Six Key Traits of People Who Rise to the Nonprofit Executive Suite

The nonprofit sector is becoming one of the bright spots in the employment arena, with an abundance of opportunities in every discipline you might find at for-profit companies.

Rising to an executive position in a nonprofit requires six key traitsThis means nonprofits provide ample opportunities to advance into the ranks of top management. In fact, nonprofits typically have fewer layers of middle management that might be roadblocks to advancement in for-profit companies — especially larger ones.

Here are six important traits you’ll need to demonstrate to advance to the executive ranks of a nonprofit organization:


Nonprofits all have a mission of serving the common good — and they want leaders who are devoted to that first and foremost. One sure-fire way to demonstrate such dedication is by becoming a volunteer for the organization before you apply for a paying job.

You might consider volunteer work while in college or graduate school and, once you’re in the door, take on roles of increasing responsibility. Even if you don’t decide to stay with this particular organization, the experience will be a worthwhile addition to your resume, and it can provide valuable references for the years ahead.

Multitasking ability

Because management layers are often compressed and disciplines often combined in a nonprofit enterprise, it pays to be able to wear many hats. Such organizations tend to be very hands-on, and you might often have to take on work or play new roles that you don’t expect.

This is both a learning opportunity and path to moving ahead in the organization: Everyone likes team players and a positive attitude, a maxim that applies to the for-profit sector as well as the nonprofit. But in the smaller infrastructure of a nonprofit, your efforts are going to count more — and you’ll be more visible to the rest of the organization.

Selling skills

You might not think of nonprofits as having a sales team, but selling is essentially what the development department at a nonprofit does. These pros bring in the resources that keep the organization alive and functioning, building ties with corporations, foundations, governments and the public at large. You’ll also develop skills in proposal writing and marketing.

The added benefit is that fundraising and development experts are often among the best-paid people in a nonprofit organization because their efforts are its lifeblood. If the organization you work for lacks a formal development infrastructure, you can suggest starting one — provided you’re prepared for a new set of responsibilities.


You can’t let preconceived notions about certain job titles blind you to potential opportunities. For instance, a lot of people who set their sights on managerial roles scoff at the notion of becoming an executive assistant. “That’s another term for a glorified secretary,” some grumble. But in a nonprofit, an executive assistant is more apt to perform duties crucial to the functioning of the organization.

Some nonprofits even designate executive assistant roles as apprenticeships, grooming these folks for high spots in the organization.

Advanced education

Although an advanced degree isn’t a set requirement for nonprofit executive roles, more and more organizations look favorably on applicants who have completed (or are currently enrolled in) a graduate program. Sandra Gutierrez, chief operating officer for the Latin American Youth Center, a Washington, D.C., organization that provides youth services, says these applicants typically have a broader understanding of business.

In particular, many organizations are now much more focused on metrics and accountability than they were in the past — skills candidates often acquire in a master’s degree program. “You see a really big difference in people who come into a program manager role with a master’s degree compared to an undergraduate degree,” Gutierrez said.


Nonprofit organizations are formed from an impulse of kindness and compassion, so mission-driven groups want these attributes in their leaders. At the same time, nonprofit executives need to keep people motivated, get the job done and manage a complex array of priorities.

In particular, nonprofit managers often supervise volunteers — a skill that requires a nuanced approach to managing people. The best nonprofit leaders have a knack for bringing out the best in everyone.

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