Running a nonprofit organization can be one of the most rewarding positions you'll ever have. You will have the chance to use your skills and experience to do something good for your community; however, landing these executive jobs can be more challenging than you might expect. Plus, you may be surprised at how demanding such a job can be.
There are two primary paths to becoming the executive director of a nonprofit organization. The most common is to be chosen by the organization's board of directors to head up the facility. Alternatively, you can work on founding your own nonprofit group.
You will need the same types of qualifications in either case if you are going to be successful in the position. For starters, you should expect to have at least a bachelor's degree. Advanced degrees, however, will dramatically increase your chances of being chosen for such a position. While there is no set area of study that will better prepare you for the challenge over another, you may want to consider a degree in public administration, business, marketing, public relations, or even communications. Education and social work are also very good choices, especially if you would be interested in working with nonprofits that are associated with those fields.
More than half of nonprofit executive jobs are held by people with advanced degrees, so furthering your education would be a good choice if this is your ultimate goal. Less than 10% of those advanced degrees, however, are in business.
Besides having the right educational background, you will also need to have previous management experience. The majority of nonprofit directors have had this type of experience in the private sector or in government. You do not necessarily need previous management experience with a nonprofit, although if you have already been working with a particular organization for an extended period of time, you will certainly have an advantage.
Differences between Private and Nonprofit Executive Jobs
The most obvious difference between private and nonprofit executive jobs, in most cases, is going to be salary. While some nonprofits can afford to pay their executive directors handsomely, most still earn considerably less than their counterparts in the private sector. The average salary is around $90,000 in nonprofit organizations with annual budgets ranging from $5 million to $10 million.
Besides the financial differences, most executive jobs in the nonprofit sector are going to require a lot more of you. Most people in these positions have to be prepared to wear multiple hats because the organizations don't have the manpower or the budgets to have other people handle the necessary tasks required to run the operation successfully.
With a nonprofit, the executive director usually handles most of the planning and marketing for the organization. You may also be directly responsible for telecommunications, finances, property management, and information management. That means you will need a working knowledge of all of these aspects of business. Clearly, being a well-rounded individual will be a major plus with these executive jobs.
In addition to all of the above responsibilities, you will also probably be the main person handling the fundraising activities for the organization. You may be charged with creating new approaches for generating funds or with making current approaches more effective. If you don't have a firm grasp of fundraising and how to make the public take an interest in your organization, then not only will you not be successful in the position, but the nonprofit may falter under your leadership.
While the differences between the private and the nonprofit sectors seem to suggest that anyone choosing the latter, with its lower pay and greater responsibilities, might be a bit crazy, we have so far neglected to discuss the biggest benefit of nonprofit work: the sense of doing something good for others. Even though studies show that most people who have served as executive directors of nonprofits at one time would not hold a similar position again, more than 85% of those people found working in nonprofit executive jobs to be highly satisfying despite these challenges.
Characteristics of a Good Nonprofit Executive Director
Clearly, a non-profit executive director must be well-equipped to handle a wide range of job activities. Anyone who plans to take over the role for a nonprofit and have an easy time will be disappointed.
To be successful in this challenging role, you must possess strong leadership skills. Everyone in the organization will be looking to you for guidance, so you must be able to make sound decisions and to motivate the rest of the team to follow through with those decisions.
Having good listening and communication skills is also a necessity. You need to hear what others on your staff, as well as the public, have to say, because they can be a source of useful feedback and information. You also need to know how to express your ideas verbally and in writing with confidence and effectiveness. While individuals in the private sector may be able to hire copywriters to prepare speeches and similar materials, you will most likely be responsible for these tasks on your own.
Another key is flexibility. Because the demands of your executive job will be changing almost daily, you need to be able to ''roll with the punches.'' If you are too set in your ways or resistant to change, you will have a hard time dealing with the pressures of your work.
Time management skills would also be a plus. Often you will be juggling dozens of tasks at one time. All of them will be important to the organization, but you will need to decide which to focus on first. A related skill here is the ability to delegate. If you attempt to do everything on your own, you will quickly become overwhelmed and will be unable to get anything accomplished. Some tasks will need your attention but others may be better handled by other members of your team — knowing the difference is crucial.