So You Want To Interview For Executive Director

Now and again the issue is raised about people moving from the corporate to non-profit world without really understanding the philosophical and cultural differences between the two sectors. 

It wasn’t until a posting by Joan Garry, who made the corporate to non-profit move when she became the executive director of GLAAD, that I realized I had never really seen an attempt to provide an understanding of those differences.

Noting that given the demographics of her readership, she is probably preaching to the choir, she encourages people to forward her post to anyone considering making the transition.

She provides her advice in the form of probable interview questions a candidate for a non-profit executive director position will receive.

This also serves a good guide for the type of questions a non-profit board should be asking candidates. She addresses the obvious question right out of the gate:

1. Tell us about your previous nonprofit experience. How do you perceive the differences in the sectors?

This is really important. You need to have played in the nonprofit sandbox in some way. I’m hoping you have volunteered, been involved in a PTA, or in your house of worship. Consider the differences between that and your corporate job.

If you haven’t done any of those things, as a member of the search committee, I am going to be very skeptical indeed.

Later questions address the fact that employees of non-profits are motivated by entirely different factors than those in a corporate setting; the larger number of constituents with conflicting interests that need to be managed; the relationship between board and executive director and of course, the ever present issue of fund raising.

Since these questions are based largely on the questions that were posed to her when she was interviewing, I appreciated that she reflected on the success of some of her answers. She said she admitted she had no fund raising experience, but that she figured if she could get boxing promoter Don King to pay Showtime what he owed them, she could ask anyone for money.

I also appreciated that she recognized that she was weak in some respects, despite being highly qualified in a wide range of areas, and that it was her answer to the question, “Why are you passionate about THIS organization and THIS mission?” that got her the job.

An acknowledgement that there are always skill sets that will need to be developed is pretty much expected for any new job. As a commenter on her post notes, sometimes that isn’t the case and there is a sense that non-profit work is something one deigns to do after they have had a real career.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “So You Want To Interview For Executive Director”

  1. Joe – thank you so much for referencing my post. There is such a need for folks to consider nonprofit leadership with a huge percentage of retiring leaders. With your eyes wide open and with passion for the mission, a shift to nonprofit can be completely transformative. I know it was for me! Thanks again. Joan Garry


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