Running a nonprofit organization can be both a strenuous and a gratifying job. It’s hard because nonprofits exist to fill in niches where there is no profit to be found, and no easy way exists to come up with the money and people to do what is needed. But the job of a nonprofit director is rewarding because once you have made the impossible happen, you have improved quality-of-life and the well-being of the community in a way that not many other people could ever achieve.
Nonprofits exist to boost every charitable cause, to fill all kinds of public interest niches. There are tiny nonprofits that exist only to preserve an old boat with notable historic interest; there are others that are out to save the world by supporting all other charitable nonprofits. They have budgets that range from new realms of negative imaginary numbers to those with billions of dollars to manage.
And one thing they have in common is that every one of them needs someone with passion and skill to run the show.
Nonprofit managers and executive directors are those people – bringing together the kind of management chops that the private sector demands with the dedication, care, and compassion that drives charitable work.
Among them, you’ll find specialized roles with different titles, from the high-level work performed at the executive level to the program directors who manage boots-on-the-ground workers, to the development managers responsible for grant writing and fundraising.
What Exactly Is a Nonprofit Organization, Anyway?
People tend to associate nonprofit with charity, but they aren’t exactly the same thing. Not all organizations that exist to do good are nonprofits, and not all nonprofits are charities.
The idea of a nonprofit organization revolves entirely around its status as being tax-exempted by the Internal Revenue Service (following laws set by Congress). A requirement for holding that status is defined by the term itself: a tax exempt organization must not pay out profits to any private shareholder or individuals.
There are dozens of different types of nonprofits, most of them defined under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code. The charitable foundations that most people think of when they think about nonprofits fall under Section 501(c)(3), and are also sometimes referred to by that shorthand. But other nonprofits exist under other sections that fulfill other purposes that offer some sort of public good:
Each come with their own rules and regulations. And each of them require skilled, competent executive leadership to help them fulfill their missions.
Nonprofit Management Jobs Are More Common Than Most People Realize
Nonprofit management jobs also come up in areas that people might not expect. Many major healthcare systems are nonprofits, for example. We’re not talking about tiny out-of-the-way clinics, either. We’re talking about big, world-class medical centers like Cedars Sinai, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and The Cleveland Clinic. In 2017, The Cleveland Clinic’s revenues were over $7 billion, with a staff of 50,000. You had better believe the executive director there is a management rock star.
There are other nonprofits that you hear about all the time but may not think of as nonprofits. The Young Men’s Christian Association doesn’t just have its own song and gym programs across the country—it’s a major nonprofit organization. Same thing with the Red Cross, which doesn’t make a profit, but responds to disasters around the world and provides about 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply through the generosity of donors.
In other words, nonprofits come in all sizes and with all kinds of missions. The unifying thread for nonprofit managers and directors is a burning desire to make a difference. And to have a positive impact on the world, you had better pick up an education that teaches you as much as possible about that world. It’s a perfect fit for a degree in liberal arts.
The Nonprofit Executive Director Job Description Involves High Level Management, But Still Comes with Long Hours and a Lot of Work
Because of the wide range of different areas where nonprofits can be found, nonprofit directors and managers can have wildly different job descriptions from organization to organization.
But you will find that nonprofits have the same basic kind of organizational needs as any other corporation:
So nonprofit EDs share many of their basic responsibilities with any other kind of executive. It comes down to basic business responsibilities of turning money into action, and getting more money to support more action.
In Nonprofits, Even Management Gets Their Hands Dirty
There’s a kind of title inflation that happens in nonprofits that makes these jobs more common than you might think. A 2016 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) did a head-to-head comparison of different occupational groups in nonprofit and for-profit businesses. For nonprofits, more than half of all workers, over 55 percent, were rated as management, professional, and related jobs. In for-profit enterprises, by comparison, only about 21 percent of the workforce is in management.
This might occur for several different reasons:
In any event, BLS also points out that the job responsibilities for a worker at a nonprofit may not exactly reflect the work someone with the same title would be doing at a regular company.
