Can a Politician Succeed as a Non-Profit CEO?

by Joan Garry

You’re on the E.D. search committee. The resume of a former politician comes across your desk. Is that the right profile for a prospective E.D.? Or completely wrong?

When it comes to politicians leading nonprofits, some of you may think I have an axe to grind.  I spent nearly a decade running a nonprofit and was succeeded by not one but two politicians.

The truth is that it can work. But you have to understand exactly what you’re getting into and recognize that there are special challenges to overcome.

And so, knowing that most candidate pools for search committees will include politicians, and having seen first hand the pros and cons, I’d like to offer my two cents (and three specific ideas) on how to set up a politician for success as a nonprofit leader.

The Common Threads

First, what do nonprofit executive directors and politicians have in common?

Simply put (perhaps too simply), politicians are individuals with deep convictions about the issues they care about and they have a profound commitment to the constituents they serve.   The good ones are leaders of the inspirational variety — they can move a room to action and they can separate donors from their checkbooks.

As a nonprofit executive director, I bet you would check all those boxes for yourself as well.

But There Are Core Differences

1) A different focus. Politicians are in constant campaign mode, attempting to say yes (or something close to yes) to as many of their constituents as possible.  Please your constituents and you score votes. If you think it is hard for a nonprofit ED to say no, a politician has a much steeper climb. Nonprofit CEOs are masters to the mission, not to the electorate.

During my tenure at GLAAD, I made decisions that cost me funding. I remember donors pulling money because we applauded the portrayal of Jack on Will and Grace – weren’t these the stereotypes I was paid to fight?  Short answer?  Yes, but it’s more complicated. The first prime time network show with two (count ’em) two leading characters who were gay? And different kinds of gay men? As a master to the mission, we applauded. Long term, I may have gained more donors than I lost, but I do wonder if a professional politician could have made the same decision.

2) A different organizational structure. Politicians build flat organizations.  Now, I am oversimplifying but the idea is this. In politics, there is not a ton of hierarchy.  There are not layers of management, protocols about who you talk to about what, even in an organization of 50 staffers. A politician can ask person A to do X or can ask person B to do X.

The key piece: politicians need training in how to delegate. In politics, it’s about the candidate; at nonprofits it’s about the mission and the team you build to execute.

3) A different approach to transparency. Politicians are not trained to report bad news. This can create issues as it relates to their interactions with boards. Board members need to know what is working and what could be working better. They are the folks who are ultimately responsible for the fiscal health of the organization. If there are big fat knots to untangle, the board (or at the very least, the chairs or executive committee) need to be in the loop, partnering to solve the problems. But they need to know what they are.

So Am I Staying Clear of Politicians?

Nope. I’m saying know what you are buying. And as a board chair, manage carefully and provide support that is unique to a politician who now has a very different kind of role.

If a Politician Is In the Running, Here Are 3  Ideas Your Board May Want to Consider.

1) Require a 30 day listening tour.  Not a PR road show. A listening tour. The board should prepare a list of the most important key stakeholders. Start with every single staff member. Leave no one out. Then move on to key donors, former board members, colleague ED’s.    Before the listening tour, agree on a series of questions and then at the first executive committee meeting, ask the new ED what s/he has learned – about what is working and what needs changing, how the organization is perceived, and what s/he sees as the lessons learned and how it informs her/his six month priorities.

2) Prioritize Board Member Recruitment. Board Governance needs to play a very strong hand in building / rebuilding the board with this new executive director.  Make sure there is a matrix of needs – skills, attributes, fundraising prowess, former board experience. Stay true to that. Politicians come from a land in which appointments are made. Of course, even nonprofit EDs without political experience can see board service this way, but it is Board Governance’s watchful eye that will ensure a diverse board with a deep commitment to the mission.

3) Monitor Relations with Key Stakeholders. Leadership of a nonprofit is all about relations and not a lot about transactions. Politicians, by the nature of the work, connect constituents to THEMSELVES, to secure their support and their vote.

Make no mistake, I have had people say “I’m giving money to this organization because of you.” Flattering, but not ultimately in the organization’s best interest. Push your ED to create real relationships, one in which there is a shared belief in the organization, one in which there is agreement and disagreement, one in which the stakeholder is, at the end of the day, committed not to any one individual but to the power and impact of the mission.  Assign board members to some of these key stakeholders, to further bolster the relationships and to be on the lookout for either red (or green) flags.


Perfect executive directors are hard to come by. You could argue that it’s impossible to expect that one person can be competent at so many different things. In all scenarios, whether you hire a politician or someone with limited nonprofit experience, the real responsibility rests with the board to provide the support and professional development that your organization deserves.

1 thought on “Can a Politician Succeed as a Non-Profit CEO?”

  1. A huge negative of politicians would also be their lack of understanding of governance and effective organizational structures. When I look at governments from a Governance perspective I cringe.

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