In the past it tended to be an informal position held by another leadership executive that was the Executive Director’s go-to person for help, but because more is being asked of Executive Directors these days there is a greater need for a more formal nonprofit COO role now to help handle these added expectations.
So, let’s jump in and figure out what a nonprofit COO does and what an ideal COO looks like:
A COO Job Description
A COO is also sometimes referred to as the associate director, deputy director, or director of operations. They will work with finance, HR, marketing, and any number of other areas where there is overlap to make important decisions related to things like budgets, staffing, and volunteers. In some cases, a COO role is meant to be a separate role indefinitely, while in other cases, it is carved out as a way to help train up a new leader to replace the Executive Director in the future when their exit is planned.
The role can be (and often is) highly tailored to fit the organization’s needs, which means that there is not a single “nonprofit COO job description template” to follow. Instead, a nonprofit COO’s responsibilities and objectives will vary widely from one nonprofit to another and even within a single organization over time as its needs grow.
The size and type of an organization will determine a nonprofit COO’s purview. To understand this more clearly, consider the types of administrative and operational differences that charitable, social welfare, scientific research, religious, recreational, medical, environmental, and political lobbying organizations would have (and that is only naming a few different types of organizations!). Once you consider the full breadth of the types of nonprofit organizations that exist, you can better realize how different a nonprofit COO role can look from one organization to another. As a result, it is critical for nonprofit organizations to meticulously word their COO job posting to ensure the role will meet their needs and for candidates to carefully read a nonprofit COO job description to ensure that it will meet theirs.
In every instance, though, a nonprofit’s goal is to use the role of a COO help the Executive Director cover the duties required to ensure effective management of the overall organization. With that in mind, a COO is typically defined as the Executive Director’s second in command.
However, in some instances a nonprofit may decide that a distributed leadership model is going to be the best structure. In these cases, creating a COO role may help accomplish that objective by making the CEO/ED and COO equal partners in leading the organization. Using a distributed leadership model allows an organization to share responsibilities in any number of combinations to suit the individual strengths, skillsets, and passions of both leaders.
The Chief Operating Officer’s Role
A clearly defined role is a critical component of any COO’s success. So, to speak more to what a COO may do in a nonprofit organization, the role typically fits into one of the following general buckets:
Conversely, some COOs oversee all the nonprofit’s programs and leave the operational and administrative oversight to their Executive Director. In this model, all the program managers will report up to the COO. The COO then will ensure that all programs are properly funded, efficiently managed, and appropriately aligned to meet the organization’s overall mission.
In the last option the COO oversees all of these aspects with full authority over all internal functions. Under this model the Executive Director is a publicly-oriented role (what you might call the “face of the organization”) – focusing on external matters like fundraising, grant awards, collaborating with other organizations, forming strategic partnerships, and public relations. As such, this is typically a model that is only found in larger organizations where there is a significant public presence.
But regardless of how the role is structured, the COO will be in meetings with the rest of the executive leadership team and the board to collaborate on the long-term strategic vision for the organization and then execute on that vision in conjunction with the managers and program leaders below them.
However, these types of roles only address organizational structures where the COO is the Executive Director’s second in command. As previously mentioned, a distributed leadership model can complicate the breakdown of responsibilities among the Executive Director and the COO. Using this type of leadership approach may see lines drawn along any number of delineators, with the most common being a COO is responsible for what the organization is doing today while the Executive Director is responsible for what the organization plans to do tomorrow, and the fundraising needed to do so. When the Executive Director and COO are equals, there are myriad ways to break up the vast responsibilities of running the organization.
The Perfect COO
An almost 20-year old Harvard Business Review article about COOs in the private sector provides this spectacular summary of what the ideal COO looks like that has stood the test of time: “Asking the question, ‘What makes a great COO?’ is akin to asking ‘What makes a great candidate for U.S. vice president?’ It all depends on the first name on the ticket—the CEO.”
In this same regard, what makes someone great in a COO role will vary widely from role to role. What is critical to success at one organization, may be optional (or even a hinderance) at another. It all depends on how the role is defined. When you browse through our current nonprofit executive job openings you will see a wide range of preferred life and professional experiences, required skillsets, and work expectations across COO, Executive Director, and Program Director roles. Therefore, the best COO is the right COO for your organization’s unique needs.
But no matter who you hire into the role, communication is key. A COO cannot excel in their role without strong communication with their Executive Director as well as and their board.
When you need to hire nonprofit leadership, please reach out to us! Our experienced team of nonprofit executive recruiters understands how to find the right leadership for your organization. Let us come alongside your team today to get the best person into the role you need to fill.
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