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The Bottom Line Job of an Executive Director

When I was in my early 20’s starting a nonprofit organization, my father would ask me, “What’s the number-one responsibility of an elected official?”

The first time I heard this question, scratching my head, I threw out a few answers: “To provide leadership? To pass effective policies? To be honest?”

I can still see him sitting at the kitchen table, shaking his head, saying, “To get elected.”

Similarly, the bottom line job of a non-profit executive director is to raise sufficient funds to run their organization.

Said another way: no money, no mission. Yes, the board of directors has bottom-line fiduciary liability and responsibility, but it’s the executive director that does the legwork day in and day out.

It’s no small feat for small- to mid-sized, resource-constrained enterprises, especially if the entire annual budget is raised from scratch each year — or if the Executive Director has to wear multiple hats, with a development team doing the same.

Honestly, a non-profit executive director should really spend at least half their time on fundraising each week. Some EDs reasonably spend 90% during critical times, like reaching the capital campaign finish line.

So, if this is such a huge part of the job description, what exactly differentiates what an ED does from the rest of the development team?

Looking for Leverage

The answer to that question is: leverage. Certain things the ED does will have a disproportionate impact on the short- and long-term goals of fund development.

Executive director fundraising

How do you find those super-powered activities? Ask yourself:

  • Can anyone else in the organization do this as effectively? Take a philanthropy conference, with program directors and presidents of foundations that give to your interest area. Leaders will be connecting and speaking about their work. No one can do that better than the ED of a small organization.

  • Will the donor give more generously if the ED makes the ask? Maybe the Chair of the Board or others can take certain solicitation meetings. But the rule of thumb in fundraising is that the person who should ask is the person that the donor is least likely to refuse. Often that is the leadership.

  • Will this action pay off in the long term? An ED’s time is an investment, so it should bear fruit not only in the moment but also in the future, and spread to others in the organization. Normally an ED might delegate writing, but if it’s language on a new multi-year, multi-partner initiative that involves initial funder meetings and staff training, it might be worth it to take some time away from the office to dig in.

Applying this high-leverage mindset to an ED’s schedule, I’ve found there are four actions that qualify consistently. Prioritizing these, even making a routine out of them, makes tremendous cumulative, long-term impact.

If an ED falls behind on these, the whole organization will fall behind. Assuming you (like most small- or mid-sized non profit organizations) have at most a modest, six-month operating reserve, you won’t be able to catch up by cramming. And the more strategically the ED does the items on this checklist, the more they make their 50 percent count toward the bottom-line health of their annual fund.

The Four Fundraising Must-Dos for an ED

  1. Leadership check-ins. Meet every week with your Chief Development Officer (CDO) and Major Gifts Management Team to stay on top of what is happening and to maintain a cadence of accountability for the ED’s assignments. Each member of the team has an important role in this process and it takes ongoing oversight to sustain it.

  1. Volunteer strategy talks. Collaborate regularly with volunteer leadership to identify prospects and encourage the larger volunteer community’s participation in development. This is often the secret to identifying and cultivating new high net worth donors.

  1. Preparation. Get ready for meetings with donors through preparation sessions with your team that include research profile review, short- and long-term strategy discussion, and meeting choreography. Wouldn’t it be a bummer to walk out of a solicitation meeting without doing the “ask” because you didn’t decide beforehand who would do it?

  1. Donor meetings. Build a schedule of in-person and virtual meetings with prospects, funders, and individual donors. This is the heartbeat of successful fundraising. Make sure these meetings represent a mix of  

  • Engagement: taking a major donor or program officer to see a program onsite, or hosting a small gathering at a board member’s home

Just as important as these four must-dos is the list I’m not writing out: all the don’t-dos. Database management, running reports, drafting and editing proposals, doing extensive research on donors, arranging meetings and events, designing collateral. Please, EDs, find a way to delegate these, or you won’t be able to invest in those essential actions.

And you’ll need the time if you’re doing them right. Executive Directors’ fundraising activities take multiple steps, done over a long period of time, for success. Development work is about persistence and mission-driven smarts.

When everybody works together, the ED can play an essential part in securing the organization’s resources. And that’s more than funds: it’s organizational reputation; it’s program marketing; it’s relationship-building with donors, program officers, and peer organizations.

Then you can spend the 50% of the time left over feeling very proud.


Not My First Rotary

My husband was telling me he would take an overnight flight home, and I heard myself say, “Okay, you’re on the Jedi.” He paused and said, “I think you mean the red-eye.”

I don’t really understand how planes work, but I am pretty sure it’s not with the Force.

Anyway, if you use your fundraising Jedi powers to prioritize the right actions, you won’t have to pull all-nighters to bring your organization home safely.


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