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How will I know if I’m ready to be a nonprofit Executive Director/President/CEO?

Part One of a Two Part Series


Todd Owens

By Todd Owens, with contributions from Suzanne T. Allen, Ph.D., Joan L. Benso, Caroline Boyce, Paul D. Daugherty, Anna Hollis and Vivien Luk

Michelle and I believe we have the best jobs in the world. On a consistent basis we have the privilege of working with passionate and dedicated groups of volunteers to help them make perhaps the most important governance decision a nonprofit organization or foundation can make – who will be their next leader.

Many credible perspectives have been published on the challenges both nonprofit organizations and leaders face, including this popular article from Aaron Hurst supporting his case that running a nonprofit organization is more difficult than leading a corporation – Additionally, the case has been made in both Daring to Lead ( and Ready to Lead ( about the need for new nonprofit executives, and the dearth of those willing to heed to call to serve.

Every nonprofit organization is unique, and there’s an adage commonly used in the world of family philanthropy that says, “If you’ve seen one family foundation, you’ve seen one family foundation.” I’m of the belief that if you’ve seen one nonprofit organization, you’ve seen one nonprofit organization. If you’re considering heeding the call to lead and stepping up, it will serve you well to spend ample time becoming as much of an expert as possible in the following areas:

  1. You. Become the most self-aware person possible. Ask for feedback and perception data, especially the constructive and difficult to hear kind. Never stop learning.
  2. Organizational development theory, including life cycles and the unique needs of organizations in each phase of the life cycle.
  3. Fundraising and stakeholder engagement. The financial support models your predecessors utilized are a thing of the past.
  4. Financial management. Resources are scarce and you need to make the most of every dollar, starting with where they come from and where they are expended.
  5. Board and volunteer committee governance. Serve on boards yourself and pay particular attention to the ART of this skill, which can’t be learned by textbooks.
  6. Identifying talent. You will likely not have the funds to hire for every skill or competency you need. Learn to identify potential and develop them internally.
  7. Storytelling. You’ll need the ability to captivate and excite supporters about the impact your organization is having on the lives of others.
  8. Advocacy. Once you’ve learned to be an excellent storyteller, pivot and build your advocacy skills, which will then build on your ability to be a captivating storyteller.
  9. Measuring impact. Your funders and the young and savvy donors will ask you this. Don’t be caught off guard by this question. Quantify and qualify your response.
  10. Asking for help, then accept what is offered. You can’t do it alone. No one can. Those who think they can burn out or only achieve a small amount of what’s possible.

On a daily basis we interact with dozens of individuals from diverse backgrounds who are hearing the call to lead in a nonprofit organization. The genesis of this article came from a conversation I had recently with a frustrated mid-level nonprofit employee who felt that her career was stalled. During our call she asked me, “How will I know when I’m ready to be an Executive Director, and how do I grow my skill set if I’m not presented with these opportunities in my current role?”

So we reached out to some of the most talented nonprofit leaders we know and asked them for their insight. We asked two critical questions: the first question, which we will share in this post, was how they knew when they were ready to be a nonprofit executive. The second question (and the fascinating answers!) will be shared in our next newsletter.

When did you know you were ready to be an Executive Director/President/CEO?

Suzanne T. Allen, Ph.D., President & CEO, Philanthropy Ohio, Columbus, OH
Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 11.40.25 AMLife, and the choices we make, always require some sort of balance, and making the choice to apply for a president/CEO role was one I carefully considered. You see, I’ve watched friends and colleagues make the choice to move to the next level for years. While some have been very successful, some have suffered and a few have failed, and those failures were clearly due to personal and professional “imbalances.”

Balance, or imbalance, is more than just finding a way to integrate your personal and professional life. It’s about how you feel about time, structure, culture, loneliness, growth, risk, ambiguity, confrontation and the dozens of other subtle issues every leader faces. While balance may be one of life’s greatest goals, it is more often than not rather intangible.

But think about balance as a tightrope walker would. Her skills and talents work with tension and risk, often to the delight of the crowd. She’s facing these subtle issues, hundreds of them, and making small adjustments and seems to defy gravity. She makes it look easy, but she’s thought about each and every issue, knows her strengths, understands the physics of what she’s doing, trusts the people on the grounds, and plans ahead. That’s what finding balance means.

