Are you cut out to be an executive director?

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For a young person starting out in the nonprofit sector, the role of executive director can seem to be many things: impressive, exciting, inspiring. It may also appear daunting, exhausting and riddled with inefficiencies — a job one must become married to, but without the compensation that comes with leadership in the private sector.

The position of executive director is hugely complex. While young people shouldn’t be categorized flippantly, for people in their 20s and early 30s building a career in the nonprofit world, is the job of executive director really all that appealing?

Age agnostic

Kanika Gupta, a twenty-something Toronto woman, is founder of SoJo, a nonprofit online platform for sharing information and helping innovators convert ideas for social good into action. Instead of executive director, she calls herself Chief Catalyst, because, as she explains, “Sojo’s all about catalyzing people and ideas.”

In her view, the desire to lead a nonprofit isn’t contingent on age.

“I think it’s age-agnostic...whether you’re 20, 40 or 80, I don’t think that should make a’s more about personality. Are you hungry for it? Are you excited by ambiguity, by dealing with multiple stakeholders and being married to your work, essentially? It’s something you are or you aren’t, not an age thing.”

Marilyn Struthers, program manager at the Ontario Trillium Foundation, is of a different generation, having worked in the sector since the ‘70s.

From her vantage point, she hasn’t seen much reluctance on the part of young people to take on the role of executive director, but sees similarities between the ambitions of young people today and those forty years ago.

“When I was younger, in the ‘70s, we were doing a lot like what we see young people doing now; we were starting new organizations...young folks were often committed to forming nonprofits or charities as a way to carry out a public benefit or mission — I think that’s the same now.”

Flight from tradition

What may be different today, Struthers notes, is young people tend to start organizations that are more entrepreneurial, using “many different kinds of financial arrangements.” This can be attributed to a lacklustre economy, as well as demographic changes that see existing leaders staying in management roles longer.

“A lot of people who’ve been working in the sector for a while may be dreaming of retirement, but can’t afford to. That’s the nature of sector work...many of us have worked without pensions — often, low-waged and contingent work."

Gupta similarly observes that young people with inclinations to lead seem more interested in founding smaller startup organizations; not only does being young imply a sense of energy and idealism necessary for working in a startup environment, but it may also make it unappealing to deal with the politics of a long-established organization.

“What I’m seeing [in larger, more traditional nonprofits] is that older people are holding onto their jobs longer and it’s difficult for fresh blood to come can be very bureaucratic to navigate through them, and young people may have less patience for this.”

Darcy Higgins, 26-year-old founder and executive director of Food Forward, a Toronto nonprofit that advocates for a better food system, says he doesn’t see many positions opening up for young people, making them less able to bank on moving up the ranks of an organization.

In the past couple of years, he’s noticed a lot of them moving away from traditional nonprofit work, into business-oriented, social enterprise-type ventures.

“I’ve had friends who’ve been a bit uncomfortable in [traditional] nonprofits or charities — they might feel these organizations are a bit slow, or don’t function in the way young people are going.”

Reflections from a long-time executive director

Susan Hanrahan is executive director of the Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council (NSDCC), a Halifax-based nonprofit with a mandate to promote the craft movement in Nova Scotia.

Having held the position since 1995, Hanrahan has witnessed how the role of executive director has changed over time — both in her organization and in similar nonprofits across Canada.

She recalls how, in the early to mid 1990s, advances in technology shifted job descriptions and responsibilities within the sector.

Prior to this period, a director would typically hire a secretary to help with administrative work, but the “computerization of the office” saw the director doing much of his or her own typing, filing and organizing. Other work got parceled out to key staff members: program director, member service coordinator, fundraiser, etc.

In the NSDCC’s case, increased efficiencies helped the organization grow, expanding their budget, staff and workload, and causing Hanrahan to do less on-the-ground program management and delivery and more “delegating, supervising and coordinating.”

“I spend a lot of my time in meetings, talking to people, setting up partnership and collaborations...I used to be much more involved and hands on with certain programs when I first took on the director role — now I have more staff who are able to do those things.”

For Hanrahan, the changes are positive; she believes young people absolutely still want to take on the role of executive director, maintaining that the job’s flexibility and the opportunities it affords to work with communities compensate for the typically low pay.

She recommends that anyone considering the job be prepared to be adaptable, innovative and creative.

“There is no 9 to 5, not in my world.”

Looking back, she wonders if she might have benefited from getting an MBA or MPA.

“That might have been the only thing I would’ve done differently, gotten some specialized training in terms of management – that I found was one of the hardest skills to acquire in the position.”

For some, an unappealing trade-off

Some young people, however, may be less inclined to take on a job with such unrestrained hours, and, frequently, quite removed from program delivery. In addition, then, to demographic and economic factors that make executive director positions less plentiful, some may also be turned off by the perceived trade-offs that come with the job.

Prateeksha Singh, 29, a recent transplant from the financial sector, currently does project management work for the School of Social Entrepreneurs Ontario, an organization that provides learning opportunities for social entrepreneurs in Canada.

Singh says she personally feels conflicted about the issue; on one hand, she sees the great work so many executive directors do, but is aware that, because of demanding work and limited resources, this can come at a price.

“Oftentimes, the trade-off [of being an executive director] is themselves, their personal life and financial remuneration — they’re not getting paid as much, clearly, as if they were working in a different sector...when your health and personal life are so significantly affected, it becomes an unappealing trade-off.”

Seeing this sort of sacrifice happening at the top of an organization might make young people ask themselves if that’s something they really want, ten, or twenty, years down the road. Singh says this it’s an important question for the sector as a whole to address, as declining interest in the job of executive director could lead to “a high level of attrition of very talented folks after a few years in the field.”

Changing the job, changing the sector

Some argue that for leadership roles in the sector to appeal to more young people, the sector must undergo some changes.

Heather Laird, in her twenties, does policy and engagement work for the Ontario Nonprofit Network, and is a co-founder of Connect the Sector, a collective that aims to connect and build opportunities for younger nonprofit professionals in Toronto.

Laird says, while it’s by no means true across the board, and she herself doesn’t feel this way, she’s observed a trend of young people viewing the job of executive director as “inefficient and ineffective, in the way that the nonprofit sector [generally] is often stereotyped as being.”

The pressure placed on executive directors, and the fact they often get stuck doing administrative or bureaucratic “busy work” instead of programming causes misperceptions about what their role is, or should be.

“[Being an executive director] can become less about making change and more about keeping things afloat...but that shouldn’t be the role of an executive director, and hopefully in many cases it will no longer be...I’d really like to see, as the sector changes, younger people thinking about changing what the role looks like...I think that’s really exciting.”

For her, that might mean altering the relationship between nonprofits and funders — for example, having many different funders, or becoming less dependent on funders altogether through revenue-generating activities or acting as partners with funders.

While it’s impossible to speak for all young people or all organizations, there is definitely some concern brewing about the role of executive director in its current incarnation.

For many younger individuals, becoming a leader in the sector suggests an enticing opportunity to create social impact. And yet, if the personal costs of leading are deemed too high, the sector as a whole will suffer.

It’s important for professionals across generations to speak frankly about what the role of executive director looks like now, and how it might — or should — evolve to meet the sector’s changing needs.

Jodie Shupac is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She contributes to a range of publications, covering culture, urban issues, health and the environment.

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