10 Things in 10 Years: Lessons from a Nonprofit Executive Director

Mira Signer NAMI Virginia Client Spotlight

**This is a special guest post from Mira Signer, Executive Director of NAMI Virginia, one of our long term clients.

When I started as the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia in 2007, it was just four months after the Virginia Tech tragedy, where 32 students and faculty were killed and many others injured, by a young student with untreated mental illness. The mental health advocacy community was raw, hurting, and unorganized. NAMI Virginia had not had an executive director for several years. On my first day, I walked into a small office that had an old computer, two telephones, two part-time staff members, and a budget of $170,000. I loved the organization’s mission and knew there was a lot of work to do to repair wounded relationships, build the grassroots affiliates, strengthen the organization’s advocacy work, and grow new education and anti-stigma initiatives.

Ten years later, as I depart the organization for a new venture, I look back with a lot of pride on what I was able to accomplish: nurtured the Board through growing pains and ultimately supported their growth into a strong, sustainable Board; grew our budget nearly 300% and diversified funding sources; expanded our educational initiatives that reached 23,000 Virginians in 2016; led campaigns to change laws and increase funding to transform the mental health care system, and hired an amazingly dedicated cadre of talented staff. In the ten years I was with NAMI Virginia, I learned a lot, did a lot, grew a lot, and made a lot of mistakes.

The Top 10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years

1.    Thank people. In person, on the phone, in writing. It doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. It needs to be genuine. Thank the volunteers, your staff, the Board, your donors, people who help you out when you’re in a pinch. Make time every week to say thank you. I carve out about 30 minutes each week to thank people with a handwritten note. This doesn’t include the time I spend on the phone making regular thank you calls to donors, board members, and other supporters. It’s like voting- do it often and do it early: thank the people who are helping you be where you are and giving their time and efforts to the organization’s mission. Sometimes you will even get a thank you note for your thank you note and it’s the best feeling ever.

2.    Be careful of how fast you grow. On my first day, we had two part time staff, two phones, and a computer. Within three years I had hired two full-time staff members. Within another three years, we had grown to a staff of six. That’s a lot of growth in a short period of time. Growth is generally good but smart growth is even better. Make sure the way you are growing makes sense. We waited until my 7th year to hire a Director of Development - should have done it sooner! When you do grown, make sure you have the infrastructure in place to support the people who are doing the work. Adequate phone lines, good personnel policies, and a small budget for professional development make a world of difference.

3.    Know that there will be ups. Funding will be up. Programs will be great. You will have great times and do great things. Savor those moments. Keep a folder in your inbox for positive, feel good emails that you can go back and read on the hard days. Because…

4.    There will be downs. Staff will struggle. Your Board will have issues. A new initiative that was going to be amazing will fail. You will be criticized. You will feel ineffective. You will lose funding. Expect that bad times will hit during the course of your tenure. We lost funding at the very end of a fiscal year. It was unexpected and really shook me. An organizational restructure I was planning had to be postponed. I let a vacant position stay vacant for awhile. It was a tough time and I felt disappointed in myself, and I worried that I was letting my staff and the Board down. Which leads me to my next point.

5.    Be willing to be vulnerable. Executive directors are often expected to know everything. After all, we are in charge! People look to us for answers. We know a lot but there is no way we can know everything. I learned that it’s incredibly important to be willing to be vulnerable - to fall on your face and make mistakes. We are pretty talented, hard working, and versatile but we’re also human. Be willing to admit what you don’t know, and seek out guidance from those who do. It’s a sign of authenticity and others will appreciate it.

6.    Ask people what they think and what they want. Then, listen. People want to be heard. They want to share their ideas, tell you what keeps them up at night. Let them have a voice. Ask others what they want, what they don’t want, what they like about what you are doing, what they don’t like. Even if you disagree or ultimately have to go in a different direction, ask and listen. You will learn something from those exchanges. And if nothing else, there is great value in genuinely giving a voice to others.

