Risers, founders, planners and fillers: 4 career paths to get to the top at nonprofits

Christopher Justin Einolf, Associate Professor of Sociology, Northern Illinois University, The Conversation on

Published in Business News

“I initially did not desire to take the job,” one said. “I think I was motivated by my peers and those around me who really encouraged me to apply, so I would say I became an executive director as much because other people believed in me and thought I would do a good job, than that I thought I would do a good job.”

Ten of the 41 executive directors founded their nonprofit – instantly landing the top job. Their previous careers included government official, retail manager, business executive and full-time volunteer.

Only five of the executive directors had made conscious decisions earlier in their careers to pursue their current positions. Realizing that they had the potential to lead an organization, they took relevant management courses and took on new jobs within their organization to intentionally round out their experience. Many rose through the ranks with their supervisors’s support.

“There were a lot of gaps in my knowledge, and so I did a lot of work for about two or three years to shore up some of those gaps – things like finance and human resources and things like that,” one said. “I was very clear with (my boss) … and she championed me and made sure that I was ready and prepared to take on the role.”

Three executive directors in my study had previously served as board members or volunteers, rather than as an employee of their organization. When the previous director either left before a successor had been hired or was fired – leaving a leadership vacuum in their wake – they had agreed, when asked, to take over.

As one filler recalled, he became an executive director “because I had to.” But “at the same time, I was looking to do something different with my career and wanting something more service-oriented. And so when the two things met, it just kind of made sense for me to step in.”

These different kinds of leaders, however, did have several traits in common.

They all said they took the position – running community development organizations, women’s shelters, tutoring programs and food pantries – because of their dedication to helping others.

Most said they welcomed the opportunity to influence how their nonprofit did its work. Some pursued the position out of a desire for personal success. Only a few were attracted by the salary, even though executive directors earn more than their colleagues.


While most of the executive directors in the study had graduate degrees, only a few had degrees in nonprofit management. Most led organizations that lacked formal leadership training programs. In this regard, nonprofits lag behind many companies and government agencies that train future leaders through courses, work rotations, temporary details and mentoring.

In recent years, more universities have begun to offer nonprofit management degrees. But that coursework may not yet be making a big difference. Like the people I surveyed for this study, most executive directors begin to pursue the position later in life – when they do not have the time to pursue a new advanced degree.

In my view, there is much more that the nonprofit sector can do to ensure that crucial top positions are occupied by well-trained individuals.

Boards can direct the organizations they oversee to train future leadership and promote from within. Funders can support leadership training. And colleges and universities can foster more certificate programs that provide mid-career training.

No matter how nonprofit executive directors reach their position – as risers, founders, planners or fillers – the job requires management know-how. Getting a clearer picture of how they get to the top, and what they learn along the way, could encourage nonprofit leaders to develop the skills they need.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Christopher Justin Einolf, Northern Illinois University. News from experts, from an independent nonprofit. Try our free newsletters.

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Christopher Justin Einolf does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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