The Five Attributes of a Great Executive Director

Ellen DeGeneres would make a great Executive Director

How cool would it be to work for Ellen?

Originally posted at The Huffington Post.

Like many of you, I spent the evening with Ellen on Sunday night (Oscar telecast.) But while you were watching her deliver pizza to Meryl Streep and retweeting her selfies (did you know that this image is now by far the most retweeted photo ever?) I was thinking about how great an Executive Director she would be.

A comedienne as an Executive Director. I’m kidding, right? I mean, as far as I know she’s never run a nonprofit. How could she possibly have the needed skill set?

I propose it makes no difference. What makes a great Executive Director isn’t so much about skills as it is about attributes.


First in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to be Ellen DeGeneres. I keep waiting for the call to sub for her when she is on holiday with Portia.

Still waiting.

But let’s set that aside.

Why do I think Ellen would be a great Executive Director? What am I thinking?

Often search firms and committees look for certain skills in hiring an Executive Director. This is a mistake. Attributes are more important. For example, before becoming an Executive Director, I had never done one single ounce of fundraising. My board took a leap of faith that I had the right attributes to be good at it. Fortunately for me and the board, they were right.

And when you look at Ellen’s success, her attributes are exactly what an Executive Director needs.

So what exactly are the attributes of a great Executive Director?


1) Authenticity

Couldn’t you imagine having lunch with Ellen and feeling at ease? I haven’t lunched with her but have met her a number of times during my tenure at GLAAD. What you see is what you get. She is who she is, like it or not. And everybody likes it. Maybe the word isn’t authenticity. Maybe it’s trust.

2) Conviction

She speaks out about the causes she believes in and does so without alienating people with the “opposing” viewpoint. Doesn’t this clip say it all?

Towards the end, she reminds all of us of what she sees as her traditional values.

  • Honesty
  • Equality
  • Kindness
  • Compassion
  • Treating people the way you want to be treated
  • Helping  those in need

A master class in changing hearts and minds.

3) Joy

I’m sure if i was a ba-zillionaire, I’d be pretty damned joyful. But it’s not just that. She lives in the world joyfully. And there was surely a time when she could have lived in the world with a lot of anger. I have a beef with Executive Directors who don’t see their work as a privilege. To get paid to do something that matters? To make a living making some part of the world a better place? I’m not naive; the work can be hard, painful and sometimes feel like too steep a climb. But make no mistake. It’s a privilege and an Executive Director should approach the work with joy, not anger.

4) Humor

Executive Directors can be a humorless bunch. After all the work is serious and important  – maybe E.D.’s don’t see humor as quite befitting of a leader changing the world. This is perhaps one of the biggest factors in nonprofit staff burnout. There is no let up. Unless your E.D. sets a tone that allows for people to exhale and have a good ol’ belly laugh.

5) Fearlessness

Of course Ellen has unique power as a celebrity that we don’t all share. That said, I believe that with authenticity and conviction come a sense of fearlessness. Not the arrogant kind where you know in your heart that your position is right and that is all that matters (because as I tell my clients all the time, “OK, so you’re right. Now what? Because being right is a very very small part of the equation in changing hearts and minds.”) When I talk about fearlessness, it’s about picking up the phone, having a difficult conversation, firing a long time staff member, telling a board member that you have heard some bad ideas in your day and that hers is right up there, turning down a donation that makes no sense for your organization. This is what Ellen has and an attribute that every Executive Director must cultivate.


Ellen has a day job. And I’m glad she does.  She has done more for gay rights than anyone I can think of, joining millions of Americans for coffee every single day. So I’m not suggesting that someone go recruiting Ellen to run a nonprofit.

I’m suggesting that you can learn the skills necessary to becoming a great Executive Director. But without the right attributes — which Ellen has in spades — you won’t get very far.

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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  • Jon Hoadley

    Great piece, Joan.

    • Thanks Jon. Still chuckling thinking about Ellen in the Wizard of Oz witch costume at a donor ask…..

  • Thanks a lot Jon. Hope some board search committees stumble upon it 🙂

  • Nicole Lee

    Hi Joan, this is a great piece. So many EDs start off as you have described but end up the opposite. Often I don’t think it’s personality flaws or entitlement, I think it stems from a lack of support from boards, donors or other stakeholders that expect EDs to be magicians (ok, some of us are! 🙂 )

  • Thanks Nicole. There is clearly some elements of magic in being a great executive director — keeping your eye on the vision and mission and creating a partnership with staff, board, volunteers and donors. Often requires a magic wand to get it right. Keep on waving yours!!!! 🙂

  • higheredadvocate

    I enjoyed the article but feel that it is missing its true target audience: Search Committees. Having those 5 attributes without a complete skill set and/or a receptive search committee leads to lost opportunities for the applicant and organization alike. It is the lucky applicant who finds the search committee willing to take a leap of faith. Unfortunately, the screens that are put up by search committees and consultants beforehand to identify those candidates with the ‘right’ skill set and experience deny nonprofits the fresh talent that could otherwise be found.

