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By: Steve Zimmerman

“It’s lonely at the top.”  While the cliché of heroic leaders denies the truth that Executive Directors of thriving organizations build shared leadership, the loneliness is real.  Seventy percent of ED’s still report some degree of isolation in CompassPoint’s 2011 Daring to Lead study.

Cohort or group programs are one way for nonprofit leaders to overcome isolation, build peer networks, develop new skills and become re-energized.  The Greater New Orleans Foundation, with support from Chevron, has been a leader in this area, building a learning community for experienced Executive Directors through their Executive Director Intensive program.

Designed with multiple goals in mind, the initiative is a three-day intensive workshop with pre and post work designed to help leaders better understand their strengths and foster community.  Programmatic elements of the ED Intensive focus on key pain points for executive directors including:

  1. articulating their organizations’ impacts in new ways,
  2. understanding the full cost of delivering impact,
  3. creating sustainable revenue strategies, and
  4. partnering more effectively with their boards of directors.

While the content is meaningful, the real reward of the program is the opportunity to know you’re not alone.  Executive Directors play numerous roles in organizations:  chief strategist, program evaluator, ambassador, fundraiser, financial leader, board convener, community face and, in some cases, office manager and technology expert.  Above all, they tend to model the way by being a positive force – inspiring a shared vision that the organization can indeed accomplish its mission.  This work can be exhausting.  Having peers to let the guard down, lift up the curtain and explore those areas that might be a little less than “perfect” in their organization can be rejuvenating.

Ultimately, it is a reminder, that no one of us has all the answers, but collectively we can support each other and ensure that we advance our organization’s mission by delivering exceptional impact in a financially viable manner and – along the way – it doesn’t have to be so lonely at the top.

Spectrum Nonprofit Services’ Principal Steve Zimmerman co-facilitated the Executive Director Intensive with Marla Cornelius.


(Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash)