Developing Nonprofit Leadership Through Executive Coaching

ED Coaching 1An executive director is a person who must build his/her own bicycle while riding it . . . uphill. 

The above quote isn’t attributed to some great, illuminating thinker; I just came up with it, and it seems to fit.  Executive directors are pulled in so many different directions and are highly susceptible to burnout, acute stress, and feelings of isolation.  The 2012 Daring to Lead study produced by CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation reported that ten percent of executive directors leave their positions annually; 75 percent plan to leave their positions within the next three years, and one-third are highly dissatisfied with their salary.  In my own coaching practice, my executive director clients report needing more ‘work-life balance’, opportunities to engage with their peers, and to sharpen the proverbial saw and gain insights and objective perspective from an external source.  Coaching can provide an enriching opportunity for personal and professional development for overworked, over-stretched, and sometimes under-appreciated nonprofit executives.

Challenges Facing Executive Directors

 Executive directors live their work – their professional focus is generally very closely aligned with their core values and beliefs.  Who wouldn’t want work that resonates with their values, right? It sounds great, but scratch the surface and you’ll hear the pain and frustration of executive directors – their boards don’t understand all that they do and don’t seem to care; they don’t feel appreciated; their income is significantly out-of-alignment with the amount of time they put into their work; their personal lives have all but disappeared in service their organization’s mission.  In short, executive directors often feel trapped – they’re at the pinch point of an hourglass, trapped between a board that neither understands nor appreciates the full scope of their responsibilities, and a staff who needs and expects leadership, guidance, and focused attention and support.  An executive director must manage from the ‘top-down’ as well as from the ‘bottom-up’ – all on a shoestring budget, chiseled energy and diminishing time.

For small and emerging nonprofits (which is the community that I serve), the issue is confounded by the fact that these organizations generally don’t have access to the kinds of resources that other larger organizations might have, such as human resource expertise and/or a hefty budget for professional growth and enhancement.  My clients feel isolated; they feel burned out, misunderstood, and incompetently managed; they feel like they’re always ‘re-inventing the wheel.’

It doesn’t have to be this way.

What Contributes Most to Executive Director Turnover?

This won’t be a surprise to most executive directors, but the two most significant variables contributing to E.D. burnout and turnover are:

1) the relationship with their board of directors, and

2) the relationship with institutional funders

ED Coaching 2Relationship with the Board

During my tenure as an executive director, I was very fortunate to have enjoyed a positive, well-aligned relationship with my board chairs.  However, for many of my clients, this critical relationship is strained at best and adversarial at worst.  Whether inadvertent or intentional, the relationship between board and executive director is a driver of executive transition.  The E.D’.s requests for help and/or understanding are often ignored or worse – perceived as incompetence.  Board chairs, pay attention!  If your organization has experienced a veritable ‘Conga line’ of revolving door executive leadership over the years, the common denominator probably isn’t them.

Relationship with Institutional Funders

A second significant contributing factor to E.D. turnover and dissatisfaction relates to relationships with institutional funders.  Executive directors, particularly first-time professionals, are all-too-often surprised at just how much of their day-to-day activities and time is allocated to fundraising.

Medium-to-large shops have one or more development staff on the team and is an expectation.  Too often, however, my clients from small shops tell me, “this isn’t what I signed up for” when they reflect on the expectations for fundraising – in addition to the many hats s/he already must wear.

Confounding this reality is that their boards seem to neither appreciate nor recognize this fact, as evidence by the significant misalignment of job description announcements versus the reality of daily responsibilities that executive directors experience.  I actually heard the following statement from a board member of a struggling nonprofit organization, “It’s common for nonprofits to hire executive directors for no salary with the expectation that s/he will generate their own salary through fundraising’.   This is absolutely inaccurate, disrespectful, misinformed, and underscores the issues of E.D. turnover.  Not only that, but it violates the Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethical Principles and Standards.  Nevertheless, it only takes one or two such misinformed, naïve, and inexperienced pronouncements to establish an unrealistic, unfair dynamic.  Board chairs, please . . . if you value your executive directors and the mission of your organization, please put the kibosh on this kind of inexperienced, unethical nonsense.  This stultifying lack of business savvy and ethics has no place at the helm of credible organizational leadership.

How Is Coaching Different from Consulting?

Coaching differs from consulting, providing an ongoing one-on-one relationship that fosters confidence, trust, and deep dialogue.  As a consultant, my job is to provide value and improve a specific condition of the client by providing services, experience, or expertise that may be lacking in the current complement of staff.  I’m basically paid to “give you the answer and feed you the fish”, in a manner of speaking.

As a coach, my relationship with my clients is a more of a thought-provoking partnership.  I don’t lead the engagement – the client is in the driver’s seat. I’m in the passenger’s seat of a creative process that, through direct and evocative inquiry, reveals his/her optimal personal and professional potential.  As a coach, I always assume that my clients are whole, resourceful, capable people who already have all of the capacity for meaningful transformation – they don’t need to be “fixed”.   My job is just to give a gentle tug on those threads that lead to the “aha moments” of self-epiphany and discovery – and they do happen (very often, I’m happy to report).

