What a nonprofit executive director does and how to become one? 

What a nonprofit executive director does and how to become one? 

Updated: June 24, 2024
6 min read
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The nonprofit sector is an essential component of a healthy society. Leading these companies, however, is challenging and necessitates specific skills and dedication. 

According to the BDO global accounting network, 44% of NGOs struggle to attract top-tier nonprofit executive directors and board members. Moreover, the Stanford Survey on the nonprofit sector revealed that 56% of organizations face difficulties with board governance. 

In this article, we delve into the role of the executive director of nonprofit organizations and why board effectiveness depends on this position.

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What is an executive director of a nonprofit?

A nonprofit executive director, also known as the CEO, is responsible for the organization’s success, board development, and providing strategic guidance. 

In particular, they set the strategic direction, oversee financial management and daily operations (staff, budgets, programs), secure funding, and maintain strong relationships with the board of a nonprofit organization.

What does an executive director of a nonprofit do?

Understanding what an executive director does for a nonprofit requires examining the core aspects of their work:

  1. Strategic planning. They research the community’s needs, analyze trends, and work on strategic plans to keep the nonprofit’s impact going strong.
  2. Operational management. They supervise day-to-day operations and manage resource allocation. This involves supervising employees, budgeting, and maintaining legal compliance.
  3. Fundraising and resource development. One of the most crucial nonprofit executive director responsibilities is securing financial success. It includes creating fundraising strategies, cultivating donor connections, and reviewing grant applications.
  4. Advocacy and public awareness. A nonprofit leader represents the organization’s mission. Thus, they must build awareness about the issues they focus on and push for policy changes.
  5. Board relations. Being a mediator between the board and the employees is another duty of the executive director of a nonprofit. A director reports to the board, gains their advice for long-term decisions, and ensures that the board executes its governance obligations.

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How to be an executive director of a nonprofit: skills and qualifications required

Individuals must possess a specific skill set to perform the duties of an executive director for a nonprofit organization. Let’s explore the main competencies required for this position. 

Leadership skills

Effective executive directors go beyond mere management; they are leaders. What does it mean in practice?

This involves setting goals and allowing individuals to reach their full potential in service of the cause.

Interestingly, the Chief Learning Officer study found that companies prioritize coaching skills (34%), communication (31%), employee engagement (27%), and strategic planning (21%) as essential leadership qualities. While the industry may differ, these core competencies are common for a leader in the nonprofit sector.

Fundraising skills

Fundraising is a constant necessity for nonprofits. Executive directors, therefore, need to possess a keen understanding of best practices in this area. 

The skills are the following:

Financial proficiency

An effective executive director needs strong financial skills. This is a critical aspect of the nonprofit executive director’s roles and responsibilities. However, it goes far beyond fundraising. 

It requires analyzing financial documents such as budgets, balance statements, cash flow reports, and income statements. In addition, a deep understanding of nonprofit tax law, which includes the complexities of 990 forms, financial audits, and compliance regulations.

Challenges for the executive director of a nonprofit

The current economic climate presents significant challenges for the nonprofit sector. Nearly half (46.48%) of U.S. nonprofits identified rising operating expenses as their biggest challenge in a 2023 Statista survey.

In this section, we’ll explore the five most pressing challenges in the executive director’s role.  

Workload imbalance  

Leading a nonprofit organization requires a particular approach to time management. Executives must shift their focus from direct service delivery to controlling the human and financial resources that support such services. In most cases, this change affects freshly appointed executives who have advanced through the ranks and need more hands-on experience.

What is a solution? It’s simply not possible for nonprofit leaders to do everything themselves. Instead, delegate some of the duties to the executive committee or other staff members. 

Board disconnect

Leading a nonprofit is all about teamwork and mutual partnership, especially between new executive directors and the board or community members. Open and honest communication is key here. 

First of all, don’t be afraid to discuss daily operations with the board. What details should you share? What should they know? How often do they want updates? 

