The Five Attributes of a Great Nonprofit Executive Director

by Joan Garry

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Originally posted at The Huffington Post.

You know who would make the most outstanding Executive Director?

Ellen DeGeneres.

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.