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5 Critical Questions To Ask Before Taking That Executive Director Position

5 Critical Questions To Ask Before Taking That Executive Director Position

October 7, 2016
Doug Kohl

Being the executive director of a not-for-profit organization is one of the most rewarding opportunities in the world.  In the same breath I will tell you it is also a complicated challenge.  You must manage multiple bottom lines – mission, financial, and a group of bosses (rather than one). It’s not easy.

How do you make sure the job you’re interested in is right for you? It’s important to ask the right questions during the interview. Far too often hiring decisions are based on “fit and feel” rather than substance and past performance. Ask these questions so that you have a clear idea of what rewarding challenge you are stepping into.

Who does the staff report to?

The answer to this question is always the executive director.  Andy Stanley once said, “Only one person in a not-for-profit should report to a ‘they’, and that’s the Executive Director.” Any other answer is unacceptable.  The board hires the executive director and the executive director hires and supervises all other staff.

Divided supervision at the top never works.  Job sharing seldom works when reporting to a board.  The executive director is responsible for hiring and firing. The board hires, fires and evaluates the executive director. Period.

Is there a strategic plan?

If there is not a written plan, dig deeper. The single most important function that a board serves is to determine the future direction of the organization and express how their organization is going to make a difference.  Boards spend more time analyzing the financial statements than they do deciding what impact they want to make in their community.

If there is no plan, make sure they are willing to embrace the planning process moving forward.

How healthy is the annual giving program?

The annual giving program will tell you what you need to know about the organization’s culture of philanthropy and board composition.  If the organization has put little effort into establishing a solid annual campaign, you’ll want to learn if they are willing to do so going forward. The annual campaign is the foundation for all other giving.

If there is no annual giving program, it’s just as likely that there is not a development plan.  A development plan expresses a holistic approach to systemic giving and includes strategies for annual giving, capital investment and endowment development.

You will also learn about the board’s commitment to giving.  Does 100% of the board give?  There is no place on a board for someone who does not contribute. No contribution means low buy-in.  All board members must contribute.  No exceptions.

Can I examine recent financial statements and an audit?

I’ve been surprised when I learn that someone has accepted a position without reviewing financial statements.  Highlight good and bad trends. Ask the board about them.  Look up the group’s IRS Form 990 online.  Websites like allow you to review financial statements.

Ask about capital or long-term debt. Capital debt doesn’t always show up on operating statements, but it does appear on an audit. Make sure you look at an “all funds” statement and not just operations.

What is your appetite for change?

My daughter is a nurse. She will ask a patient, “On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?” Ask the board, “On a scale of 1-10, what’s your appetite for change?”

If a board thinks they just need someone to maintain the status quo, you may need to look at other positions. Push, probe, ask questions, do your best to learn the existing culture and their tolerance for change.  A leader who comes in with good ideas may find resistance that will make taking charge difficult.

These are important questions.  Not answering these questions doesn’t mean you should not take the position, but now you can make an informed choice based on question #5.  Is there an openness to change?  Be sure that your interview is a two-way exchange. Your career is too important to rely solely on “fit and feel.”  Probing questions will pave the way for excellent dynamics when you find your rewarding and challenging opportunity.


Doug Kohl

Doug brings more than four decades of experience working within the YMCA of the USA. He began his Y career in camping services at the Honolulu Y in 1971 and since then has worked at branches in Cleveland and Chicago. He was executive director of the Arthur Jordan Branch in Indianapolis from 1985 to 1991 and was CEO of the Akron Area Y. Under Doug’s leadership, the Akron Y raised more than $2.4 million in annual support and $40 million for capital improvements, and its annual operating budget has grown from $3.7 million to $19 million. He is currently the Chief Development Officer of the YMCA of Greater Cleveland.