Corporate to Nonprofit: The Executive Director Interview

Executive Director InterviewNote: Most of my readers already work in nonprofit. But the sector needs a serious influx of new talent with leadership skills. If you know somebody you think might consider making the leap, please share this important post.


Do you ever feel like a fraud?

I sure did when I interviewed to become the Executive Director of GLAAD. I had never worked at a nonprofit. Never spoken at a gala for thousands. Never even asked somebody for a donation. Not even my mom!

The interview. I was so nervous!

What would they ask me? How would I answer the inevitable questions about my lack of nonprofit experience? What if they ask me how much money I’ve raised? Am I cut out for this?

There was nobody around to give me advice on how to prepare for an Executive Director interview. Nobody, really, to even assure me I wasn’t in over my head. Or that I was even doing the right thing.

Today, let me do that for you.


The funny thing is, I shouldn’t really have been so nervous. For one, I was applying for an exciting new low-paying job. Also, I knew my strengths. A smart and strategic person. A first rate manager. Strong public speaker. A ‘connector’. The kind of person people enjoy having lunch with.

And I did have some nonprofit experience, albeit only on a small, local board.

But I was nervous. I really wanted this job. I cared deeply about the mission of this organization. I was 39 and if I stayed put, I would have stayed put. My corporate job was fine and I was good at it. But I knew I could be putting my skills and attributes to better use.

If you’re in this position currently, let me cut right to the chase. The job will transform you. I know it did for me.

I got paid to make a difference! I became a real leader. I led a team that had real impact in how the world viewed and understood the gay community. My kids had a role model.

If you aspire to be an Executive Director but are not currently employed at a nonprofit, and you’re feeling unsure of things, please know you’re not alone. I get asked for advice about the interview process and what boards are looking for all the time.

But know this. I cannot recommend this jump enough. Beyond the personal benefits, the nonprofit world needs you! A recent study reports that as many as two-thirds of nonprofit leaders will retire in the next 5 years! The nonprofit pond has a limited number of fish.

So today I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone. I hope that the sample Q and A that follows will be as valuable to the aspiring nonprofit leader as it will be to the interviewers (i.e. the board search committee).



1. Tell us about your previous nonprofit experience. How do you perceive the differences in the sectors?

This is really important. You need to have played in the nonprofit sandbox in some way. I’m hoping you have volunteered, been involved in a PTA, or in your house of worship. Consider the differences between that and your corporate job.

If you haven’t done any of those things, as a member of the search committee, I am going to be very skeptical indeed.

2. What is your previous fundraising experience?

My truthful answer was “absolutely none.”

But here’s the thing. I had worked at Showtime where I managed a joint venture with Don King (yes, THAT Don King.) Every quarter I had to work to get Don’s production company to pay money due to Showtime. Not always so easy, but I was good at it. I was persuasive and I developed an excellent relationship with the finance folks.

I told that story to the board and said that if I could ask Don King for money, I could ask folks who were likely interested in the cause. Turned out that I was right.

So, unless you have done some real nonprofit fundraising, you might need to be creative. Talk about attributes. “I have what it takes to ask for money because I understand that it’s about building and cultivating relationships and matching individuals with the cause. I am a quick study and my passion for this work trumps any anxiety about asking. And truthfully, I understand that money = programs so my anxiety level here is very low.”

3. Why are you passionate about THIS organization and THIS mission?

I was hired because of my answer to this question. I was able to make the case that for THIS organization I had a unique set of skills.

GLAAD is a media advocacy organization and I had 15 years of media experience. I was part of the management team that launched MTV and I could speak to how MTV shaped the attitudes and opinions of an entire generation.

You have got to make this case. You can’t just be a fabulous PR executive that wants to do external relations and make a difference. You have to make the case that there’s a specific connection between you and the organization.

4. What specific programs appeal to you and why?

This is just “Basic Preparation 101.” You better have a very specific answer to this question, one that illustrates you did your homework and were all over the organization’s website.

5. Unlike much of corporate America, nonprofit staff members are motivated by something other than a year-end bonus. How would this difference affect your management style?

The search committee will be looking for words like ‘collaborative.’ They will definitely want to hear that nonprofit staff come expecting to have a voice and recognizing the value of all voices is key to collaborative leadership.

Side note: Here’s the secret to managing nonprofit staff.

6. A nonprofit leader is beholden to multiple stakeholder groups – board, staff, members, volunteers, and donors. How would you approach managing the sometime disparate interests of these stakeholder groups?

A nonprofit leader is, first and foremost, beholden to the mission of the organization. All decisions should be made in that context even if unpopular to a particular stakeholder group. That said, stakeholder groups expect to be heard and expect to understand a rationale for what they might see as the wrong decision. Remember: as the leader, you have the three dimensional perspective.

7. What is your vision for the organization?

You have to be able to draw a solid picture of where you believe the organization should be headed and that picture should inspire the search committee. Think about how you can instill confidence that you are THE person to drive the organization toward that vision.

8. Have you ever attended one of our events or done any volunteer work for this organization or another organization in the same sector?

All I can say here is that I sure hope so. I had attended some GLAAD events.

9. What do you see as the ideal relationship between the board and the executive director?

If this is new to you, do your homework. You’ll want to include words like “partnership,” “shared leadership,” and mean them.

Lots of resources on this question right here on this website. For example, here’s advice on how to strengthen the relationship between the ED and board chair.

10. Organizational visibility is key to our ability to be effective and raise money. Tell me about your public speaking experience and any experience you have had with the press?

Either you have had this or you haven’t. At the very least, you’ve given presentations, right? Presented budgets? Convinced your boss to invest in a new line of business?

Use something like this and then recognize that this committee has listened to you for an hour. So you’d best be eloquent, passionate, succinct and emotional about the work. Consider your answers to be a dress rehearsal for your public speaking.


These are important questions you should ask.

They will unearth how deep the candidate’s commitment is to your organization vs. a more general interest in working in nonprofit. You’ll learn if the candidate appreciates the distinction of the kind of management required and the messiness of multiple stakeholder groups. Does the candidate understand that when a board member of staffer or volunteer or donor has a strong point of view, this means they care deeply?

As you listen to the candidate, does he or she have something to say and say it in ways that grab you? Would he or she grab donors? Press?

And as I say often, be on the lookout as much for attributes as skills. I think there are five attributes of a great Executive Director.

Candidates and interviewers, am I on the mark? Helpful?

In the comments below, offer other questions you think you may be asked and I’ll take a crack at the answers. For the interviewers, are there other questions you think I missed? If so, offer them up as well and I’ll give you a sense of what you might be looking to hear.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Roey Thorpe

    Joan, I think you’re on the mark. I’d also add that it’s important to have a healthy respect for the nonprofit sector and not believe you already know everything you need and are coming from the corporate world as a savior. So many times corporate friends have said to me “when I retire I’m going to direct a nonprofit” as though there’s no special knowledge or skill set needed. I wouldn’t assume that’s the case if I was applying for a corporate job, and the respect to approach the work with an open, learning attitude is important. Also, making sure that the person isn’t just looking for visibility and attention but really cares about the cause/mission is the job of the search committee because people who are looking for that won’t last long.

    • Hi Roey,
      You are so right. I remember having to terminate an employee who had all the right skills. Came from for-profit to “help the little people.” Not exact word but oh so close. There are skills in for-profit that nonprofits benefit from greatly but what corporate folks often miss is that the road travels both ways and that you get as much as you give. Great to hear from u