The Role of an Executive Director of a not-for-profit Organization

Not-for-profit organizations are structured in a slightly different way than for-profit businesses, although there are a few similarities. The makeup and duties of a non-profit executive management team, for example, is similar to for-profit companies in a number of ways. An executive director sits in the top spot in a non-profit organization, and performs a range of duties similar to those of chief executive officers in corporate businesses. Understanding the role of an executive director of a non-profit organization can shed light into how nonprofits function on the inside.

Working with the Board

An experienced board of directors can provide strategic guidance, valuable contacts and resources to non-profit organizations. While the board of directors is responsible for making a range of vital company decisions, it is not involved in making day-to-day operational decisions.

As the most senior manager in the operational hierarchy, one of an executive director’s main roles is to act as a liaison between the board of directors and the rest of the organization. Executive directors meet with the board regularly to keep them informed on operational issues and work with them to come up with strategic solutions to complex challenges.

Director and Manager

Executive directors oversee the heads of each department in a non-for-profit, including marketing, fundraising, program development, HR management and accounting. Executive directors can also oversee one or more lower-level executives in larger organizations.

Department leaders look to the director for strategic guidance in their areas. The executive director leads the fundraising department in setting annual income goals, for example, and works with program development managers to set standards for serving the organization’s targeted needs groups. The smaller a non-profit organization is, the more directly involved the director is likely to be in each departmental function. In the smallest nonprofits, for example, an executive director may handle all accounting duties and half of the fundraising duties, in addition to executive-level duties.

Public Relations and Fundraising

Executive directors fulfil vital roles outside the office and after normal business hours. Directors are expected to attend and possibly host a range of fundraising events, new program inaugurations and public relations events. Directors often speak directly with reporters, donors, government representatives and members of the community at these events, spending a good deal of time acting as the public face of the organization.

Maintain a Spotless Personal Reputation

Executive directors must keep a spotless personal reputation because of the additional scrutiny, which is not always the case in for-profit businesses. A personal scandal in the life of an executive director can tarnish a non-profit’s reputation for years. In a way, a director has to consider himself on duty at all time as a representative of the organization.

Liaison between Organization and Stakeholders

In addition to appearing at official events, executive directors act as a liaison between their organizations and a range of external stakeholders. Directors develop and maintain relationships with other non-profit leaders, for example, looking for opportunities to partner with other organizations to serve good causes. Directors also work personally with leaders in the business and government world, cultivating long-term strategic partnerships or donor relationships to increase the organization’s effectiveness serving unmet needs. An experienced director brings with him or her an established set of business and professional contacts that can be of significant value to an organization’s mission.

Relationship with the Board of Directors

Not-for-profit organisations are very much advised to adopt this functional structure for their executive. It will also have a well-defined Board of Directors who act alongside the Executive Director to steer the organisation to its mission and Vision. The Board will always collectively decide on the strategic direction of the organisation based on the professional advice of the Executive Director. There is always a chain of command with the Chair of the Board which is rotational depending on the constitution of the organisation.

The organisation may have a set period at which the Chair may be on the seat. It may also have a flexible rotational Chair for each meeting and at a point in time. The executive Director and the Chair need to have a good working relationship to avoid unnecessary conflict of opinion. A clear set of rules are necessary to guide the executive and operational functions. The good governance of the organisation will depend on how the Directors and the Executive Director understand their roles and executing them.

Sam D (04/20)

SCA Management Consulting



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