Motivating Nonprofit Executives

If you are interviewing for a member of your executive team, you may want to ask the candidate what motivates them, and what aspects would make the position especially appealing. When interviewing for the E.D. position I recently held in a Boston nonprofit, I asked the executive team to tell me about the culture. I was struck by the answer: “We have a culture of family. We have a culture of trust.” Having worked within organizations where political jockeying and competition were the norm, I have for some time prioritized the way the team and the board treat each other. I am drawn to work with people who bring to one another mutual respect, trust, open communication and an orientation toward finding solutions, rather than pointing out flaws.

In my last small nonprofit, this turned out to be my experience: the team and the board worked closely, made decisions as a team, listened with respect and caring to each other’s points of view. We invited differences of opinion, and worked on ‘yeasty’ challenges until we came up with optimal solutions. And we all worked hard – but not necessarily in the office.

Because we trusted each other to be working more than a nine hour day, and because we kept each other updated as to our schedules, no one had to watch over anyone’s shoulder. Development work requires lots of time out of the office, meeting and cultivating prospective donors or partners. Each of us sometimes preferred to work from home, due to children’s schedules or out-of-office meetings. Because of that culture of trust, we never needed to doubt one another – we had each others’ backs. We knew the others were doing what they said they would do. We were a family.

This kind of culture can be more motivating than a big salary. Nonprofit executives work in this arena not just to create value, but to be valued by their team. Part of affirming another’s worth, is giving them the room and responsibility to try new things, to make occasional mistakes. Thus we grow, thus we learn, and expand the playing field and the game as well as the players.

I heard a young executive who was hiring say recently, “I expect my D.O.D. to be the first there in the morning, and the last to leave.” But a development job requires attending evening events, early morning corporate breakfasts and chamber meetings, and site visits with funders all over the region. If the E.D. can offer flexibility and trust, the new hire may give back twice as much, because of the joy of working in one’s own best rhythm.

No one is working in a nonprofit for the huge salaries. It’s valuable when hiring, to learn what worked best for them in their recent jobs, and what didn’t work so well. Where do they want to be in five years? What makes them really happy in their work?

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