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How “doable” is your job? What the workload means for your legacy

You may not plan to leave your organization for a long time, but your greatest legacy will be to ensure that the organization will continue operating smoothly and sustainably so that your organization’s mission is served long after you leave.

The responsibilities of an executive position, especially at smaller and growing organizations, can seem limitless. Yes, you may hire additional people and delegate many duties, but evidence suggests that nonprofits tend to devote every available dollar to programs, short-changing staff functions like fund development, accounting, and marketing – which means those duties end up concentrated at the top – in other words, in your position’s list of responsibilities. Overloaded directors may also be very much involved in mission-related activities like supervising front-line staff or teaching classes.

If you have only a few employees, you may have no choice but to take on all these tasks initially. But is that sustainable in the long run?

We all know the allegory of the boiling frog: A departing ED may not have noticed the water has gotten hotter, but anyone considering the position can see that the heat has been turned all the way up. That’s why, when GCN conducts an executive search for a senior position, especially for an ED, one of the first things we ask is, “How doable is this job?”

You might ask how you can make a real change in ED overload when funding for non-program expenses is so hard to come by. While the common wisdom that no one wants to fund overhead is still largely true, that’s changing. When foundations first began funding capacity-building, it was to help organizations engage consultants to improve strategic plans, board effectiveness, or fundraising efforts. Many grantmakers realized, however, that those improvements couldn’t be implemented successfully without the right complement of talent – administrative as well as programmatic. As a result, some have started funding requests backed by a cogent argument for investing in business operations.

For instance, one organization we worked with secured funding for leadership development consulting and two years’ salary for a key non-program position by demonstrating that it had grown beyond its administrative capacity, and could not deepen outcomes without more people. Their argument was as clear as saying a factory operating at 100 percent of its capacity could not build more engines without expanding the plant.

Even with funding for extra personnel, it takes a change in mindset to reduce a leader’s workload. One way to rethink your mindset is by updating your job description: Identify the large “buckets” first, like strategy, finances, programs, data, fundraising, and board stewardship. Within each bucket, list the specific duties you perform. Order them with delegation in mind, beginning with the tasks only you can perform, followed by those another director or manager might handle, and concluding with those you’ve meant to hand off but haven’t been able to. Then ask yourself:

  • If you shared this job description, would anyone jump at the chance to take your place?
  • What tasks are you holding onto because you think no one else can do them? Who could take over these tasks with very little instruction?
  • What are you holding onto because you never thought about handing it off?
  • What are you holding onto because, by performing that function, you find out what’s happening in the business? (This will be your hardest category to relinquish, even if it’s something as simple as opening the mail.)
  • These are the same questions we ask clients when developing an emergency succession plan, allowing us to assign responsibilities among existing staff and volunteers in the event a key role remains empty for a time. In our workshops on the topic, we privately ask ourselves how many participants will realize they can hand off some of their tasks right away.
  • Once you’ve determined some of the responsibilities you can delegate, the next step is to write down what you should be doing but haven’t been able to get to. This is where the real value is: Once you realize the benefits of the trade-off, you’ll be going back to your list to identify more, higher-level responsibilities worth relinquishing.
  • Finally, you can gather your managers, key volunteers, and board members to figure out a plan for making changes, including clear decision-making and communication rubrics.

Your plan may take years to implement, so start now. Build new positions into your strategic plan and your budget. Help funders, board, and other staff – but mostly yourself – understand these new expenditures are critical to the sustainability of the organization and that they’re the gateway to expanding services or deepening impact.

Without making these changes, your organization is not just limited in impact and growth: If you leave, expecting your replacement to carry on the way you have, the operation is likely to fall far short of its goals, and struggle to reach even current capacity.

Sound harsh? Or impossible to change? Call us and let’s discuss it. We’d like to help you now, before it’s time to identify or recruit a new executive, and ensure your successor will have the best opportunity possible to sustain all the work you’ve done.

Senior Consultant Mary Hughes conducts executive search services as part of  GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group, focusing on CEO/executive director search and transition, as well as leadership sustainability planning and leadership development.


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