7.     Take care of yourself. I sometimes say, “I love the first 40 hours of my job. After that, not so much.” Often our work is a calling. We do it because we love the mission, we love the work. We are asked to lead this effort, to join this committee, to attend that event. You are constantly on call and being asked to help out. In short, nonprofit work is not a 40-hour a week job. Even so, there are things you can do to not burn yourself out. First, figure out what your boundaries are (No email on the weekend? No evening meetings? No overnight travel longer than 3 days?) and negotiate that into your day-to-day work plan. For me it meant limiting my evening speaking engagements and being extremely selective about out of town travel. With two children under the age of three, these were critical to my well-being and the well-being of my family. It also meant convincing my Board that we needed to hire a contract lobbyist to perform services during the legislative session, as it was no longer feasible for me to do it alone. Fortunately, it didn’t take much convincing and was a positive experience- one that was appreciated not only by me but also by my family. Other essentials for me included actually eating lunch outside of my office (sometimes alone, other times with friends, and other times lunch dates with my partner) and taking 30 minute walking breaks around the office park - sometimes while on the phone with a donor or reporter but at least I was getting fresh air and exercise. The point is, you must be good to yourself if you are going to perform your job well. Don’t be a martyr and don’t make the mistake of thinking you are too important to take a vacation.

8.     Take care of those around you. This one refers specifically to staff, and I can’t overemphasize how important it is. Staff is a precious commodity and you must take care of them. One of the things I am most proud of is that we revised our personnel policies and were very generous with annual leave, sick leave, and benefits like parental leave. We used to offer about three weeks paid vacation. Sounds pretty typical. We now offer at 4.2 weeks of annual leave for employees who have been here 2 years and under. Employees who have been here 8 years or more earn 6 weeks of annual leave. “That’s a lot! How does anyone ever get anything done?” some people ask. I can tell you that productivity has not been a problem. In fact, I would say that the staff are even more productive because they are motivated by generous benefits. We also updated our parental leave policies and allow for 12 weeks leave for the birth or adoption of a child, with 8 of them being automatically paid (and you can use annual leave or sick leave for the remaining 4). Having two small children, I know the value of a good parental leave policy. I want my staff to feel that their time is valued, that their families are important, and that they are welcomed to take vacation and come back feeling refreshed. Anyone who works in the nonprofit field knows that staff work really hard pretty much all the time- let’s respect that and reward staff generously.

9.     Gather your people. You cannot do this job alone. You should not do this job alone. You must have a cabinet of trusted people you can vent to, talk to, ask questions of, and whose shoulders you can cry on when the going gets rough (it will; see # 4). Even if you work alone, you must identify colleagues in the field who will pick up the phone when you really need them and give you great advice, or be a sounding board. This can be a colleague who also works in the nonprofit field, a former professor, a consultant, or someone else who is simply a great listener. 

10.  Keep the big picture in mind. On the hard days when you’re putting out fires or staring at spreadsheets and nothing is going quite right, it’s easy to wonder what the heck you are doing and what the purpose is. It’s easy to get sucked into the minutiae - after all, there’s a lot of it. Yet it’s critical to keep the big picture in mind and understand why the minutiae is important. I like to keep notes, cards, and letters on my desk and even taped to my window to serve as my guiding star for when I get bogged down and need a reminder of why I do what I do. You also have to develop a practice of mindfully and intentionally keeping focus on your mission and values. This means you must learn how to figure out what to spend your valuable energy on and what to let go. If there is drama (or inertia!) around a particular issue, ask yourself if it’s critical to your mission and where your organization will be in 5-6 months. If the answer is yes or possibly yes, then spend time untangling the drama and problem-solving. If the answer is no, resist the temptation to get involved and focus your attention on what needs you most. You’ll end up having more time and will feel better about your work in the long run. But it takes time and practice. Does your organization run a hotline or serve clients directly? Make time to answer a few hotline calls every week or meet with clients regularly; this will undoubtedly keep you connected to the mission.


The Spark Mill was honored to work with NAMI Virginia on strategic planning, organizational development, and fundraising over the last few years. We will miss Mira as a client, but look forward to the future growth of the organization.