Executive director jobs focus on improving lives, bottom line

Executive directors may be perceived as nonprofit “do-gooders,” but they’re OK with that. Their goal is to change the world for the better and a large part of their motivation when they sought an executive director position. 

Consider Jo Ann Jenkins, the head of AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, based in Washington, D.C.; Abilgail Dillen of San Francisco-based Earthjustice; and Marc Suzman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle. Each are heads of nonprofits, yet impact the nation or world on a grand scale. Ms. Jenkins and AARP advocate for the nation’s 55.8 million people age 65 and older. Ms. Dillen brings many successful lawsuits that protect our environment during an age of climate change. Mr. Suzman judiciously manages and spends large portions of the Gates’ sizable endowment on initiatives that include gender equality, global health, education, science and technology, among others around the globe.

While these seasoned professionals have worked for years to reach these lofty positions, as have  thousands of others involved in nonprofit and corporate enterprises, many started as attorneys, businessmen, public servants, volunteers and many other vocations. They simply cared and tried to make a difference. Do you have what it takes to pursue executive director opportunities? Read on.


What is an executive director? What are executive director positions responsible for?

Executive director positions are typically thought of as a product of the nonprofit sector, but this is not necessarily the case. An executive director or chief executive (you’ve heard that before) reports to a board of directors and is responsible for the financial and operational performance of a company or organization. An executive director may also be a chief executive of a large division within an even larger entity, such as an executive director of an investment fund within a larger firm, or an executive director of an institute or research center within a university context. 

That said, executive director jobs are usually associated with not-for-profit organizations like most associations, trade groups and charities.

A recent Forbes.jobs story regarding the growing need and interest in executive director positions shows the best opportunities in the healthcare sector; on an interim basis through executive search firms; within industrial manufacturing and specialty trades; trade associations and B2B companies such as legal, CPA and marketing firms; financial investments; and in private education at all levels including higher education. If a nonprofit, executive director positions will be engaged in identifying potential donors or partner donor companies. They will collect and measure the impact of the funds and report all donations.


Is there much demand for executive director positions? Are companies or nonprofits hiring?

Ben Bonnell of executive search firm Morgan Benjamin Search Group said Baby Boomers are retiring at an “incredible rate,” and Gen Z is not nearly the same size, which is “creating a labor shortage for years to come” at all levels including at the executive director level. Bonnell said companies led by Baby Boomer and even older Generation X generations will look to replace executive director roles when they retire, creating opportunities for qualified individuals. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports significant churn each year within the executive ranks, including executive directors. BLS says that nearly 320,000 within this group leave their position each year for one reason or another including retirement, as directed by a board, or for personal reasons. Bonnell and BLS see good opportunities for seasoned professionals seeking executive director jobs of the foreseeable future.


What kind of experience, specialty training or education is required for executive director jobs?

It depends of the type of work or industry, but most executive directors will have at least 10 years of experience in the field of interest when seeking an executive director opportunity. Many have advanced degrees in law, business or public administration or health. If engaged with advocacy or lobbying at the national level, they may be registered lobbyists or lead a team with those credentials.

The bottom line is that they care deeply about the group and issues they pursue. Their passion drives them above all else. Consider consulting with a Forbes.jobs executive recruiter to check your qualifications and personality for executive director positions, perhaps even on an interim basis. 

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