    • It’s funny that you write this. I decided to land on this topic after talking to a search firm in the midst of a CEO search. They kept talking about skills and I kept pushing them to talk about attributes. They kept coming back to the word “leadership.” Search firms and board search committee HAVE to tease out the elements of leadership — it’s just too broad. My five attributes attempt to do that. Hope some search committees are reading. Hope you will share the post and perhaps it will be more likely to find its mark.

      • Kristin Klein

        Thank you Joan. I am interviewing for an Executive Director position this Friday and this was helpful. I have always held down Director of Development positions and I know this is a slight change in direction regarding my career path. Fingers crossed!

    • Kristin Klein

      I could not agree more. Thanks for your input ‘higherdadvocate’

  • Norman Dragt

    I do understand why skill sets instead of attributes are more sought after, they are easier to describe, research and measure. Because how much authenticity is needed, how much conviction, joy, humor, fearlessness is enough?
    But I agree I would rather have a ED with a little fearlessness and conviction than one with lots of knowledge of organizing, planning, accounting. Those skills should be brought in by the other members of the executive team.
    Besides that most skills can be learned if you have conviction and fearlessness, joy and humor.

    • Norman – thanks for weighing in. The interesting thing about your comment is that while it may seem that skills are more measurable, that can be so deceiving. Does. 20 years of experience assure u that u are hiring a first rate development director if you haven’t been able to discern her /his level of diplomacy, conviction and ability to play well on a team. I often thing the key to hiring is not how someone answers the questions but rather whether you are asking the right ones.

    • Norman.
      How did I miss your comment? So sorry. You are absolutely right – skill sets are easier to describe and understand. That’s why I advocate for lunch interviews and even mock interactions with a small group of people. Give prospects the chance to meet and greet board members in a reception setting. Let em work the room.

  • Wow. Yes. I can definitely think of an ED or two who fit the “not promoting joy” model… Excellent piece, thank you!

    • Glad you found it helpful. If no sense of privilege and joy are seen in an ED try to spend time and figure out why. Can it be fixed or is it the wrong fit?

  • Pamela

    Captivating piece, Joan. And well said, ‘higheredadvocate’! Now where’s that magic wand to bring about [more] leaps of faith? Our sector truly needs it…

    • Pamela. Thanks so much for your feedback! And staying with The Wizard of Oz analogies, rather than looking for the magic wand, maybe we should check to see if we might just be wearing the ruby slippers 🙂

  • Pamela

    Perhaps we just need to commit to reminding ourselves/each other, every now and then, that we already have the brains, the heart and the courage to go along with the ruby slippers and magic wand :-)…fairy dust, fairy dust, fairy dust… [mixed metaphors allowed]

  • Nathan Reed Monell

    Fearlessness, humor and joy – three qualities rarely seen as desired attributes for CEO leadership but they sure are valuable commodities. “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.” Susan B. Anthony However, my experience is that the nonprofit world rewards caution more than experimentation. We listen more to why something cannot be done (applying the brakes) than what would propel us into the future, risk and experimentation (the gas.) Imagine letting legal grow a company instead of product development!

    • Nathan. So right you are. Boards (and sometimes EDs) tend to be risk averse, cautious. The connection here is often $$. Trying something new might cost new money to be raised or failure may cost you donors ($$). As board members often shy away from fundraising (I’m being coy here), you can see why this tends to happen. It can also happen if there are too many lawyers on your board and / or if your organization is run by a lawyer. This supports an argument for diversity of skills and experience on your board — a few PR folks or entrepreneurs can change the dynamics of board conversations mighty fast. Thanks again for writing.

  • Colleen Elersich Keehan

    I want Ellen as my ED! I am an administrator in a non-profit; our ED does have these attributes…but I can tell sometimes, the workload is wearing on her. (And the admin staff!)

    • Colleen. Well first off, Happy Belated St. Pats Day! And lucky you that your ED has Ellen-like attributes. It’s not common enough. Hope you shared this with your Ellen-like boss. ED’s don’t get enough positive feedback (see tomorrow’s post :). Cheers!

  • Kristin Smedley

    great article! I launched and manage a non-profit… with no formal “training” to do so 🙂 I love that you point out the attributes, many of which I believe I have, that are essential for success of the non-profit. I tell everyone that I ask to help me, and I ask everyone for LOTS of things (LOL), that they need to join my mission because it’ll likely be the most fun they have ever had while making a HUGE impact 🙂 Looking forward to reading more of your posts 🙂


    What a great article. I have come back to it several times.

