Non-Profit Executive Director Support Groups: FAQs

Let’s be honest: being a good non-profit executive is lonely. There are often subjects about which the leader cannot confide in even with the best board member or staff team player.
Here’s one way for committed organizational leaders to build confidence, avoid re-inventing the wheel, and get help solving problems: participation in a non-profit executive support group.

Think of it as peer-to-peer mentoring.

Do non-profit executive support groups currently exist? Yes. They are sometimes established by a formal entity, like Denver’s Executive Leadership Institute. Or, leaders can organize them on their own.

What are they like? Think of them as informal peer-to-peer mentoring within an ongoing, trusted group. They are usually small in size—eight to ten is best. They meet regularly—often monthly—and at a set time, usually for 60 – 90 minutes. Their cost is minimal and you won’t have to consume time in planning or maintenance.

What are criteria for joining? Generally speaking, the participants are all current non-profit executive directors or CEOs. Over time, members might transition to a different status, but initially they all share the experience of being the top staff leader of a non-profit organization.

Do these groups allow newcomers? Yes, but with a caveat: one of the characteristics of the more successful groups is that their membership is stable. They don’t have big turnover so newcomers are infrequent. This stability helps the leaders support each other more efficiently. If their numbers get low they’ll invite new people in, of course. And new groups establishing themselves will be actively on the lookout for members.

Don’t the leaders compete with each other? Yes, and in fact they’re often in the same non-profit industry, pursuing the same resources and seeking to brand their own organizations. Here’s the shocker: it’s not a problem (groups where it proves a problem are going about things wrong). In fact, some of the best funding opportunities come from working together to achieve the same support. Occasionally, leaders work together to improve the funding landscape for collective issues. This was definitely the case I experienced as chairperson with the other executive leaders in the Youth Mentoring Collaborative.

If I want to start a group of my own, what is integral to success? Most importantly, the group must be a safe place to talk; confidentiality is key. Also, relationships matter, so if you’re forming a new group, first connect with one to three other leaders with whom you work well. Then, you can each invite several more. Also, participants in existing groups relate that they were more committed to the group if they were rewarded immediately with valuable input and support. It whets their appetite for more.

How do you handle confidential issues? There’s a confidentiality agreement statement—stick to it. When a new member joins, go around the room and talk about what that agreement means.

What’s the secret sauce for staying together? Trust. Also real time advice and counsel and thoughtfulness. Having someone to talk with about the varied and complex challenges and opportunities we face is the glue holding the group together. Members feel support and experience professional development that builds confidence to make decisions. The knowledge that all the leaders have gone through many of same problems is powerful.

Where does the group meet? The group needs privacy. Often one of the group’s conference rooms works well. Don’t make it complicated: provide coffee and water and that’s enough. Participants can brown bag it if they work better over food.

Do the meetings use formal agendas? They can be formalized but, again, don’t make this one more meeting somebody needs to brainstorm, plan, and worry about executing. Often the most important discussions aren’t ever on an agenda. Instead, try a format for each meeting the first time and try not to vary that. If the group goes off on a tangent, consider self-imposed time limits. Maybe one person could step in to facilitate.

Some groups might decide there’s a theme for the year, or month, or quarter—in addition to real-time problem solving with each other. Maybe it’s about board work, financial stability, HR issues.

Are there any shared costs? Few to none. This experience is about time together, not financial resources.

What about 1:1 coaching? Some leaders use both the support group and an individual coach. A big benefit to forming a group is the shared expertise, whereas the benefit of the one-on-one coaching is the personalization.

The above information is a synthesis of several groups’ experiences. Thanks to Bebe Kleinman, CEO of Doctors Care. and Carlo Kriekels, co-founder and executive director to the YESS Institute As Bebe said, “I wouldn’t be the CEO if I didn’t have my group to go to with so many issues and questions.”

Mary Hanewall, Hanewall Resources LLC, provides interim and other consulting and coaching services to non-profit leaders. 303-668-1336