A Call to Fund E.D. Professional Development

Posted by Stephen Lemire on April 5, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Executive directors, particularly in small staff nonprofits, often operate without a peer. Though they have access to ever-increasing avenues of virtual, professional support and on-line resources to ask questions of colleagues and share best practices, their day-to-day management can be isolating. The ED must serve as a fulcrum, as they balance responsibilities on a seesaw between the two ends of the lever represented by the board and staff.

The executive director needs the board of directors to support their ongoing professional growth by having an annual allocated fund from which they can draw. The ED may use these funds for professional items such as dues (e.g. ASAE), conferences, webinars, subscriptions, and networking events. It is the responsibility of the ED to use the funds wisely and demonstrate how they are contributing to their professional growth from year-to-year.

For the nonprofit, investing in the executive director’s professional development is a sound investment as the ED will apply lessons and new skills learned. In addition, the ED will make peer connections which are critical for asking questions, seeking advice, and searching for best practices. The ED will also make contacts with vendors and consultants with whom the nonprofit may need to work with in the future. Finally, the ED’s participation in events may be great exposure for the nonprofit, especially if the ED begins to get noticed for their views and asked to facilitate or speak at events.

The other reasons to provide for executive director professional development are that it is it a reward for performance, an incentive for improvement, and an additional component of total compensation. This perk may be offered as one of the types of offerings (like flex time) that a nonprofit may provide in lieu of higher salary or additional benefits. Also, the change of pace, a different environment like attending an event, and being intellectually challenged will bring the ED back to the organization renewed and recharged.


Some boards may be reticent. Knee-jerk responses can include the concerns that the nonprofit will spend money on the executive director to get additional training and the ED will then take their new marketable skills to another organization or that the ED will be recruited by a new contact whom they meet at an event. These fears are short-sighted, especially since relatively small amounts need to be spent for the potential of a great return.


When an executive director runs into opposition with the board about professional development, it is important for them to point out that one of the primary reasons that directors serve is for their own professional development, especially in the case of associations. By this, I’m referring to the professional development of an individual director (as opposed to board of directors’ professional development which is entirely separate, more important, and much broader topic.) In addition to professional growth, many directors volunteer to provide service to the community or to support a cause. Others participate in order to network, increase their personal or professional visibility, or simply to stroke their ego.


To help support the funding concept, it can be helpful for the ED to find an event that would be mutually beneficial for the ED to jointly attend with a member of the board. For example, the ED and treasurer could participate in a workshop on nonprofit financial management. After, the treasurer could appeal to other members of the board to support the idea.


The most variable issue is how to determine the amount of ED professional development funds to allocate. I recommend a target of 2%-3% of the total operating budget. Some organizations are not comfortable having a specified line item and choose instead to spread the expenses through other categories such as Travel, Subscriptions & Dues, etc.


For a nonprofit that has not set aside funds for ED professional development in the past, and would now like to invest in their ED, I recommend a gradual rollout as most budgets could not handle a new 3% budget line item. For example, they could phase it in over three years. Yet, at times, it is easier to establish a set amount or to create a cap ($5,000 for example) per year. (As the organization grows, both in terms of operating budget and staff, professional development can be expanded to include more employees.)


Another consideration is for ED candidates that have been offered a new position. I think that this is an important part of the total compensation package to be negotiated. Though not on par with salary and health benefits, obviously, it is one of the other key additional perks which can impact job satisfaction.


The onus falls on the ED to demonstrate that the nonprofit is getting value for the line item. Readily applying new skills, submitting brief summaries of activities in which they participated, or providing a short in-service at a board meeting will validate and reinforce the ongoing need to dedicate a part of the budget to ED professional development.

Categories: Executive Directors, Board of Directors, Nonprofits

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