??????????????????Having been an executive director, I empathize deeply with the daily struggles of my clients – their hearts and minds are fully-engaged in their work and with their organization’s mission.  Often, they just need a novel insight or, more simply, merely to be heard, appreciated, valued and understood.  In contrast to ‘serving you an expertly-prepared fish dinner’ when I wear my consultant hat, my role as a coach is to spend some time fishing with you and to enjoy a beautiful day and a stimulating conversation while fishing.  We fish together – that’s empowering teamwork!

Impacts of Coaching on Nonprofit Professionals

Executive directors who receive coaching report significantly higher impact and productivity in specific management areas, stronger leadership skills, accountability and confidence that they could create a more sustainable job for themselves.  By bringing forth epiphanies that already exist within, coaching supports leaders in honoring and celebrating themselves and their achievements, bringing out their very best potential.

In, The Case for a Coach, Sheila Maher (2001) describes a number of enhanced individual and organizational benefits reported by executive directors who engaged in a coaching partnership.  These include:

  • Ability to lead with vision and enhanced ability to manage day-to-day activities
  • Reduction of over-commitment and stress
  • Ability to perform strategic thinking even when “pulled in multiple directions”
  • Maximize staff effectiveness rather than micromanaging
  • Manage time more effectively
  • Enhanced interpersonal skills in dealing effectively with difficult people

Additionally, a study by Harder + Company Community Research found six key areas where executive coaching significantly benefited executive directors and their organizations:

•  Impact on leadership and management

•  Impact on the organization

•  Impact on attitudes and beliefs

•  Impact on personal life

•   Impact on job satisfaction

•  Impact on turnover and burnout.

What Kind of Skills Should a Nonprofit Sector Coach Have?

 It certainly helps to have a background in the nonprofit sector.  From my own experience, my expertise in the nonprofit sector adds value to my coaching clients because I can provide resources and insights and, with my client’s permission, advice on how to get them ‘unstuck’.  However, for more global support and development, it isn’t imperative that a coach be well-versed in the nonprofit world.  Executive directors wear so many hats, but let’s not forget that they’re actually people, too – they struggle with world-life balance and can absolutely benefit from a more general, systematic approach to coaching.

What Kind of Issues Do Executive Directors Bring to the Coaching Relationship?

In general, there are as many issues to be discussed as there are executive directors, but some of the more common concerns include the following:  board relationships, running a small office with a myriad roles, finding work-life balance, dealing with difficult people, prioritizing workloads, time and stress management, fundraising, managing ‘up’ to align goals, board recruitment, facilitating communication, establishing boundaries, evaluating employees, and transitioning into other leadership positions.

Where Can Executive Directors Go To Find a Coach?

With coaching becoming an increasingly pervasive and value-added tool in the repertoire of organizational development, there are a number of resources for executive directors who are interested in establishing a coaching partnership.  The first place to check out is your local Community Foundation.  Increasingly, these organizations are offering low- or no-cost leadership training and personal development programs for executive directors to sharpen their proverbial saws.  For example, I currently coach two nonprofit professionals through the Community Foundation for Monterey County’s Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Institute.  My coaching services are provided to my clients on a pro-bono basis as a service through the Foundation – it’s a great program and I absolutely love my clients.

Another invaluable resource – one that is not as well-known as it should be – is The Coach Initiative.  This innovative nonprofit organization helps to advance the missions of nonprofits through pro-bono coaching by matching leaders with experienced volunteer coaches.  Check out this video by Diane Krause-Stetson describing the purpose and impact of the Coach Initiative.  The Coach Initiative recruits volunteer coaches who want to contribute their time and expertise to support nonprofit initiatives that have a positive impact on the world, so if you’re an ICF-certified coach, consider volunteering your time and talent in service to the amazing, hard-working executive directors of the nonprofit sector.

You’ll also find that coaching partnerships are a very fundable initiative through capacity-building grants.  Do a regular check-in of foundations to see if their capacity-building initiatives including coaching opportunities.

ED Coaching 4If these options aren’t a ‘best fit’ for your organization and you’re on a tight budget, give me a call.  Ascend Nonprofit Consulting & Executive Coaching provides ICF-certified coaching services on a sliding scale to our nonprofit clients, based on annual budget.  You might qualify for premium serves for as little as $200.00/month.  You can reach me at

You’re Not Alone

Executive coaches can play a significant and meaningful role in the professional development of leadership in the nonprofit sector.  To support the leaders who serve in the trenches and at the front lines of social change is an honor and privilege.  Executive directors, you’re not alone.  Your time and talents are appreciated, valued, respected, and very much needed in this world.  All you need is support – you no longer have to work in isolation.

“Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.”
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton


Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching,


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