As the third part of a series entitled "Introduction to the Social Sector," leaders from some of New York's and New Jersey's top nonprofits shared their experiences as Executive Directors with an audience of students and alumni.
The panel discussion, "The Challenges of the Executive Director," sought to provide insight to students and alumni who are working or plan to work in a leadership role in the nonprofit sector or serve on a board. Moderated by Professor Ed Henry, who will be teaching Board and Executive Management for Nonprofits in the fall, the panel included Edie Behr, Vice President of Jersey Cares; Digna Sanchez, Executive Director of Learning Leaders; Deb Thompson, Executive Director of Row 10 Advisors philanthropy and education consulting; and Michael Hirschhorn '89, Executive Director of the CORO Center for Leadership.
Pictured from left: Prof. Ed Henry, moderator; Edie Behr, Jersey Cares; Digna Sanchez, Learning Leaders; Michael Hirchhorn '89, CORO New York Leadership Center; and Deb Thompson, Row 10 Advisors.
Panelists identified fundraising as one of the greatest challenges faced by executive directors (ED). "As an ED, there is potential to lose sight of your mission while chasing funding," explained Digna Sanchez. "In the not-for-profit sector you usually have too little time, too little talent, or too little money. If you are fortunate to have adequate amounts of all of these, then people ask you to serve more people. It is a constant cycle," added Deb Thompson.
Another strong focus of the ED is the relationship with board members, who often have been with the organization long before the executive director is hired. "It is extremely important to educate your board on what the organization is doing," said Edie Behr, who previously served as an ED and is now Vice President of a board. "You need to teach them the lingo, be willing to share information, and focus on the 'Care and Feeding of Board Members.'" Behr suggested that one of the critical tasks for an ED is to get to know each board member and understand his or her reasons for serving on the board, in order to best use the member's skills. Panelists also emphasized the importance of building an advisory group to test ideas before presenting them to the board.
All panelists emphasized that the MBA degree is an asset to the executive director position, as major responsibilities of the role include organizational development, fundraising and general management. “However, the executive director role isn’t the only way for you to contribute your MBA skills to the social sector,” cautioned Deb Thompson. “Many people make the transition but need to assess what they really want out of the experience. It may make sense to serve on a board or find other ways to contribute resources to the sector.”
Michael Hirschhorn '89 (pictured with Lindsay Kruse '06, Social Enterprise Club President) emphasized that he continually uses the skills gained in earning his MBA: "I always say that my career began with Columbia and I keep coming back to it!"
For additional information on the panelists or on the role of executive directors, please visit the following sites: