• Written by Christopher Justin Einolf, Associate Professor of Sociology, Northern Illinois University
Risers, founders, planners and fillers: 4 career paths to get to the top at nonprofits

A nonprofit’s executive director has an important job to do. Typically, no one else contributes more to the organization’s success[1].

Evidence indicates that turnover among these top staffers is high[2] and that nonprofit boards often have trouble finding good candidates[3]. Yet there’s been little research about how people become executive directors or how well-prepared they are for the job.

As a scholar of nonprofits[4], I wanted to help fill that gap. So I interviewed a representative sample of 41 executive directors at social services nonprofits in Chicago. I asked them about why they wanted to become executive directors, the skills they brought with them to the position and the paths they took to the job.

While this was a small sample, these nonprofit leaders were similar to a national sample[5] of executive directors in terms of their gender, education and age, and they were more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. Their nonprofits did work ranging from affordable housing to veterans’ assistance, with annual budgets that ranged from US$100,000 to $15 million.

Every executive director I surveyed followed one of four different career paths[6] to the top. I call them risers, founders, planners and fillers.


Twenty executive directors, nearly half of the whole group studied, rose through the ranks and, in some cases, somewhat reluctantly made it all the way to the top. These leaders said they did not start out intending to become an executive director, nor did they plan their careers with this goal in mind.

Most mentioned that they only developed the intention to be an executive director late in their career, and took the job without having planned to acquire the work experience and skills needed to do it.

“I grew with the organization,” one remembered, “and then was actually asked to lead it. … I really hadn’t been thinking that concretely about it.”

Another executive director told me they rose to the position after their predecessor retired. “I thought it was time for me. I had years under my belt, I had a long history in the community and a great affinity to the community, and I just thought it was time to take the next step.”

Some risers didn’t consider applying for the executive director post until their peers encouraged them to do so.

“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.”

Learning the ropes

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[7] than their colleagues[8].

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[9] and government agencies[10] that train future leaders through courses, work rotations, temporary details and mentoring.

A well-coiffed woman teaches a roomful of professionals.
Management training could aid nonprofit leaders who need more professional development. Cecilie_Arcurs/E+ via Getty Images[11]

Nonprofit management programs

In recent years, more universities have begun to offer nonprofit management degrees[12]. 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.

Authors: Christopher Justin Einolf, Associate Professor of Sociology, Northern Illinois University

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