executive director interview questions leadership

Mazarine Treyz


How can you choose the right executive director? Here’s your first tip.

Don’t choose a current board member.

It may seem a convenient way to save money and time, but please don’t do this. Why? A board member can’t make a decision on their own hiring. They should step down and not even be in the room when the choice is being made. Who would ensure their accountability if they’re already friends with everyone on the board? (The answer is, NO ONE.) Your board needs to have a certain amount of distance from the executive director. Honestly I have only ever seen this end in tears.

Don’t do it.

Here are 14 Interview questions to ask your potential executive director.

  1. Do you like to fundraise? (You want this person to answer yes, and give examples of successful fundraising they’ve done.)
  2. What was the last book you read about fundraising? (They should be able to name at least one, and how they applied it)
  3. Have you ever made a fundraising plan? If so, did you follow the plan? (This person should say yes to both of these questions)
  4. Have you ever done major gifts? (Ideally, the person will say yes to this, and talk about how they did this)
  5. Please give us some examples of your previous successful fundraising experience.
  6. What, in your mind, contributed to your success in fundraising before coming to our organization? (They should talk about systems and teams, or their sales ability)
  7. Have you ever trained board members how to fundraise? (You want this person to say yes, and here’s how, and here’s what they did as a result of my training)
  8. If hired, what would you do to help fundraise for this organization? (Ideally, this person would say, “I would take on major gifts, with board members, leaving the grants, events, and appeals to my development director”)
  9. (If they’ve been an executive director before) How would you characterize your relationship with previous fundraising staff? What was the average tenure of a fundraiser at your previous charity? (The answer you want is, we worked well together, and longer than 2 years.)
  10. Do you know what a culture of philanthropy is? (If you don’t know what a culture of philanthropy is, please see “Donor Centered Leadership” by Penelope Burke.)
  11. What would you do to create a culture of philanthropy at this organization? (Again, see this book by Penelope Burke)
  12. This job encompasses HR functions such as hiring and firing. Have you ever performed these functions? (Hopefully yes)
  13. What would your previous direct reports say about your management style?
  14. Do you currently have a side-job or business? If so, would you be willing to give up this business while you fill this position?  (In the past, I had a CEO who had a side business that he was trying to run while being the head of this nonprofit. It didn’t work out.)
  15. BONUS: Have you ever mismanaged funds, either in a nonprofit or for-profit position? (Okay, they may not answer this one honestly but it’s important to at least ask it. A previous CEO I knew mismanaged funds at his previous job and then went on to mismanage funds at this nonprofit as well.)
  16. You will also want to add some agency-specific questions, such as, “we’re going through a transition now, with this staff person or that board member, what would you do to mitigate this rough period?” or “We’re facing a budget shortfall of X amount, how would you help us solve this problem?”

What questions do YOU like to ask potential executive directors?

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