This is the third post in the “A Conversation With” series, where I interview talented people about their areas of expertise focused on nonprofits.

Bernadette Mack, known as the executive director’s BFF, is a consultant and coach to nonprofit leaders. We discussed the struggles facing nonprofit leaders today, her passion for preventing executive directors and other social-preneurs burn-out, the first step in the transformational journey and 3 actions to take today to feel empowered. I hope you enjoy her insights! 

Tell me a little bit about your mission and how you got involved with nonprofit leadership coaching.

There could be an expression in the nonprofit industry: Friends don’t let friends become executive directors. I’ve worked with and for nonprofit organizations of every shape and size for over 20 years and the sentiment I hear most is how unnecessarily difficult it is to be a nonprofit leader. Great people end up leaving the field because they feel beat up and burned out. I’m a former executive director myself, and so I understand those challenges – but I also understand how critical nonprofit work and good leadership are to our society. So, I’m here to help prevent executive directors and other social-preneurs from burning out.

There are so many amazing coaches out in the world for business people and entrepreneurs and I believe that nonprofit leaders need that type of attention, too. They need encouragement and support for their specific needs…and that go beyond the latest fundraising trends or the issues du jour.

What are some common struggles that you see facing nonprofit leaders today?

As I see it, there are three main struggles that leaders of small to medium nonprofits share – and they are the same regardless of industry:

  • Dysfunction. When the systems and/or culture create conditions inside the organization that do not support progress and success, no amount of strategy or bright ideas will make a difference.
  • Distraction. NPOs generally have limited resources by nature. Because of this, it is crucial that they have laser focus when it comes to accomplishing their missions. Falling into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone keeps well-intentioned organizations from making a meaningful impact in one or two main areas. Also, distractions from “people problems” result in an extraordinary amount of wasted time and effort.
  • Disempowerment. Many organizational leaders have trouble understanding or demonstrating the proper distinctions between management and governance. This causes a whole host of issues between boards and staff and can ultimately affect the organization’s ability to function at its best. Disempowered leaders are bad for business.

And why are you so passionate to change this?

My passion comes directly from my lived experience as the executive director of an international membership association. Throughout my years there we experienced tremendous growth and I learned the lessons of a lifetime about the roles that organizational culture and leadership empowerment play in the success of a team. My passion is compounded every time I hear a friend say, “I’ll never go back to being an executive director again.” That’s a loss for everyone – the world needs smart, talented people in these positions. Nonprofits support the greater good; doing that kind of work should be fulfilling and inherently positive. Being an executive director or CEO has the potential to be the best job or career of a person’s life, but for so many, it just isn’t.

What do you suggest to your clients as the first step in their transformation journey?

Stop Doing & Think. This is probably the polar opposite of what every other coach or motivational quote will tell you, but nonprofit leaders are notorious for trying to do it all. They are almost always buried in tasks – with their noses to the grindstone and, to mix metaphors, trying to keep their heads above water. Nonprofit work gives people a chance to develop a wide and diverse set of skills – but neverending tactical to-do lists can keep executive directors from doing the big-picture, critical thinking work that needs to be done. Spending time on strategy, vision, and relationship building should not be a luxury – they are critical aspects of a leadership role. Unfortunately, it’s the people who can’t look up from their desks long enough to read this article that are the ones who need to hear it most. And I know because I was once one of them.

What are some specific roadblocks you watch out for with your clients?

Roadblocks are very unique to each person and organization because they are most often mindset-related, systems-related, or culturally-related – and they aren’t always easy to spot or fix at the surface. Dysfunctional cultural norms, for example, are a breeding ground for personality issues, disempowering systems, and often highly-nuanced interpersonal issues. I teach leaders how to start creating the favorable conditions they need in order to do their best work and stay sane along the way.

What are 3 specific action steps nonprofit leaders can take today to feel empowered?

  • Recognize that empowerment comes from within. You can increase your own feelings of empowerment and then help others support it. If you’re waiting for someone else to empower you, I’m afraid you’ve missed the whole point of empowerment.
  • Realize that influence is your currency. The reason you want to be and feel empowered is so that you can increase your level of influence and, ultimately, make a bigger impact.
  • Reflect on your own personal mission in life and how it intersects with the work you do. Understanding a broader and more holistic definition of your own purpose can fuel stronger feelings of empowerment and the desire to create a sustainable, satisfying work environment.

What are some of your favorite books, podcasts, or blogs in nonprofit leadership? 

I read and listen A LOT – but not necessarily to nonprofit-specific content. I encourage leaders to look beyond the traditional nonprofit info (there’s so much out there and not all of it is relevant for nonprofits of the future) and consume content that is going to strengthen their own personal and career development, adapt approaches from other industries, and expand their ideas of what’s possible. That said, I think anyone in a leadership position can benefit from listening to Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast and her book Dare to Lead. You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero should also be required reading for anyone who needs empowering encouragement.

Where can people connect with you online?

Here are three ways to become BFFs with Bernadette Mack:

You can find me at or on social @therealbernmack. You can also jump onto my B-mail list and/or connect with me on LinkedIn.

I am a web designer for small businesses, solopreneurs, and nonprofits. Like you, I find myself with only so many hours in a day to get things done. Website design, marketing and tech tools are my thing and I am truly passionate about you get the best results without all the tech overwhelm. Let’s chat and see how I can help you.