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Working as an executive director of a nonprofit organization can be very similar to working as the leader of a for-profit business. Depending on the size and type of the nonprofit, the duties might closely mirror what you’d expect of the chief executive officer of any other business. There will be ways in which the roles diverge, however, and understanding the different job descriptions will help you determine which career choice might be best for you.
Business Versus Charitable Nonprofits
Some nonprofits focus on promoting a particular profession or industry, while others seek to do broader public good. A nonprofit trade association, for examples, works to improve the situations of individuals and businesses in a specific industry. A children’s charity, environmental group, research foundation or animal organization is more focused on doing good than promoting business. The roles of executive directors at these types of business and charitable nonprofits require different skills.
Trade Association Executive Director
The job description of an executive director of a trade association includes the day-to-day office management responsibilities of the organization. The executive reports to a board of directors that sets the strategic direction of the organization, but the executive determines how the goals will be met. These executive directors often oversee the organization’s finances with a contractor or staff member and the board’s treasurer. The job includes planning conferences, seminars, board meetings and educational events. An executive director of a trade association is often responsible for membership recruitment, retention and service. He hires, trains, manages and fires staff that oversee functions and departments, such as human relations, accounting, marketing and information technology. If the role includes being the public face of the organization, the executive makes speeches, writes articles and conducts media interviews.
Charity Executive Director
The job description of an executive director of a charity includes most of the same administrative duties of a trade association executive, but includes a much heavier emphasis on fundraising. At small charities, the executive director is often directly responsible for raising funds. At larger organizations, the executive oversees a development director, sometimes known as a fundraising director. Development efforts may include direct mail campaigns, telethons, banquets, auctions and other events, including creating and soliciting corporate sponsorships, seeking donations from individuals and applying for grants from government agencies, foundations and corporations.
Becoming an Executive Director
To prepare yourself for a career as an executive director, you’ll need to develop general business and management skills and learn the ins and outs of the nonprofit world. Start by examining the group's activities and member benefits and then attend the various activities it holds. Volunteer to serve on one or more committees to learn how the organization works and to develop membership, fundraising and meetings skills. You might need to start at the local or chapter level. Take a committee chair position when you feel you can successfully execute the job, which often leads to working with the executive director. When you have some history with the organization, let it be known you are interested in serving on the board. If you’re interested in charitable work, get involved at an entry level with a local hospital, animal shelter or youth sports league. Visit the website of the American Society of Association Executives to learn more about managing nonprofits and about becoming a certified association executive.
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.