Song of the Executive Director


NinjaLast Friday, 9 EDs got together for our monthly ED Happy Hour (EDHH), a time for us to discuss the challenges of our field and brainstorm ways to collaborate so that we can shift the paradigm and move the needle on collective impact around systemic change. Or something like that. OK, we just drink a lot and complain about stuff. It’s very therapeutic.

We were at a sports bar, and the basketball game on the TVs around us cast streaks of light on the shiny black tables.I was sipping on my WTM, which the waitress told me stood for “White Trash Mimosa,” a combination of orange juice and beer, and looking around the table at my fellow EDs, at their salt-and-pepper hair and their button-down shirts that they probably got at a Ross Dress for Less.

“Sad story time, you guys,” said Director Margaery, “we applied for a major grant. It failed.” (I’m using pseudonyms, since the second rule of EDHH is that everything that is said at EDHH stays at EDHH. (The first rule of EDHH is that you can’t ask an ED to be a table captain at your event.))

“That’s 10 ED Points!” I said. We have a system of ED points, which you can earn for doing different ED things. The points add up and earn you awesome titles. For example, for 100 points, we earn the title of Cat Herder. When we reach 1000 points, we are bestowed the highest rank, Equity Ninja. No one has yet reached the status of Equity Ninja. I think one person has achieved the third highest rank, 800 points, Synergy Harvester.

“I talked to a foundation and requested $40,000, and it seemed really positive” said Director Catelyn, “they came back with an offer for $10,000. That’s $10,000 we didn’t have before, but still, it hurts…”

We spent some time sharing sad stories, about funding and sustainability, about board members we have to wrangle, about the overwhelming number of emails we each receive every day, about the staff we loved whom we had to lay off because we didn’t get a grant, about the complete lack of separation between our work life and personal life.

I looked around at some of the smartest and most dedicated people I know. Their faces were gaunt and hollow, ravaged by time and countless special events. These visages, once vibrant and full of life, are now tired, leathery facades, crumpled like a stack of cobbler’s aprons that have fallen off a truck and been run over by a motorcycle. An ED’s face is like a tree trunk: You can tell by the number of wrinkles how many fiscal years this person has survived. “Ah,” you might say, “this wrinkle is especially deep. This must have been the year when they weren’t able to meet the goal for their annual fundraising dinner. What a sad and noble fella.”

The challenges of the position may explain why no one wants to be an ED. Seeing our tired, weather-beaten faces every day, most staff would rather eat their own arm or marry an opossum than become an Executive Director.

“I gave notice,” said Director Olenna, “I quit. Five years of full-time work without health benefits, that’s enough.”

We looked at her and took swigs of our respective drinks. Director Olenna brings so much energy and fun. Each time an ED leaves, it hurts. All of us are fighting the long and difficult fight against inequity and social injustice, and when an ED quits, it’s like having a comrade fall in battle. This is the 2nd ED I know who is leaving in the past two months.

“Where will you go?” I asked, “What will become of you?”

“I think I’ll take some time off, go to Japan, visit the 88 temples for a year,” she said, “and then I’ll come back and figure out something.”

At a previous EDHH we talked about what we would do if we weren’t in this line of work. One director wanted to be a wedding photographer. One wanted to make documentaries. I would love to work for the Travel Channel in a show called “Vegan Bizarre Foods,” where I travel the globe and sample wacky, but completely vegan, foods.

“Can I tell a happy story?” said Director Ned.

Sure, we said, we’d love to hear a happy story. We don’t always just complain about stuff. Most of the time, we are loud, laughing and cracking jokes and talking about “Storage War.”

“So someone contacted us,” said Director Ned, “and asked if we took stock options as a donation! Stock options, you guys!”

What, we said. No way, we said. Shut your face, Director Ned, you bastard, I said. While all us EDs look haggard and cobbler’s-apron-ish, Director Ned always looks fresh and full of energy, and for that I want to punch him in the face a few times so he would look like the rest of us.

Each time we gather for EDHH, it would last four or five hours. When it’s at another ED’s place, we would bring snacks and wine leftover from other meetings and events. Sometimes we sip on our beer or wine and stare into the distance, imagining a better reality, a reality where grants are multi-year general operating, which would allow us to focus on improving our programs instead of merely trying to survive. We imagine these things called “holiday bonuses” for our staff, like we see people getting in the movies. We imagine a world where children say “When I grow up, I want to be an executive director.”