Then, consider using board portal software to bridge this gap between the board and the director. By doing this, you can:

  • Establish a secure documentary hub
  • Communicate easily  
  • Assign tasks and track progress
  • Conduct board meetings from anywhere.

Losing sight of the big picture

It’s common for top executives to get caught up in everyday duties and set aside long-term vision. To manage this, focus on strategic planning. 

Regular, even brief, brainstorming and executive session board meetings are safe places to refocus on the organization’s core mission and future direction. 

Compliance issues

Nonprofit CEOs must be aware of complex federal, state, and local fundraising rules. However, failure to comply with these laws can result in fines, loss of tax-exempt status, and reputational damage. 

By the way, this is a critical component of nonprofit executive director evaluation.

It’s fair to say that keeping up with fundraising regulations is a major executive director responsibility in the nonprofit sector. 

The executive director works within the framework of all the rules, from establishing the organization to keeping clean records and financial reports.

Funding fatigue

Sometimes nonprofits experience a decrease in donations from their core supporters. This so-called donor fatigue can happen for several reasons, like concerns about their donations’ impact or economic struggles.

Firstly, express gratitude to donors regularly to strengthen the bond between your organization and its supporters. It also demonstrates your appreciation for their invaluable contributions.

For example, Heifer International, a hunger-fighting nonprofit, is a perfect example. They keep donors engaged with impact updates (newsletters, reports, social media) highlighting the positive change donors make.

Best practices for the executive director role in a nonprofit 

Now, let’s go through some of the best practices for fulfilling your duties as an executive director:

  • Develop strong leadership in your team. Work closely with your board chair to identify prospective candidates and invest in their growth.
  • Start collaborations with other organizations or technology executive directors to combine resources for mutual benefit.
  • Think about the nonprofit executive director succession plan for a smooth transition when the time comes.
  • Attend conferences, workshops, and network with other nonprofit executives to keep up-to-date on the latest developments in the industry.
  • Use data analysis to monitor progress, assess impact, and allocate resources wisely.
  • Adopt a board portal software for secure and transparent communication, document sharing, and meeting management with your board. In fact, It offers more than just secure hub functionality. 

Learn more about best practices for nonprofit boards of directors in our dedicated article.

How can the board portal help a nonprofit executive director?

Nonprofit executive directors face a constant struggle — balancing effective board governance with the reality of tight budgets. Indeed, traditional board meetings, often requiring travel, accommodation, and printed materials, can easily surpass annual expenses exceeding $250,000

That’s why board portals aren’t just about storage; they’re about efficiency. Here’s how iDeals Board transforms the meeting lifecycle for busy executive directors:

  • With virtual meetings and secure access to board materials, directors from all over the world can easily join the board meeting.
  • Create and share digital agendas and board packs in seconds. Directors and board members can then access these materials on demand, from anywhere.
  • Document decisions effortlessly and create meeting minutes with digital note-taking tools.
  • Automatic meeting minutes and action items make it easy to track progress and ensure accountability between meetings.
  • Directors can easily access a complete record of meeting history, past decisions, and assigned tasks.

Key takeaways

  1. Nonprofit executive directors ensure the organization’s success. Responsibilities include strategic planning, fundraising, staff and financial management, and board relations.
  2. Leadership, fundraising, and financial expertise are all essential abilities for the position. 
  3. The main challenges for executive directors are workload imbalance, board disconnect, losing sight of long-term goals, and maintaining compliance.
  4. Great boards are built on strong leadership, teamwork, and technology adoption.
  5. Board portal software can make communication easier and save everyone time.


What does an executive director do for a nonprofit?

The executive director is an outstanding leader and oversees all aspects of the nonprofit, including strategy, fundraising, finances, staff, board relations, and other stakeholders.

Why is succession planning for a nonprofit executive director important?

Its main task is to secure a smooth leadership transition once the executive director leaves. On top of that, it helps recognize and cultivate future leaders for the organization’s stability and future success.

Can a nonprofit have a CEO and executive director?

No. Typically, “CEO” and “executive director” are the same roles in a nonprofit.

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