That’s right in line with the head-cook-and-bottlewasher approach that many nonprofits share. Nonprofit staff and managers are more about getting the job done than putting on airs. If that means the ED chips in by staying up past midnight stuffing sacks with groceries for delivery to hungry clients the next day, then that’s what happens. The mission comes before the title.
Because nonprofits are driven by passion, plenty of nonprofit director jobs are filled by the founders of those nonprofits. For them, a lot of the attraction comes from defining their own jobs and doing things their own way. For every United Way chapter, there are a dozen small, overlapping local fundraising organizations supporting many of the same types of charitable activity. Those were all started by someone who could have just as easily gotten on board with an existing charity, but decided to make their own contribution unique.
Those nonprofits all fit a niche, and it’s often customized to the talents and ideas of the founder and executive director. Job satisfaction is easy to come by when you are working in a role that you’ve defined for yourself based on your personal passions and skills.
At big nonprofits, executive directors handle the same big-ticket tasks as any CEO. Writing budgets, arrange for funding, hiring and firing other executives are all on the menu. Reporting to a board of directors is also common, which means presentation and communication skills are important.
It’s an exceptionally broad role, and the exceptionally broad education you get in a liberal studies program is one way to prepare for it. With a strong social, cultural, and communications education, you can hit the ground running as a nonprofit director in almost any field.
Steppingstone to Executive Roles: Nonprofit Program Director Job Descriptions Include Managing the Boots-on-the-Ground Work of the Organization
Unlike executive directors, program directors in the nonprofit world serve as the direct coordinator of activities on the ground. They take on responsibility for some direct aspect of service or giving, like an after-school athletics program, or maybe a food distribution service for seniors.
Program directors often take on broad and deep levels of responsibility for their service. They are usually responsible for budgeting, procurement, community outreach, and coordination with other directors or executives. They might be responsible for grant-writing and other fundraising efforts to support their service. They will have to keep track of statistics and data to report to other executives, and often manage teams of employees or volunteers associated with program activities.
Program directors are some of the most entry-level nonprofit management jobs, but they often serve as rapid stepping-stones to more responsibility and higher paying positions in the organization. A liberal arts background offers the kind of flexibility and quick-thinking skills that help program directors keep their efforts on track.
Steppingstone to Executive Roles: Nonprofit Development Manager Job Descriptions Are All About Raising the Dough
Development is the nonprofit shorthand for fundraising. The development manager at nonprofits is a linchpin for the organization. They develop the marketing programs and donation strategies that allow not-for-profit organizations to power their operations.
They might oversee staff, depending on the size of the organization. Almost all nonprofits count on personal relationship cultivation as an important part of fundraising, though, so development managers have to be skilled speakers and gifted in written communication to make presentations, write appeals or grants, and carry on conversations with big donors.
A liberal arts degree helps polish those communication and cultural skills through studies of the classics and the modern social order. It also affords the basic background in math skills needed to keep a strategic budget on course.
Steppingstone to Executive Roles: A Nonprofit Director Job Description May Involve Taking On the Whole World of Responsibilities
Whether you call them directors or executive directors, people who run nonprofits occupy a special place in the world. Full of inspiration, enthusiasm, and drive, they often carry the organization through the toughest times on the strength of their own skills and personality.
Nonprofit EDs are responsible for the whole show. Unless and until other nonprofit management jobs get staffed up, they often end up doing development, program management, and every other direct and supervisory job required. Even if they are not directly responsible for day-to-day services, they will usually be very familiar with what is happening on the ground, and usually engage hands-on with clients.
Steppingstone to Executive Roles: Nonprofit Interim Executive Director Jobs
The flip side of the proliferation of nonprofits and the intensity of director positions is that there is often a high rate of turnover in those jobs. That makes the role of nonprofit interim executive director a very real and very in-demand position.
An interim ED may come into the role from two different directions:
As an up-and-coming nonprofit manager with aspirations to become executive director, you might get a try-out period from the board to show your stuff when an ED position comes open.
As a professional, experienced nonprofit director, you may be asked to step in temporarily to helm the ship while the search is underway for a new, permanent ED.
The second category of interim ED may act as a sort of hired gun, coming in and cleaning up operations and lending their skill and experience to an organization that is struggling to find a permanent ED.