No kid ever says that. I don’t think any of us thought we would end up as an ED. The profession calls to us like a siren, beautiful and haunting and madness inducing. And, while we lament about the challenges of our field and age twice as a fast as the general public and daydream about being a wedding photographer or whatever, the reality is that we still choose to heed the call, to listen to this song.

A new Director arrived, her first time at EDHH. She seemed nervous, but the group was welcoming, offering to share our hummus plate. I had to leave early to go to our office holiday party. On the way out, I was thinking how lucky I was to get to know and work with such amazing leaders. And I calculated that I had earned 12 ED points that day, which means I was 12 points closer to being an Equity Ninja.

  • Merry Stover

    I bet every ED has a “failed grant” story or two, but I challenge you to beat mine.

    After being ASKED by the city to write a grant for federal block grant funds (with a top ask of $5,000,) the grant was awarded. Better than that, the panel of community members who did the interviews awarded us almost $17,000. I was thrilled!

    Time passed. I was recording allowable expenditures, keeping check copies and receipts, submitting all the documentation, and eagerly awaiting the October 1st date where the first payment would be distributed.

    On September 30th I received a letter from the city telling me that the city’s new emergency manager had decided that our grant money would be redirected to the city to improve city parks. It was an all-around lousy experience. Lucky for me, I have a great board and they did not blame me. We all know we are dealing with a city that has been taken over by the state for mis-management…I guess I should have expected it to go wrong somehow. The only good thing about it was that I used the story to our advantage to raise almost $10,000 from hundreds of outraged community members and organizations.

    PS – Vu, where is that experience on the point scale?

    • Director, I talked to the Council of EDs, and they are granting you 50 ED points for the crap you endured.

  • Diana Fox

    Vu, you are a treasure, a light of the nonprofit miasma. Keep being the kickass ED that you are and know that, even if we don’t always comment on your schadenfreude-laced posts, we are always reading them, nodding our heads in agreement, and gaining a new bit of strength to keep fighting the fight.

    • Thanks, Diana, what a sweet comment. I feel all warm and fluffy all over.

  • Voice of Reason

    OK, this just got to me. It went past tilt. I know the basis of humor is tragedy, but the tragedy is what sticks on this sad song. It does not have to be this lame. All of these people becoming old leather aprons as part of the age old march of nice people finish last in the inexorable march of assholes take all. What is another song we can sing? I’d like to start a comment string on that question. How about “We are the Champions,” Queen. Anyone? Anyone? We need a new theme song.

    • Hey, we’re not always this depressed. Most of the times, we’re hilarious. How about “Sexy Back,” by Justin Timberlake.

  • Stacy Ashton

    I remember when I was fresh out of grad school, working as a counsellor at a non-profit, and I sat in on my first meeting of all Executive Directors doing…Executive Director things. I don’t know. I wasn’t an ED then so it just looked impressive and important at the time. Probably generating synergy and needling collective impact. And I thought, wow, I wonder if I’ll ever be talented and confident enough to be an Executive Director.

    And now I am! It’s not exactly like I thought it would be, but that is only because no matter how I threaten or bribe my staff and volunteers they will not address me as “Madame Executive Director”. Hmmph.

    • Stacy, it’s heartening to know you wanted to be an ED when you grew up. I mandate my staff to call me “Director Vu.” Remember, you’re the boss.

      • Stacy Ashton

        Hey, what are you still doing with your ED hat on at 7:30 at night? Oh, right, same as me. Two more LOIs and one more proposal to go and I am OUT of here!

        • Director Stacy, I was trying to finish an invoice for a reimbursement-based grant (don’t you just love those?). The rest of the staff are still there, stuffing 600 envelopes for our mailing campaign.

          • Stacy Ashton

            Hah, in my last reimbursement based grant I had to supply CANCELLED CHECKS (in Canada, we call them cheques, but I am culturally sensitive to American spelling) to prove I had spent the money.

    • Lorri

      I told the staff they should address me as “your highness”, but when it happens it’s kinda strange…..mostly because I’m the only staff and it means I’m talking to myself…..again. 🙂

  • cpetersky

    Yeah, like you wouldn’t want to go yourself:

  • Susan Masters

    Ok if you are looking for songs for EDs , after a three hour meeting with the head of my clinical staff arguing why I couldn’t give bonus to her staff because she is afraid they might leave… I think the song should be ” You can’t always get what want” by the Rolling Stones starts slow but has a killer finish
    ED Susan from In Canada

    • Thanks, Director Susan! That’s a great song that, unfortunately, underscores almost everything that we do 🙂