The 5 Attributes of a Great Nonprofit Executive Director

by Joan Garry

How well is your Executive Director doing? Download my E.D. Performance Review Template and find out.

Please allow me to introduce you to my first grandchild. I’ve only known this guy for 5 months and the world is just simply more beautiful and joyful because he is here.

I love him so much.Photo of Joans grandson Ernie. Would he make for a great executive director?

But honestly, he would make a terrible executive director.

First, he can barely hold his head up. I know there are days when executive directors feel like that, so you do have something in common. 

But a great executive director needs to stand up straight, head held high, and feet firmly planted on the high road. My grandson just started rolling over this week and while that counts for a lot when you are 5 months old, it’s just not enough for an executive director.

Second, he naps a lot. On the one hand, this does mean he engages in self-care and in this, he models that for a great executive director. But for a 5-month-old, sleeping is one of the main things and would definitely be excessive for an intense job changing the world.

Finally, my grandson smiles. Like all the time. The beneficiaries of his smiles engage in a Yiddish activity called ‘kvelling’ – we are nearly weak in the knees with pleasure. Like nonprofit leaders, my grandson has serious pleaser tendencies, and he has no ability to hold those in check. 

We know that pleaser tendencies can be a kind of kryptonite for nonprofit leaders so again, my grandson is just not up to the task. Yet

So then why the picture and can you get to the five attributes already? Be patient, young grasshopper. I’m ready to share now. 

My grandson’s name is Ernie. And so, this is a picture of two Ernies. 

While the name Ernie can conjure up an image of an elderly guy in a folding chair kibitzing (another Yiddish word for you today) outside a deli, I choose instead to believe that my grandson has entered the wacky, wonderful, diverse and sweet world of the Muppets.

I think the Muppets are a wonderful and diverse group – a team that works together. Under the humble leadership of someone I believe would make a great executive director.

Kermit the Frog.

And probably, Kermit would never get the job. In my experience with organizations large and small, I have seen so many leadership transitions go awry for all sorts of reasons.

Today, let’s focus on why a search committee would pass Kermit right by.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. He’s not real. OK, I just wanted you to know that I am fully aware of this. They might object to his being green (which I hear isn’t easy) but that’s a pretty terrible reason.

They would also pass him by for other equally obvious reasons and you can add to this list.

  • He has never been an executive director before (prior experience)
  • He has never closed a fundraising gift
  • He’s never worked with a board

Interestingly, if these three were the sole criteria, I would not have been hired as the Executive Director of GLAAD. 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.

It’s all about attributes and core competencies that will define the success of your next executive director. And when you look at Kermit, his 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 Kermit and feeling at ease? What you see is what you get. He is very likable and he can be both practical and get you thinking about rainbows. You have this sense that he genuinely cares about people. 

Maybe the word isn’t authenticity. Maybe it’s trust.

2) Conviction

You just know that Kermit has a strong moral compass and cares deeply about doing the right thing. For me, he has some core values that drive him.

  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Respect for diversity (think Ms. Piggy, Gonzo, and Fozzie just for starters)

3) Joy

Kermit lives in the world joyfully. To be honest, 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 both fierce conviction and joy.

4) Humor

Far too often 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 executive director sets a tone that allows for people to exhale and not take themselves too seriously.

5) Fearlessness

I believe that with authenticity and conviction comes 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

Here’s how I see it with Kermit. He is a problem solver, your go-to guy in a crisis and he can go toe to toe with Ms. Piggy. That’s saying something.


I’m suggesting that you can learn the skills necessary to become a great Executive Director. I’m suggesting that a board working in partnership with a search firm (if that’s the route you are able to go) to create a profile that draws candidates to you with key attributes, core values, and basic competencies is not a “nice to have” but a “must have.”

It’s not easy being green. It’s also not easy being an executive director.  

And its attributes and values that will ultimately separate the frogs from the toads.