The first category, though, offers a great way to get a taste of what life is like in the hot-seat before making a permanent jump to the executive director role.
How To Prepare for Nonprofit Executive Director Jobs and Other Nonprofit Management Jobs
There are a million different paths to becoming a nonprofit executive director.
Some people grow up knowing they want to make the world a better place and dive right in,shaped by their childhood and culture to make a difference. Some come to it from a more difficult route, from addiction or jail, emerging with hard-won experience on the streets that gives them the cultural credit to help others. And for some it’s a calling that is only heard later in life, after a career in another field entirely, when a realization that something has been missing crystalizes into a drive to make a difference.
How the Red Cross Came to America
Clara Barton learned her medical skills early in life, nursing her brother David back to health after he fell from a barn and injured his head. Doctors had given up on the boy, but Clara, only ten, did not. Eventually, David made a full recovery.
When she grew up, Barton become a teacher, but when the Civil War broke out in 1861, she was moved to return to medical work, raising funds and supplies herself to nurse wounded soldiers. Her silhouette became a common sight outlined by dim lamplight in surgeries and hospitals near the front of battlefields from Antietam to Fredericksburg.
The war ended, but Clara Barton’s dedication to those in distress did not. In 1870, she traveled to Europe to assist in setting up field hospitals for the Franco-Prussian War. There, she encountered the Red Cross Society.
When she returned to the United States, she put all her energies to gaining recognition for the need of an American branch of the society, and in 1881, she became president and founder of the American Red Cross. As one of the preeminent nonprofits in the country today, the Red Cross continues to fulfill its mission with managers just as dedicated as Clara Barton was.
That means that maybe the most crucial kind of preparation is the sort that comes from within. You have to care about your cause and believe in the mission. No amount of training, education, or experience can give you the motivation you need to be a good nonprofit manager.
But the right education can give you the skills you need to back that motivation up with action.
The Education of a Nonprofit Manager Can Take Many Forms
Since nonprofits exist across a long spectrum of different causes and actions, there’s never going to be any one right way to get the right education to be a nonprofit manager. For some, it’s going to come in the form of an advanced medical degree; for others, maybe it’s a degree in social services. Some nonprofit managers will even thrive with a business background. And there are many who fall into nonprofit work with no education at all.
But if you want the maximum amount of leverage for your efforts, and the best chance of success, a college degree is always a good investment. Like any other kind of executives, nonprofit executives today will generally hold a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. At the highest levels, working in major nonprofits and managing million dollar budgets, executive directors and managers will very likely have a master’s degree or higher.
Although there is no single best major to pick for that path, there is one that gives you the greatest level of exposure to some of the most important aspects of running any kind of organization—and at the same time connects you deeply with the humanitarian and social aspects of charitable work.
How a Liberal Arts Degree Offers Some of the Best Preparation for Nonprofit Management Jobs
We’ve been going on and on about how nonprofit executives have to be ready to step in to all kinds of different roles based on the demands of the organization. You might have been thinking to yourself that it’s basically impossible to find a college degree that will really give you the skills you need in all those different areas.
But that’s almost exactly what a degree in the liberal arts has to offer. With a broad, interdisciplinary approach to education that focuses on communications, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills, a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies gives you exactly the sort of flexible skillset you can apply to almost any task in the nonprofit executive director job description.
So let’s look at the kind of skills you need and how a liberal arts degree will help you build them:
Planning and organization – Like any company, a nonprofit needs to have strategy and a plan of action to accomplish its mission. Liberal studies offers you a broad perspective on different human efforts over the ages and some ideas what works and what doesn’t for bringing people together. But equally important, a liberal arts degree requires self-motivated students to get their own act together. With no fixed curriculum and no professors breathing down your neck, you learn how to get organized and plot your own course. Picking a liberal arts major is polishing your planning and study skills in ways that will transfer to business efforts later on.
Accounting and reporting – Although economics and accounting are not always core pieces of the liberal arts curriculum, they are often course options in a liberal studies program. And while the basic math you need is easy to come by in many majors, there are few college degrees that hone your ability to make presentations and reports like a liberal arts degree will. With everything from essays to speeches commonly required in liberal studies classes, you will have these skills down cold by the time you go hunting for nonprofit management positions.
