Executive Director (Nonprofit) Interview Questions

When hiring an Executive Director, it is essential to find a candidate with the vision and leadership skills to guide your nonprofit organization into the future. A successful candidate will have a thorough understanding of the organization’s mission and be able to communicate it accurately to the internal team, the public, and the media. Strategic planning, management, and fundraising skills must all be outstanding. 

During your Executive Director interview, listen for candidates who demonstrate a high level of integrity and a genuine passion for your nonprofit cause. A diverse background in marketing, public relations, and finance is a must. Give your candidates the opportunity to open up and share their strategies for advancing your organization, and to show they have the skills to execute on their ideas.

General interview questions (such as “Can you tell me about yourself?” and “Why are you looking for another job?”) are a great way to get to know your candidate’s personal history, interests and goals. However, be sure to add inquiries specific to the role they’re interviewing for, so you can gain valuable insights into their likelihood of success in that position. 

Below are Executive Director interview questions to help you get started: 

Based on public information, can you offer an assessment of our organization’s programs and services?

What you want to hear: This question gives you an idea of the amount of research a candidate has conducted. It also gives them an opportunity to display their analytical, critical, and creative thinking abilities. Listen for suggestions to current programs that they can observe as an outsider, and for sound ideas on what they think works and doesn’t in an organization similar to yours. 

Red Flag IconRed flag: Do they only know your organization (or organizations like yours) on a superficial level? Are they all out of comments, suggestions or insights after a very brief response? These are two red flags you don’t want to ignore. 

What do you believe makes a fundraising event successful?

What you want to hear: A large component of a fundraising event’s success comes from its ability to connect with people on an emotional level. For an event to achieve established goals there must be thorough and meticulous planning and a sharp focus on building genuine relationships. A strong candidate will have extensive experience designing and executing fundraisers, and will be able to detail the outcomes of those events in terms of dollars raised and relationships built. 

Red Flag IconRed flag: Fundraising events are typically the lifeline of a nonprofit organization. A candidate who doesn’t fully understand how fundraisers work, or lacks experience conducting fundraisers, is missing a key qualification for success as an Executive Director.  

How do you view the role of the Board of Directors in a nonprofit organization?

What you want to hear: A qualified candidate will be able to convey the respective roles of the Executive Director and the Board of Directors. In sum, the two roles share strategic planning, fundraising planning, and overall evaluation of the organization; the Board’s additional responsibilities include general legal oversight, management oversight, and financial oversight; the Executive Director’s additional responsibilities are the day-to-day operations of staff management, development of policies and programs, and liaison to the Board. 

Red Flag IconRed flag: A candidate who is not well versed in the role of the Board may not have the requisite practical experience to lead your nonprofit.

This position requires you to be a leader. What does that mean to you? 

What you want to hear: Your candidate should be able to speak to the philosophy of good leadership, as well as actual prior experience in a leadership capacity. Look for examples of when their leadership skills resulted in a positive outcome for individuals and organizations. As well, take note if the candidate presents as a leader who can naturally inspire others with their vision and passion.  

Red Flag IconRed flag: A candidate that comes across as timid, or lacking in conviction, or unable to inspire will be ineffectual in a role that demands a strong presence. 

If we hire you, what progress should we expect to see within the first year?  

What you want to hear: You want to hear both concrete and intangible goals. A strong candidate might discuss a roadmap for sharpening the organization’s mission, establishing and maintaining budgets, reviewing and shoring up staff, maximizing Board of Director functions, analyzing current practices for media and public outreach, and strengthening relationships within the community.  

Red Flag IconRed flag:  If a candidate isn’t prepared to recite a vision for their first year in the role they may not have the skills to conduct such planning, or they may have simply come to the interview unprepared for what should have been an obvious question. Neither scenario bodes well for future success. 

How will you handle challenges that arise when carrying out your duties?

What you want to hear: Is your candidate energized or discouraged by the inevitable challenges they and the organization will face? Take note of the specific skills they mention as being important for problem solving and crisis management. A promising candidate will share actual stories about problems they encountered in previous roles, the tools they used to analyze the problems, and the creative solutions they employed to resolve the problems. 

Red Flag IconRed flag: A candidate who speaks only in generalities without providing real case studies based on their own experiences may not be battle ready. They should have experience managing major public-facing crises as well as smaller challenges in the workplace. 

Is there anything you want to ask us about our organization?

What you want to hear: A strong candidate has an inquisitive mind and will be prepared to ask a range of questions about the organization’s mission, team, operations and Board of Directors. They might offer questions like, “What qualities of the person who last held this position would you and the Board of Directors most like to improve on?” or “What about your current operations do you feel could be run more efficiently?”. Enthusiastic candidates will ask questions and listen attentively. 

Red Flag Icon Red flag: “No, I think you covered it.” This kind of response is a red flag! A candidate who lacks curiosity in the interview will most likely accept the status quo as Executive Director and fail to elevate the position and organization to new heights.

Every interview question can help get you closer to the right fit for your Executive Director position.

Be sure to keep an eye out for candidates who:

  • Have a passion for the mission of your nonprofit
  • Possess excellent leadership and fundraising skills
  • Are experienced in problem solving and crisis management