Have you ever wanted to lead a nonprofit or charity?

What about starting one?

Today we talked with Sue Thornton, former Executive Director for Texas Dentists for Healthy Smiles, and former Executive Director for Texas IMPACT. She managed three statewide organizations with strong legislative ties. She would advocate for issues for poor women and children, and a lot of her job was lobbying. With over nine years combined of being a chief executive at a nonprofit, Sue told us some of the key qualities she felt were necessary for an executive leadership position at a nonprofit. And I have to say that I agreed with all of them, and so did the people in the audience who had had board positions at nonprofits. If you’d like to know more about being an executive director, or perhaps, are in need of an interim executive director, check out Ms. Thornton’s LinkedIn profile.

This means doing the right thing at the right time. It’s really hard to do sometimes, but you’ve got to carry the torch for the organization, and since Executive Directors usually last for 7 years or less, you need to do it right and pass the baton to the next person.

Fiscal discipline
When Ms. Thornton came on, she had to learn not only how to read a budget, but how money gets hidden, the implications of spending, and what grantors specifically said money could be used for. She said, finances will make or break an organization.

Personal Transparency
Professionalism. Navigate talking about dirt that is going on or not.

You MUST have passion for the the issue and for the organization and its work.

Spiritual Connection
Have a spiritual connection, however that shows up. Take some time to take stock. You’ve got to keep working on knowing yourself. If a person who is reporting to you is pushing your psychological buttons, you have to know when you’re getting triggered, and what to do about it so you can deal with this without harming the employee.

Fundraising Without Fear
You need to be able to attract people who will give you money. After a grant evaporated overnight, Ms. Thornton had to call and ask for money to pay for the salaries of employees over a 90 day period until they could figure something else out. She enabled upper level folks to say yes, and saved the organization. So it’s important to have a clear relationship with the Development Director and be right there with them to make sure you are both cultivating long term relationships with donors and funders.

Exceptional Written and Verbal Communication Skills
You need to be able to write, be able to edit other peoples writing, and you need to be able to speak one on one or to huge groups of people about the issues your organization is dealing with.

Exceptional People Skills
You have to know how to work the room, or the grocery store line. You have to learn how to meet people, to be able to inspire and communicate with passion to get even more people on your side for your cause.

Good Organizational Skills
You’ll need to be able to put structures in place that support creativity and bring out individual strengths. A good executive director has to be able to support their staff from the janitor to the board members.

Know how to harness Goodwill for the Organization
You have to be able to be ON all of the time, always getting people excited about the vision of the organization, even when you’re on vacation, or even when it’s 11pm at night and someone calls you to find out more about what you do.

Can you think of any more qualities that a good executive director should have?

If you’d like even more resources on nonprofit leadership, check out my comprehensive page here!