The Difference Between an Executive Director & a Chief Operating Officer in a Nonprofit


More nonprofits are hiring stronger senior management as the work of nonprofits becomes more professionalized, the environment for funding more competitive, and demand from funders and the public alike grows for organizations to be well-run. Some nonprofits hire a formal chief operating officer, or COO. In other nonprofits, the COO role might be carried out by staff with the title of deputy or associate director.

Executive Director Role

Although executive director is commonly used in the nonprofit sector, a nonprofit's top leader might also have the title president or chief executive officer. A chief executive officer's, or executive director's, role includes establishing the nonprofit's goals and policies as well as maintaining proper handling of the nonprofit's budgets and accounting, ensuring that its other resources are used properly and that programs are carried out soundly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. The nonprofit's board oversees the work of the executive director.

A nonprofit executive director is also externally focused and is an advocate for any needed change in the organization's mission, is a visionary and decision-maker, and guides the nonprofit's fundraising, according to Carter McNamara of the Free Management Library. While the executive director has overall accountability for the nonprofit's work, a chief operating officer is delegated several, specific internally focused responsibilities, the bureau says. The COO is the second in command in the organization.

COO Role

A COO's responsibilities might include monitoring the work of the nonprofit's various department heads and making sure the organization's internal operating policies are closely followed, according to the bureau. However, Bridgestar notes that both the COO roles and the organizational structures under which they work vary widely. A COO position is particularly tailored to meet an organization's needs and can change over time. A COO, for example, might never have had responsibility for the nonprofit's technology department but might start overseeing its daily operations when new computers and software systems are being installed across the organization.

United Front

In some nonprofits, the COO strictly oversees operations and administrative functions and has no responsibility for monitoring the nonprofit's programs. In other nonprofits, the reverse is true. Bridgestar reports that an executive director/COO relationship that ensures an organization runs smoothly is one in which the nonprofit's executive director fully supports the COO and delegates real authority to the COO and each leader feels a strong sense of trust and level communication with the other. In addition, they are able to act as a united team.

Making the Transition

COOs who move up to the position of executive director report that it requires a dramatic adjustment from internal to external matters, that the responsibilities are less concrete and their job changes from managing the daily work of the nonprofit to developing strategy, leadership ability and external relationships, such as with funders, according to Bridgestar.

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