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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: How Passion, Relationships, and Expectations Affect Director Tenure

In Syracuse, New York, one museum is currently searching for its fourth executive director in 10 years. Although this turnover may seem high, it is consistent with national trends in the not-for-profit industry. In a 2006 nationwide survey of nonprofit leadership, 75 percent of executives stated that they planned to leave their jobs within the next 5 years.

As students in the Syracuse University Graduate Program in Museum Studies, we recognize that we are preparing to enter a field with high attrition. So we set out to determine why this trend exists and find out if there is hope for our success. Can we avoid falling into the trap of nonprofit executive turnover?

Syracuse has long been used for market research due to its ethnic and economic diversity. Its average demographics place it fifth in a list of the top test markets in the United States. We concluded that the city is an acceptable representation of the nation.

We conducted 19 interviews with executive directors, board members, and employees from nonprofit community organizations in an effort to identify the reasons for turnover as well as ways to prevent it. Nearly every interviewee cited unmet expectations and underdeveloped relationships as the key reasons for executive director turnover. In an industry where these problems seem unavoidable, each was also able to offer valuable insight on how to succeed.

One thing that we as interviewers also noticed was that executive directors with a reasonable tenure were deeply committed to their respective organizations. Whether they were driven by wanting to know that their effort made a difference or by pure passion, directors and board members who stuck around were sincerely devoted to their organizations' missions.

Expectations

The most prevalent topic in the interviews was unmet expectations in an organization. This discussion was so consistent across roles and organizations that we believe it to be an industry-wide concern stemming from the ever-increasing complexity of the executive director position. "You have to know more, more quickly. You have to be an expert in too many areas." (Note: Direct quotes are used throughout this article, but to maintain confidentiality in a small nonprofit community of potentially identifiable leaders, we omitted any attribution.) Additionally, "Board and staff expect that new directors will come into a position with all the skills they need." It is no wonder directors fail to meet expectations: expectations change daily.

The problem of unmet expectations goes both ways between director and board. When asked to identify the greatest challenge for nonprofit executives today, one director named working with the board "because there is a large disconnect in what they expect, understand and want to do while on the board." One board member spoke of not only the need to clarify the expectations of the director but also that of the board: "The board needs to evaluate their role in the organization." Another board member stressed the importance of knowing his role: "What is governance? Define it."

Speaking to positions of both the board and director, one respondent observed, "Expectations are not explicit, and there seems to be confusion (maybe fear) in taking action without invitation, guidance, and encouragement. It's a stalemate that is keeping either 'side' from efficient action."

A widely held belief is that the director needs to guide the board in what to do and be, managing and exploiting "their talents and interests so you can leverage them to meet the needs of the organization." One board member advised, "Let the board know what you expect of them. ... at least share a vision of what you believe an effective board does." This clarity of expectations benefits the entire organization and helps alleviate the tendency of boards to frustrate directors and staff by micromanaging.

The largest discrepancy regarding expectations between directors and boards arose in the area of fundraising. Executive director and board member success can be largely defined by their capacity to raise money for the organization. "Something that the new execs sometimes do not realize," said one director who has been in his position for 23 years, "is the amount of time spent fundraising. Everyone has to do it everywhere." Although there is a tendency to point fingers, the ambiguity as to who should raise funds was a major frustration. One executive director stated, "A lot of [board members] don't live up to their obligation in fundraising for the organization. ... Executive directors get the brunt of it, and there has been a lot of turnover." In his organization, there have been six different directors over a 10-year period.

Operating in this environment of continued disappointment, it is not surprising that an executive director's average term is only three to five years. If positions are more clearly defined, however, confusion regarding expectations could lessen. Achieving this goal requires continued evaluation both up and down the institutional ladder. Most directors and board members say they conduct a yearly review. But it is important that directors maintain close relationships with their boards so that outside of these annual reviews there is open communication regarding role clarity and expectations of both.

Staff, directors, and boards must all be clear on what they need and expect of one another and must also support one another in efforts to grow. There seems to be a general lack of this support. According to the 2006 survey cited earlier, a director's relationship with the board highly affects his or her anticipated tenure. Those executive directors who are unhappy with their boards had greater intentions of leaving in the near future.

Relationships

An executive director's relationship with his or her staff is equally important to tenure. Internal staff development was most often indicated as the first key role a director must fulfill. "An effective director should always know what goes on, what is happening on a daily basis," but there is a fine line between awareness and micromanagement. "Letting people do their jobs" was the advice of a director who has been in her position for 14 years: "Trust develops in the staff-director relationship once you know where your boss is coming from and what they expect of you." It is this open-door policy that allows directors to empower their staffs. "When you [directors] make your staff feel valued, they will reciprocate," and this mutual exchange will lessen some of the daily demands on the director.

Another important characteristic for establishing successful relationships is maturity and humility. One director advised that a director must consider "what is the best thing for the museum, not the self. Don't read your own press clippings. They are nice for a second, then move on, get back and do the really important work." This humility also facilitates the building of relationships, especially for young directors who face a growing generational gap between themselves and board members. For these directors, the ability to listen, take criticism, and "lead from the side" are incredibly important skills.

"There has been a lot of staff turnover, especially among the younger staff." So how do we, as a new generation of young professionals, avoid the challenges of expectations and relationships? One piece of advice was: "At conferences we talk about how the generations break into different age groups. ... it's important to educate oneself, and be accommodating. Try to be understanding of the people working for you and their challenges."

As a class that recognizes that unclear expectations and poor working relationships are driving causes of frustration, we are more aware of what is required in this field. Clearly, defined roles are critical to productive growth in any position. Because a not-for-profit executive director wears many hats, however, defining the expectations of all involved to the best extent possible is a necessity. Whether it means defining our responsibilities before accepting a position or simply recognizing the need for maintaining open dialogue throughout our tenure, we realize that success in this field requires direct and candid discussions—and strong commitment.

Passion

What is it that drives commitment to a time-consuming, low-paying leadership position? The resounding answer: Passion. When asked about their success in the field, all directors attributed it in some way to a passion they harbor for their organizations' missions. "It was always about the impact, making a difference in society." "If you wake up one day and have to ask yourself 'why?' then you have strayed from your passion and should do something else." "Believe in [the] mission; it informs everything [you] do."

Passion may be why directors leave their positions but stay in the industry. It also reminds us why we as museum studies students chase a job from which many run away. "Often a thankless job with lots of effort and stress, and little financial or ego reward. Executive directors need to have a personal passion for the organization they lead, and no ego." This passion to affect our communities and instill change provides rewards well beyond monetary compensation. It also provides a building block on which we as emerging directors can begin to build relationships and facilitate conversation to increase the success of the not-for-profit industry, and, we hope, the lengths of our tenures.

Lauren Chyle, Maryanna Ramirez, Megan Dunn, Sarah Lanigan, and Elaine Quick; Laura Horian, editor
© 2007, The Graduate Program in Museum Studies, Syracuse University

This article is based on research conducted for a graduate Museum Management course at Syracuse University taught by Mary Elisabeth Lang. Amy Attanasio, Daniel Chermak, Lara Chmela, Yu Ha Jung, Jennifer Lopez, Donna Nortman, Rosemary O'Sullivan, Katie Ross, Christopher Secor, Laurence Seidenberg, and Qiana Williams also contributed to the project.
Topics: Senior Executive Issues