There are very few of us who enter into marriage or parenthood, with the assurance that we are one day going to be single parents and/or divorced. In fact, most of us enter into both with hearing that challenges are ahead for both endeavors (if we even listen to them), but still think we’ve found the one who can make the challenge either navigable or non-existent.
I’ve seen many nonprofit CEOs or Executive Directors enter into this role the same way. They hear the challenges (burnout, isolation, disenchantment, difficult boards, staffing issues) and think “I’ve finally found the one (mission) that can make it all worthwhile.” Or they ignore the challenges altogether thinking they can make it work with their team of board and staff because the love (of mission) will conquer all.
To be sure, being a parent and a nonprofit leader are both incredibly rewarding and challenging experiences. I will not dare to minimize either nor say that one is more impactful in our world. But… what can we learn from some of the following commonalities?
- Managing difficult relationships. Both roles involve an incredible amount of finesse and patience in working with boards and supervising staff. So too, does single parenting. In both cases you’re often asked to work with people you’d rather not (difficult board members, challenging staff, demanding funders, exes, in-laws) to make the best possible decisions you can with your charge(s). You must negotiate board objectives, sharing schedules all for the benefit of growing your agency or your child for a positive future.
- Making the best possible decisions in the moment with the information you have. As a single parent and as a nonprofit leader, I pretty much never have all the information I want or need. I would love to have all the answers and information laid out in front of me before I made any monumental decision for my children or agency. But most times, decisions need to be made quickly or in the moment. You really just do the best you have with what you have, and be prepared to make a few mistakes along the way.
- Learning and growing together. I have never met a parent that had it all figured out. Nor a nonprofit executive director. The trick is to acknowledge that up front… I’ve heard the phrases “fake it till you make it” a thousand times for both scenarios which bothers me a bit. I don’t think any of us are faking our interest in being good parents or nonprofit leaders. But we definitely don’t always know what we’re doing. So, we’ve got to be committed to learning based on whatever the children or our agency throws at us. And… we’ve got to work with our board/staff to share that information and move forward together as a family.
- Staying flexible and managing your expectations. When I first became a parent, I was upset by the fact that we never were on time anymore. I was frustrated that I couldn’t follow the schedule I wanted to for work. That at a moment’s notice what hard worked before with one child, or their older sibling, didn’t work anymore. As a single parent, my ability to be fashionably late has doubled as has my need to stay flexible. As an CEO/ED in a nonprofit, your day can turn on a time and what was once a priority is replaced by crisis, or countless others.
- Be intentional and strategic. I lovingly say to anyone who will listen that my children slowed me down, in a wonderful way. And what I mean is this… as a Type A Overachiever personality I was running on all cylinders… all the time. No one should expect themselves or others to run like that. When my children came along, their mere existence made me have to be present in the moment (ever turned your eyes away from a toddler for 30 seconds?!). But they also made me much more intentional about the time I was spending on work. As a CEO/ED are you allowing yourself time to be present with your board and staff… or are you thinking through the strategy instead of just putting out fires all day long?
- Dealing with difficult “children”. As an executive director, you know that a challenging board member (or two) is not your only challenge. You must manage staffing, community support and funder relationships. Rarely are all these people a pleasure to deal with all the time. As a parent, you know your angelic child can be a sweet and caring individual and quickly turn on a dime into the now socially poignant “tiny terrorist”. People and children come to you every day with different personalities and struggles. Sometimes those interactions will be fun and easy, sometimes they will be volatile and challenging. It’s up to you to figure out a style that helps you honor their independence while keeping them focused on the end goal (for nonprofits, mission work and strategic goals; for parents, raising responsible and caring human beings).
- Be kind to yourself. Parenthood and executive leadership may just be the toughest and most rewarding jobs in the world. Give yourself a break if you have a day that doesn’t go as planned. Give yourself some respite and reward your success, while you examine your “failures”. And surround yourself with other parents or executives who understand what it’s like to be in your shoes. And hey, when you have a moment read a blog (or two) that resonates with you and hopefully makes you laugh.
Are you interested in becoming a nonprofit executive director or CEO? Before you sign on for the role be sure to ask the following:
- What does the “family” look like? (what are the board/staff dynamics, capacity and engagement levels)
- What is the organization’s history with previous CEOs/EDs? (how has the organization treated your predecessors?)
- How will you be partner(s) in this relationship? (what support systems are in place from the board level to ensure that your new adventure will be successful?)
We’d love to hear about your own nonprofit executive experience! Please feel free to share your lessons learned (no agency names please!) in the comment section.
Are you entering in or already in a nonprofit executive leadership role and looking for additional support? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to connect or schedule a free 30 minute consultation with a team member to find out how we can help support you.
About the Author: Liz Wooten-Reschke is President/CEO of Connect For More. CFM engages leaders and empowers philanthropists to help them accomplish their mission. As the lead consultant Liz focuses her efforts on providing ongoing support & coaching for chief executives and volunteers of nonprofits, workshop & retreat facilitation, and customized engagements to enhance board governance, agency strategy and leadership experience with her clients. Liz is a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator and BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer. She is a proud member of the University of South Florida Alumni Association Board, a fourth generation Floridian and Key West Conch. She lives in Tampa, Florida, with her partner, four children, two dogs, and one cat. For more information about Liz or her work, please visit her company website, follow her on Twitter, or visit her Amazon author page