Communications – All those essays and in-class interactions don’t just prepare you for presentations. They also give your writing and speaking skills a high level of shine that will serve you well when it comes time to hit up big donors for contributions, or to motivate staff to take on extra hours volunteering at a senior center. You come out of a liberal arts degree program owning a way with words that few people can duplicate. And that helps you make your point and get your message out as a nonprofit director.
Caring – While it’s true that the biggest motivators for nonprofit work have to come from within you, a liberal arts program may just help you with the education and perspective it takes to cultivate your inner do-gooder. Social studies and multicultural understanding is one of the big points of a liberal arts major. Nonprofits are community-based, which makes it entirely important that you have a firm grasp on the needs and perspectives of other people and groups. With understanding comes empathy, and that empathy can be your super-power as a nonprofit ED.
A Master’s Degree Is a Common Requirement in High-level Nonprofit Executive Director Jobs
Just because nonprofits are often constrained by resources and running on a shoe-string, that doesn’t mean their standards for nonprofit management jobs are low. If anything, it requires more creativity, more problem-solving, and more critical thinking skills to make do with less than it does to work in corporations with buckets of resources.
So, master’s-qualified candidates always have a leg up when applying for nonprofit director jobs. A master’s degree in any field offers advanced training, develops key research skills, and deepens your knowledge in that critical area.
A master of arts in liberal studies (MALS) degree offers an advanced level of expertise in just about every kind of basic skills you will use as a nonprofit manager. More important, MALS programs offer a level of academic freedom you won’t find in any other kind of graduate degree. You have the opportunity—even the responsibility!—to build your own curriculum.
That gives you the chance to custom-build a course of study in exactly the kinds of advanced subjects you feel will serve you best in your nonprofit management career. Are you running a environmental watchdog looking at water-quality issues in a dense urban area? Maybe you need a combination of biological science and cultural studies to get you on top of both contamination issues and to connect to the affected community.
Or maybe you’re starting up an international outreach program to help connect women in small villages in underprivileged nations with micro-lenders in the developed world. You could stack classes in economics and international finance with technology and cultural studies to help you master every aspect of the program.
The Salary You Can Expect from Nonprofit Director Jobs
There is a real misconception about the kind of salary you can expect working for a nonprofit. It’s true that there are plenty of tiny outfits out there that barely clear enough to keep the lights on and can’t pay their managers anything like what they would make in the private sector. But there are also many nonprofits with multi-million dollar budgets and who are willing to pay top dollar for the right candidates for important jobs.
Nonprofits are also more generous when it comes to benefits, giving your total compensation a substantial boost. The BLS data from the study found that nonprofits were more likely than for-profits to offer health insurance and defined benefit or defined contribution retirement plans.
Salaries For Specific Nonprofit Management Jobs
Other than specific studies such as the one just mentioned, however, the Bureau doesn’t specifically track compensation for nonprofit employees. Instead, nonprofit staff are counted with the for-profit employees sharing the same job titles or functions. In other words, executive directors can be found in the category of chief executives with other CEOs, and other kinds of managers may be categorized with general managers, social and community service managers, or medical and health services managers.
You can get some idea of what pay levels are for those positions in nonprofits, however, by looking at the averages for those categories in business sectors where nonprofit organizations are common.
Religious, Grantmaking, Civic, Professional, and Similar Organizations
Of course, these are just general guidelines; there are many organizations that fall into those categories that may be private, for-profit organizations with different salary structures that muddy the waters. But on the whole, there are probably more non-profits in the mix than not.
Not all nonprofit managers measure their achievements strictly in terms of financial compensation, anyway. If the money magically evaporated tomorrow, you’d still find plenty of nonprofit managers showing up for work the next day, eager to make the world a better place. They are motivated by what needs to be done, by making a difference, by helping others.
Salary is a necessity to get by in the world, but it’s the satisfaction of making that world better that is the real compensation in nonprofit work.
2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for Top Executives, and reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2022.