Married Co-Executive Directors: Couples in Life and at Work

Would only a crazy (and crazy-in-love) married couple want to be co-executive directors? On the other hand, what organization wouldn't want two full-time staff for the price of one? We spoke with two such couples...here's how they experience this unique type of job sharing:

"We heard about the job at Options Schools and decided to apply for it as co-executive directors. They thought it would at least be interesting to talk to us!" This position is, in fact, Dave and Paulette Hassell's fifth job as co-directors. They had begun in the Peace Corps serving five terms as co-directors in countries including Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea.

"We've always applied for one position together, and make it clear we understand it is one salary," says Paulette. "It does cost them a little more, for example, if there's a conference that we think we should both go to." Dave adds wryly, "It's not quite a two-fer, but it basically is."

Benefits to the nonprofit:

  • Almost two full-time people for one salary
  • Better cross-fertilization between programs (more information is shared and absorbed)
  • Ability for the executive director to be in two locations at once, such as one working in the office and one advocating at the state capital
  • Some staff will naturally feel more comfortable with one or the other. "But we make it clear that if you talk to one of us, you've talked to both of us," says Paulette.
  • The executive position gets two heads (that can be better than one). Though Paulette is careful to add, "We're alert to the tendency of groupthink."

Another couple

JW and Jenny Rone (pictured above) share executive duties at the Beaufort County Arts Council in South Carolina, where they applied to share one executive director job. They actually met each other as volunteers for a different arts council; when they applied for this job Jenny was leaving her American craft gallery and JW was transitioning from 35 years as a street-performing juggler and fire-eater (!). "We're crazy enough to sacrifice ourselves for our passion in the arts," sighs Jenny. JW says it differently: "We're idiots for the arts."

Both couples claim that they don't bring work disagreements into family life and vice versa. And all four individuals can't be stopped from talking about their love of the work and the people and the causes. They each clearly live their work and are deeply committed to service.

Who can sign checks?

"Only JW can sign checks," says Jenny. In contrast, both Dave and Paulette have signature authority, but neither signs reimbursement checks for the other: those go to a board member.

What happens when you disagree on a work matter?

"In reality," remarks JW, "whoever feels the most strongly usually wins out." "We stop and re-think it," says Paulette.

Is it fun to work with your spouse?

"Sometimes there's great joy," says Jenny, even though they often resort to English muffins for dinner at 11:30 pm. "We can celebrate the impacts together; we feel like together we are making magic." Says Dave: "We really enjoy being together!"

How difficult is living on one salary?

"Of course there are times you wish your salary were higher, but, to be honest, what we do is more important than what we get. As long as we're able to meet our basic obligations in life, rewarding work takes precedence for us," says Dave. States Jenny: "The financial sacrifice you make as a couple is huge, but no one quite understands it. If the organization had two people who were not married working full-time for one salary, everyone would see that it's a sacrifice."

And how will your organizations find two incredibly dedicated people to follow you in one position?

"The truth is we've spoiled the hell out of them," laugh JW and Jenny. Both couples agree that their organizations hope to grow so that two salaries might be possible, but that hasn't happened. Paulette and Dave see spousal co-directorships as a mechanism that more organizations and individuals should explore: "We've heard stories of disasters, of course," says Dave, "but it works in many instances, too. It might work well for co-finance directors or co-program directors. Maybe for people towards the ends of their careers."

As this article goes to press, Paulette and Dave are leaving Options Schools to be co-directors for Save the Children in Lebanon. Our thanks to these two couples for sharing their experiences with Blue Avocado.

See some other First Person Nonprofit stories in Blue Avocado:

Comments (5)

  • Anonymous

    It would be interesting to hear from staff members of these organizations how this "co-parenting" :) arrangement affects their own work. Having worked in small "family run" for-profit businesses in the past, I don't recommend working in such a set-up, unless you have to. As well, nonprofits with family members in various positions of authority are often hotbeds of discomfort and dysfunction for the rest of the staff.

    Jul 13, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I agree with "Anonymous". My husband and I have worked as Co-CEOs for 20 years in a non-profit that we started overseas (So. America). Our working together has REALLY tested and tried our marriage. I have found it difficult to NOT let a personal issue spill over into our work, and vice-versa. It also becomes uncomfortable for staff when my husband or I don't do what we are supposed to do, or we disagree strongly - we always have to watch our "behavior" in staff meetings.

    So - there are lots of benefits to this arrangement, but also lots of pitfalls - and I don't know that I would recommend it - each couple has to test it for themselves. I would have appreciated a little more depth in the article - but do enjoy the variety of articles in Blue Avocado. Thank you!

    Jul 14, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I once worked at an agency where the Executive Director's spouse was hired to direct a program within the agency. No one knew the spouse and "agreed" when asked if it was an okay direction to take.

    However, it turned out to be the most difficult working arrangement I've ever experienced. The ED could not make any decision about programs that the spouse had nothing to do with without the spouse's complete approval - and the spouse knew it. It was an awful mess after the spouse's arrival, people were pushed out, fired or otherwise berated by the spouse.

    After having invested many years of my career in an agency, building a solid reputation for providing quality service, I ultimately left with a mildly marred reputation and my tail between my legs on account of spouse. I will never again work in such an environment.

    I've also been involved with another agency as a patron that has hired an entire family, two of four of them in positions of authority. Another staff member, not a family member, is on the Board. While we no longer use their services I, because of the experience described above, completely understand that old saying "blood is thicker than water". The agency is not open about their staff relationships. Once I found out about them I always wondered what I wasn't being told by the agency, and what the family would do to protect one another from accusations, to keep certain aspects of the daily life at the agency secret, etc. Had I known of the nepotism I may not have chosen to use this agency as a service provider. -Been there, done that - no thanks!

    Jul 20, 2010
  • Anonymous

    "cross-fertilization between programs" black humor?

    "Some staff will naturally feel more comfortable with one or the other. "But we make it clear that if you talk to one of us, you've talked to both of us," says Paulette." And the Boards allow this. Just friggin great. I hope the organization has one hell of a grievance policy -- outside the organization.

    Oct 10, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Although these couples obviously think this is a great arrangement, it is not healthy for the staff working with them.

    This creates confusion and many conversations have to be repeated twice. The co-directors have different personalities and react diiferently to different situations...again confusion for staff.

    Very bad idea....

    Dec 20, 2010

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