Career Paths of Nonprofit Executive Leaders

Who Is at the Top in the Social Sector? Examining Career Paths of Nonprofit Executive Leaders

Authors: Dorothy Norris-Tirrell, Ph.D., Nonprofit Leadership Alliance; Jennifer Rinella, Ed.D. CNP, Rockhurst University; Xuan Pham, Ph.D., Rockhurst University; Gene Moses, MPA, CNP, Nonprofit Leadership Alliance

White Paper Release Date: April 17, 2017

Introductory Comments and Methodology

Given the nonprofit sector’s role of providing crucial, oftentimes life-saving, services to the community, it is critical that we better understand the person who sits in the top-ranking position at the more than one million nonprofit organizations operating in the U.S. This knowledge is even more important with the impending leadership deficit created by the retirement of the Baby Boomer Generation. As many as 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 each day[i]; in the nonprofit sector specifically, 67% of Baby Boomers in leadership positions indicated a plan to retire within the next five years. At the same time, nonprofit sector hiring is expected to outpace private sector hiring over the next five years;  if current trends continue, the sector may need to replace every existing senior executive position within the next eight years.

The sector struggles with dedicating sufficient resources to talent recruitment and training. Studies show that as many as 68% of nonprofits do not have a formal succession plan to fill anticipated openings. Without a strategy in place, executive turnover, while inevitable, may have adverse impacts on nonprofits and their missions.

The top-salaried position in nonprofit organizations, frequently labeled executive director (ED), chief executive officer (CEO), chief professional officer or president, is crucial to long-term success in the nonprofit sector; in fact, effective leadership is the most important predictor of organizational sustainability and success. The complex responsibilities of nonprofit executives include everything from high-level strategic engagements to facilities maintenance. Successful CEOs must be well versed in the intricacies of constituent engagement, volunteer management, organizational productivity, as well as have a deep knowledge of the industries in which their organizations operate.

In an effort to better understand our sector’s leadership, the Who Is at the Top in the Social Sector study maps the typical career pathways for nonprofit CEOs, examining the common skills and experiences that helped position these leaders for success.

The study sample includes the LinkedIn profiles of 272 randomly selected regional and local leaders from 12 national nonprofit organizations, such as Boy Scouts of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Camp Fire, Catholic Charities, Feeding America, Girl Scouts, Goodwill, Make-A-Wish, Ronald McDonald House Charities, Volunteers of America, YMCA and YWCA. These organizations were selected because they operate on a national scale with more 8,300 affiliates combined.

The study’s research questions focus on who is serving in the role of executive leader and the variables, including gender, education, generational grouping, career mission focus, sector experience, functional job experience, and decision to relocate, that may impact reaching this position.