  • WFAC Cameroon

    Thanks Jen for this amazing and interesting piece but often I ask the question, you can have all these attributes as a leader or head of an institutions but how do you reconcile these if you are faced with a team that doesn’t possess some of those values. First, I speaking of people with prejudices – it could be based on gender, identity, ethnicity, social status, racial and / or cultural stereotypes that creates a an un-conducive working environment for the leader to exercise its attributes. What can you say about that?

    • Dear WFAC Cameroon. So my answer may be overly simplistic but as a leader, YOU ARE IN CHARGE. You get to decide who is on your team – definitely on the staff side and yes, you should have a voice in who comes on to your board. Sounds like it is time to create an intentional strategy to hold folks accountable for behaviors (think about incorporating that kind of thing into your performance review process). Behavior is as important as activities. Start to add new people to the team who hold the values you are interested in having in your organization.

  • Yolie

    Thank you for listing these attributes. I guess I can claim #5 when I had to let go of a board member who has a following but was not beneficial to our organization. I felt very bad doing it and has bothered me so I was glad to see that listed.

  • Jill B.

    Can you expand on how to cultivate fearlessness?

    • Jill. Great question. I find the most powerful way to build fearlessness in a staff is to shine a light on a mistake you have made and what you learned from it. You have to begin to build a culture that doesn’t applaud mistakes but rather appreciates the risk in trying something that didn’t work. That helps to create a culture that is more bold (aka fearless). That helpful?

  • datch

    The problem is that even WITH all the right attributes, you won’t get far. 95% of those who hire for ED positions do NOT hire by attributes, but by simple checklists of skills and accomplishments. Yes, it’s a mistake, but it’s a reality.

    • Datch. Five attributes alone will not a success make. A strong partner in a board chair, an effective board that fundraises (at least some of the time), clarity of mission, a clear way to measure success, being able to recruit, hire and retain great talent just to name a few… I wrote this because I hoped that it would highlight the idea of attributes particularly for my board member readers and more particularly for those searching for strong and effective leaders.

      • datch

        Surely not. Of course. I was just pointing out that, in my experience and the experience of the great majority of my peers, boards and hiring committees unfortunately rarely seem to consider these factors that you describe, and continue to hire base solely on a checklist of benchmarks.

  • Amy Sandeen

    I love this, and I have written down these attributes and taped them to my messy office wall where I will be reminded every day. As a sixth attribute, I added “integrity.” Is that an attribute? I’m not sure. I just know that I try – as an ED striving to be great – to approach everything I do with integrity in order to gauge how my actions will affect the greater good. Thanks for your consistently inspiring insights!

    • Amy. I like the idea of adding “integrity” and I totally think it is an attribute. Humbled to think my writing will wind up on your messy office wall. Seems fitting somehow 🙂

  • Dotty Metcalf

    This is me put into words! Thank you, Joan for validating my exact situation. I had no fundraising or marketing experience but a truly well rounded 25 years of work history that ended up me being an ED of an organization that helps and assists seniors with resources and transportation! My passion — so joyful i finally got my “dream job” for the past 6 years! And now, retiring at the top of my game with lots of new skills and opportunities coming my way!

    • Wow! Congratulations on your retirement although it’s not sounding like you’ll be doing much retiring. How lucky was your organization to find you!!!!!

  • Lea Newcomb

    my goodness….. I am an ED for a non profit that provides safe housing and restoration programming for victims of human trafficking – more specifically sex trafficking. I was hesitant reading this list, but I actually think I did OK!!!
    Lea Newcomb E.D. of Engedi Refuge Ministries @

    • Lea – it sounds like your organization is lucky to have you. And thank you for the work you are doing. Have worked with clients in this sector and understand how much these clients need you.

  • David Ceely

    Love it! These always remind me I am not alone. I was in corporate for over 20 years then was offered the E.D. position with an organization I volunteered with. I’m now in place for 6 years. I was able to exhibit the 5 attributes in my old jobs ( and am realizing I have work to do where I am now) and am ALMOST there with this job. But I don’t think I ever end a sentence without saying “I am very lucky to be able to do this”….and I mean it!

  • Anita Sleeman

    I know this post is from three years ago, but bravo Joan – it truly hits the right points for a quality ED. Thanks for all you give..

  • Maureen Rude

    I just sent this to a member of the search committee of a partner organization that is doing an ED search. Their outgoing E.D. has all of this–and more, and big shoes to fill. I think this article summarizes it nicely, and as usual done with humor and a wonderful list of what to look for! Thank you!