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How to Train to Be an Executive Director

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Training as an executive director opens the door to a variety of job opportunities, from running a charity to overseeing a trade association. The work itself varies based on the type of organization. For example, charity jobs require more fundraising experience, while trade association jobs require more general business management and membership recruitment expertise. The pay can also vary widely. According to the Villanova University website, executive directors at small nonprofits might make less than $30,000 a year, while those at large metropolitan organizations might earn up to $280,000 a year. Getting your foot in the door can start with board service at the local level to familiarize yourself with nonprofit management.

Raise Your Hand

The first step in training to be an executive director can be as simple as serving on a committee of a local charity or state trade association. You’ll get to know the world of nonprofits and learn how committees, boards and association managers work together. Once you get the lay of the land, volunteer to lead a committee. If you’re successful, let people know you’re interested in serving on the board of directors. If you want to work in the charity arena, volunteer to serve on fundraising committees. If you’d like to be an executive of trade associations, volunteer to serve on bylaws, membership and meetings committees. Executive directors often have extensive duties in theses areas.

Take a Board Role

Taking a board role doesn’t require extensive nonprofit knowledge at many organizations. You might start as a board-member-at-large, attending meetings, reading reports and voting on issues. When you’re ready, you can move up the ladder, serving as a secretary, treasurer, vice chair, then chairman of the board. The smaller the nonprofit, the quicker you’ll ascend the ladder. During this time, work with the organization’s executive director as often as possible to see what his role is and how he works with board members. Observe the performance of your fellow board members. Executive directors often help recruit, train and manage board members.

Acquire General Management Skills

As an executive director, you’ll be required to manage the day-to-day business operations of a nonprofit. Depending on the job, this might require knowledge of finance, human resources, technology, marketing, sales and administration. If you work as an executive director with no staff, you’ll need to have a solid understanding of these areas and/or be able to manage contractors. If you work at a nonprofit with multiple employees, you’ll need to be able to manage department heads and staff.

Take Nonprofit Education Courses

Look for nonprofit seminars and workshops in your area or online courses you can take. This can include topics such as grant writing, fundraising, event management, public relations and Internal Revenue Service laws pertaining to nonprofits. Visit the website of the American Society of Association Executives to learn about its offerings and to find a chapter near you. Also, visit the website of the IRS and familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations regarding the operations of nonprofits.

Work for an Association Management Company

Another way to work your way into an executive director position is to work for an association management company. Let the company know that your career goals include becoming an executive director and it might be willing to groom you for this position. Once you’re ready, the company will assign you to one or more clients, allowing you to manage associations rather than having to find your own clients.

Become a CAE

Larger organizations often give preference to executive directors who have Certified Association Executive credentials. Earning this status will provide you with career-long benefits in terms of your marketability and knowledge that will help you perform as an executive director. You’ll need three to five years of experience working for a nonprofit and 100 hours of educational courses, among other requirements. According to the website of the Center for Association Leadership (ASAE), acceptable professional development activities include "conferences, workshops, seminars or classes offered by ASAE, societies of association executives, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Organization Management or other providers." You can also take college or university courses.


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, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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