Executive Directors: Pathways to the job, challenges and rewards

Hi, as we are preparing for a second round of Executive Director Academy, we wanted to hear more from Colorado executive directors about how they got into their current positions and what they found challenging and rewarding.

JVA Consulting conducted two short surveys for executive directors of nonprofits, asking the important questions: What led them to their position as ED? What are the most challenging aspects of their job and why do they keep doing it?

The first survey focused on the different paths executive directors followed to their current position, and over 100 responded. The majority of executive directors had previous experience with nonprofits: 38% of executive directors were promoted from within their organization, and another 32% were staff at a different nonprofit before they were appointed executive director.

A much smaller percentage (28%) of executive directors had no previous experience in the nonprofit sector. These respondents wanted a change: “I did a mid-life career change. After 25 years in high-tech from executive secretary to contracts manager to marketing director I then went to the nonprofit sector. ”

Another constant theme throughout the survey was that many current executive directors founded or co-founded the organization that they currently serve.

So what exactly is so rewarding about being executive director? “This is the wrong week for that question … none of it is rewarding this week.”

As amusing as this response is at first glance, it clearly highlights the high stress nature of the executive director position and the abundance of challenges it presents. For some, the most demanding aspect is “maintaining the balancing act” while working as an executive director. The position requires many different parts: management, fundraising, strategizing, innovation and implementation. The ability to juggle them leads to the success or failure of an executive director.

Although one-third of respondents selected “staff management” and “working with my board” as top challenges for EDs, those two answers were not the top picks. Instead, 43% of respondents pointed to difficulties surrounding individual donor fundraising. Marketing outreach and organization planning tied for second at 35% as the most challenging aspects of being an executive director.

Despite all the challenges, you stay. Why is that? What makes it most rewarding? Here were some of your answers:

Working with our program recipients, including kids, adults and volunteers.”


“Knowing that what I do truly makes a difference in people’s lives.”


“Developing the culture of our community. Working with the participants and staff.”


“Witnessing program success—verbalized by persons who have experienced a better life because of the program/service.”


“I love the autonomy and getting to dream big!”


“All of it.”

The consensus amongst EDs is the success of the programs makes the challenges worth it. Simply being able to strategize and create these programs is very self-satisfying. The number of challenges and the amount of hours required in the position of executive director may deter some, but the rewards for most far outweigh the demanding “never-get-away-from-it nature of the job!”

[Jeannie Vanderburg, who has interned in our research and program evaluation division, wrote the summary of the results.]
What do you think? Do the rewards outweigh the challenges? Leave a comment below.

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One Response to Executive Directors: Pathways to the job, challenges and rewards

  1. koolportal says:

    very useful and interesting article and I hope to read more such articles on this website in furure!

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