To understand a day in the life of a nonprofit executive director just imagine Billy Joel singing “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with alternative lyrics by a frantic nonprofit leader.

Board meetings, Overflowing Inboxes, Staff Shortages, Grant Deadlines, and If I May, Golf Tournaments, What Else Do I Have to Say?

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No, we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

As nonprofit leaders, we face the same challenges and perform the same balancing acts. Here is a sampling of major job responsibilities and tips to successfully “fight the fire.”


Executive Director vs Board Chair. Here is an article on the distinctions.

Tips: You and your Board Chair must clearly and respectfully understand each other’s role.

Schedule one-on-one meetings.

Take care of your own physical and mental health. Schedule time for yourself.

Promotion from Program or Fundraising Director to Executive Director.

Tips: Acknowledge the difficult and uncomfortable transition.

Work with a coach to help you with your new role.


Have a working understanding of all facets of operations and staff management.

Tips: Have a trusted senior leadership team.

Require regular reporting.

Schedule consistent team meetings.

Invest in legal and HR expertise.


The board is ultimately responsible for the financial success of the nonprofit.

Tips: Understand their point of view and provide guidance and/or training on fundraising.

Work with Board Chair to ensure all board members contribute a gift that is meaningful to them. 

Keep ethics in the forefront of all fundraising.

Board Management

The Board of Directors is the portfolio for the Executive Director.

Tips: Cultivate board members with regular communications.

Solicit their advice on strategic issues.

Work with Board Chair on regular board governance training.


The Executive Director must understand all aspects of the budget and financial reports.

Tips: If this is not in your skillset, take a class or have a trusted, knowledgeable colleague tutor you.

Hire an experienced bookkeeper.


Protect your organization by being up-to-date on all federal and state regulations. 

Tips: Subscribe to relevant communications by governmental agencies.

Contract with a knowledgeable accountant or CPA firm.

That is a lot on one person’s plate. I know, I’ve been there. There were never enough hours in the day to tackle everything. In fact, I often saw more sparks leading to more fires as the week went on.

The danger of having too many fires to deal with is that you will experience your own burnout. You literally can’t continue at the same pace. Something has to give.

Having experienced serious workplace burnout, I’ve learned how to better balance work and home life. It’s a careful balancing act but instead of a perfect balance, I’ve come to accept some days will tilt more in one direction. And that is ok. Taking care of myself has become a priority.

Obviously, there is much more to a day in the life of a director, and numerous distractions don’t help, but there are positive ways to manage the workload. Get connected to other nonprofit leaders in your area and be sure to set health boundaries for yourself. 

Check out more articles by Michelle here.