of their advice is clear before you reach it–basically boards need to do a better job of succession planning and find ways to support and engage with the executive director more frequently and effectively.

One area that isn’t really covered in the body of the report but that is mentioned in the calls to action at the end is for funders to recognize the role they play in perpetuating the current situation and how their initiatives can move things in a more constructive direction.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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