When I first arrived in Detroit, I was naïve to the true nature of the nonprofit sector. I had an extremely idealized vision of what the nonprofit sector was like. My experience was almost entirely based on interactions I had with nonprofits through running charitable actions at my high school and church. These interactions did not allow me to see the inner workings of the nonprofit and the stresses connected to the nonprofit sector, particularly when it comes to the Executive Director role.
At the Executive Director and Director level, the level of interaction with the board was something I did not expect. It has been very interesting for me to learn the impact a (good) board can have on the direction of the nonprofit. The board plays a very direct role in budget approval, ED succession plans, and directing the ED’s larger decisions.
After this summer, I have a newfound appreciation for the stress Executive Directors have to deal with in their day-to-day operations. There are many stressors that make the job less enjoyable than I thought. Executive Directors have the responsibility to bring in funds to keep the nonprofit going. Connected to this, everyone on the team’s livelihood is dependent on them being successful to bring in enough funds. This responsibility is oftentimes carried by them alone, leaving them in a lonely place and with many sleepless nights. As well, the competitive nature of the nonprofit sector pits the leaders against other nonprofit leaders. They are all trying to help similar groups pursue the same limited funding sources. Also, the fact that funding sources (such as foundations or corporations) oftentimes only give funds to the top few nonprofits out of an incredibly long list of nonprofit organizations applying for grants only increases the competitive nature of nonprofit work. All of this stressful work is void of a lot of the direct rewards and feelings of satisfaction that these leaders are used to. The leaders went throughout their career in the nonprofit sector being rewarded by seeing their efforts have a direct impact on the communities they serve. Their separation from the programming aspect of operations - due to them having to focus on team management and fundraising - removes them from this rewarding aspect of nonprofit work.
I would not say in any capacity that I view the nonprofit sector in a cynical manner now, but I have a more realistic understanding of the sector at every level. As I enter my career and weigh different options, this newfound understanding will certainly be something I base my career path decision on.