And quite frankly, while I thought I understood what I needed to become a president/CEO and what balance I needed, I truly underestimated all the subtle issues. Fortunately, I have a great team and remarkable coaches who are helping me make the trip across the “tightrope.”

Joan L. Benso, President & CEO, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, Harrisburg, PA
joanAfter serving in a leadership capacity in a number of coalitions and issue based campaigns, I realized that many of those skills were transferable to non-profit executive leadership. My advocacy experience was augmented by a fund raising track record and a history of working with volunteers, including board leaders. At that time, I thought that I could take the next step and serve in a non-profit leadership capacity. I am not sure I really knew if I was ready, many days I still feel that I am not ready, but I took the leap and sought support from others. I was passionate about the work, willing to work hard and not afraid to make and learn from mistakes. This is messy business but very gratifying. I have said for years that I have the best job of anyone I know. The opportunity to work every day to help improve the lives of children is nothing short of a gift.

Caroline Boyce, Executive Director, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA
carolieI didn’t know. Other people knew before I did. They asked me to step up to the plate and assume the role of executive director. I never looked back–only forward.

Paul D. Daugherty, Executive Director, Philanthropy West Virginia, Morgantown, WV
paulMy first CEO/Executive Director position was in 2003 when I was 24 and it came at the encouragement of my then boss and colleagues at the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation. I had served from my time immediately following undergrad to 2003 as a regional staff member of the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation coordinating the work of WV’s first two community foundation affiliates. I had some hesitancy at 24 to be taking over as the Executive Director of a Higher Education Foundation when I was at least 20-25 years younger than my peers especially on the President’s Cabinet, but I was ready to take on a problem solving, leadership, and organizational role. After three successful years, I was recruited away to Morgantown to take over the development program for the WVU Eye Institute (WVUEI) so I was in a leadership role, but not CEO. My second CEO role is now with Philanthropy WV and I had finished five years at WVUEI and was looking for an opportunity to lead an organization that had a broad impact on WV and our state’s philanthropic community at that point I knew I was ready to lead and take on a CEO role after being in a position previously and how to problem solve, lead, impact, and generate opportunities that advance the state. I had been a previous intern with Philanthropy WV during grad school so while I was not looking for a new job in 2010-2011 the opportunity to set Philanthropy WV on the right path, improve the organization, grow its membership, financial position, and transform our work in being a premier resource for the philanthropic sector not only inspired me, but I knew I could do it and build the right efforts. The passion, drive, skills, and challenge all came into focus.

Anna Hollis, Executive Director, Amachi Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
annaI didn’t! I just accepted the role– probably more impulsively– out of a strong passion for the mission of Amachi Pittsburgh although I certainly recognized that my previous experience operating a business for more than 10 years helped to equip me. I also had a number of opportunities to grow and develop as a leader through my corporate work experience. Furthermore, my involvement in church ministries and community service helped prepare me to lead. Being approached about taking the Executive Director’s position was unexpected but felt right for me. I haven’t looked back since.

Vivien Luk, Executive Director, Team Tassy, Los Angeles, CA
vivienI knew I was ready to lead when I met our founder at Team Tassy and realized that we shared a vision for eliminating abject poverty through good, dignified jobs. Leadership is about finding something you’re passionate about and rallying the right supporters to work towards the common goal. It’s about believing so strongly in something that you feel a deep sense of responsibility to be a part of it. For me, it was also about knowing that this is the work that I want to lead because it builds on my past experiences while allowing me to engage new challenges that I knew I was ready for. In our work, it’s also about empathy, working with the poor rather than working for them, and about doing whatever it takes to reach our goal.

Once I knew our philosophies aligned and we had built a roadmap for the work that needed to be done, I was ready to hit the ground running. Family members in Haiti were depending on us and there was no time to wait around for someone else to start the work. It was time to get things done. As a saying goes, “If not me, then who?”

When did you know you were ready to become an Executive Director? We’d love to hear your contributions to this conversation. Join us on our blog, or on social media.

From the Author – About Part II of this article…
The individual responses in this article illustrate the challenges nonprofits and their boards face in developing leaders and addressing skill deficits. As you can see, the leadership and management trajectories of each individual in this article are unique. Part II of this series will be released in March and features the same impressive leaders responding to the question, “How did you address the developmental areas where you needed to grow, and where did you find these resources?”

Todd Owens, Principal, Nonprofit Talent, can be reached at 412.512.3879 or

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