Executive Director Slipping

Dear Kim,

We have a charismatic and dynamic executive director who has built our organization from himself in his living room to 14 staff and our own building in just five years. I have worked for him for three years and in that time, as he gets busier and busier, the administrative side of our work gets less and less of his attention. Reports are not sent on time because, even though I write them on time, he has to look at them, and they sit on his desk for weeks. We have been fined twice by the IRS for not sending our 990 on time. Even though it was prepared on time, he wanted to “glance over it” and so it was sent late. The Chair of the Board thinks none of this is important as long as the Executive Director is able to be out in the world. In your book, “Fundraising for the Long Haul,” you make a comment about how the Executive Director can build an organization beyond their ability to lead. What would be the signs of that?
—Answers are Blowing in the Wind

Dear Blowing,

It sounds like you know some of the signs, but let me give you some more. Of course, any one of these can happen to an Executive Director who is doing just fine, but more than one usually means there is some kind of dysfunction in the organization.

1. Very high staff turnover, particularly with people who report to the Executive Director.
2. Board, staff and volunteers are encouraged to be LOYAL to the Executive Director (as opposed to the mission of the organization), and to not say anything bad about the group to anyone ever at any time.
3. Criticism of any sort is badly received and the Executive Director is defensive. After awhile no one ever criticizes this person to his or her face, but a great deal of complaining goes on behind his or her back.
4. Everything that is not total praise is interpreted as criticism.
5. The Executive Director is disorganized, and always has an excuse about why things are not getting done in a timely or efficient way.
6. The Executive Director works 60-70 hours a week (or claims to.) In some organizations, all staff are expected to constantly work overtime.
7. The Executive Director has little life outside of the organization and seems martyred and beleaguered.
8. Staff often seem at loose ends or unhappy or not able to make any decision without consulting ED. Staff is discouraged from taking initiative.
9. The Executive Director has a few people that he or she trusts and confides in and that circle is closed.

Do any of these sound familiar? Your next question might well be what to do about this situation? If possible, figure out how to have a frank conversation with the Executive Director. You may be the person to do it, but more likely a board member should broach it. The E.D. knows he is behind and he probably feels more than anyone else that he is losing control. Be supportive– tell him all the ways he is excellent and have some constructive suggestions for how he can improve. Honesty, along with very specific suggestions will often work but be sure you have allies when you decide to be honest so that you are not made a sacrificial lamb. Good luck with this.
—Kim