What I learned in my first year as Executive Director

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I’m fairly new to the not-for-profit sector. It’s been one year since I started as executive director at Vantage Point. As a newcomer I would like to share my perspective on what I have seen and learned about the sector over that time. I hope it sparks all of us to evaluate where we are as leaders and what all of this might mean to our organizations and community.   

To be frank, my first year in the sector has held many surprises. I’ve been surprised by the sophistication and incredible impact of the many not-for-profit organizations that breathe life into our communities. Also, I’ve been surprised by the challenges those organizations face.  

Here are five observations from my new vantage point:

  1. Being an executive director is a challenging job, requiring many different skills.
    An executive director is a quintessential jack or jill of all trades. Over the last year, I have drawn on expertise from my own background and engaged knowledge philanthropists with experience in the following areas: sales and marketing, human resources and people development, technology, finance and accounting, operations and strategic planning. Most of the time, I am energized by the depth and breadth of my responsibilities as an executive director. However, burn out and attrition is a serious concern in the sector. I wonder how we will ensure the next generation is not only equipped, but eager to embrace formal leadership roles?
  2. The not-for-profit sector is complex. 
    BC has more than 29,000 not-for-profits and charities, representing every different type of cause you can think of. These organizations, small and large, are working to solve many different types of challenges and to bring joy and health to their communities. Is there overlap? Sure. Could we collaborate more? Yes, of course. Over this past year, I have learned there is no easy solution.  I believe that to see real change and cooperation, we will have to find new ways to connect, convene, communicate, dream and scheme together. 
  3. Our boards are our most important asset. And a second full-time job.
    I had no idea that preparing for board meetings would take up so much time. Add that to the myriad of policies and procedures that a board is responsible for; the committee meetings and follow up; and the importance of developing a positive relationship with board members – you’re looking at a significant time commitment. I believe that our boards can be a huge asset, and that they are well worth the effort. And yet I hear many people complain about their boards and wonder why the board structure is even in place. Which is all the more reason to ensure all board members are educated and empowered to fulfill their roles and responsibilities.
  4. Leaders are as only as good as their people and their plan. 
    To excel, a team must feel motivated, supported, challenged, and in control of their work. As a not-for-profit leader, my key priority is to build, align and nurture a high performing team that can create and execute a plan, meet clear targets, serve and delight stakeholders, spread the word, and build strong networks. See point number 1: an executive director has a big job and most of us do not have access to internal human resource expertise. If you are in that position, I encourage you to build a network of HR advisors, knowledge philanthropists and peers for support. It can be lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be!
  5. Our community is filled with people wanting to contribute and make their communities a healthier, more vibrant place where everyone can thrive.
    While we have some challenges that the sector needs to address, I am continually impressed and inspired by the many people who are committed to contributing their time and talent to a not-for-profit organization they are passionate about. At Vantage Point, I see this in action every day as we welcome new and ongoing knowledge philanthropists to our team, and engage community leaders in our learning opportunities. 

What new learnings about our sector have you gained in the past year? Do you agree or disagree with Denise’s observations?  We’d love to hear from you! 

About the Author

As Vantage Point's Executive Director, Denise is responsible for leading and executing Vantage Point’s mission to totally transform the not-for-profit sector through building leadership capability. She has a significant record of achievement in the areas of Strategic Planning, Team Development...
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