DEFINE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR…

10 06 2009

The role of an Executive Director is to acquire and husband all the resources of an organization, so those resources can best serve the mission. These resources may be dollars, good will, facilities or, most importantly, the people who are making a difference.  

In the past few years, I’ve been asked several times what an executive director does. At Hillel, students and parents can see the Program Director in action; but what did I do? At Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, people can see the work of the veterinarians and technicians; but what did I do?

If a job can have a mission statement, then I believe the mission of an Executive Director is to acquire and husband all the resources of an organization, so those resources can best serve the organization’s mission.

Like other good mission statements, this one is simple and can be phrased in one sentence. But dissecting it shows that its very simplicity holds a myriad of ramifications. 

First, defining resources. Resources may be dollars, good will, facilities, leaders, or the important people who make the mission a success. An Executive Director needs to recognize that all of these are part of what makes the organization work. Focusing solely on dollars to the exclusion of the people, or focusing only on the building to the exclusion of community relations is unbalanced. You end up fighting fires if you ignore one of the resources while focusing solely on another.

Next, acquiring resources means building relationships with others who can give you the resources you need. Donor relations and foundation relationships are part of resource acquisition – to get funds. Developing job descriptions is part of resource acquisition – hire the best people. Reviewing new facilities and engaging a good real estate broker is part of resource acquisition – find the best location. Being visible and participating in community functions is part of resource acquisition – acquiring good will and willing board members. Acquiring resources is a key part of the job of an Executive Director – it’s important to remember that it doesn’t just mean dollars.

What about husbanding resources? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of the verb ‘husband’ is to use, spend, or apply economically; to make the most of. Applied to the role of Executive Director, it means making wise decisions on how to use the resources at hand. It means knowing when to spend more in order to achieve great things, when to spend less in order to preserve assets. It means creating a budget that balances the needs of the organization and understanding the impact on the mission when cuts have to be made. It means knowing when to spend on air fare in order to meet with a major donor, and knowing when to expend good will in order to save the organization from mission creep.

The Executive Director is the Board’s partner in driving and fulfilling the Mission and Vision of the organization. It is up to the Executive Director to acquire the resources necessary to fulfill the mission, and use them wisely.

PS….When you don’t have an Executive Director, you should consider an Interim. See this post for more about Interims. 

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3 responses

12 06 2009
Sarah

Thank you for sharing this. I will be passing this along to others.

13 06 2009
Bonnie

Nice reflection.

Another thought to consider is…The Executive Director’s role is to be the “Mission Guardian”. It is easy to have scope creep or get off track. Perhaps you have a donor who is willing to fund something, but it is a low priority or may not even be on the radar. The Executive Directors role is to protect by leading…hopefully discussing with the donor and stakeholders (or ghost stakeholder- like a what the focus is board member or volunteer of donor) for the agency.

With reflection come true learning. Thanks for the thoughtful article.

13 06 2009
susandetwiler

Bonnie,

Thank you for focusing on the Mission Guardian aspect. I only briefly alluded to that in the next to last paragraph — understanding when it is necessary to expend good will capital in order to protect the organization from mission creep. You are very right — sometimes in the rush to accept dollars, an organization is pulled away from its mission focus. Thank you for the thoughtful response!

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