Cathie J. Witty

Document Type


Publication Date




Despite the increasing social involvement of nonprofit organizations in public activity, we really know very little about the education, values and career patterns of the executives who manage this nonprofit sector.

This study begins to address these issues through interviews with fifty executive directors of large California nonprofit organizations. Four types of nonprofit organizations were included in the study. Human service agencies [20] and arts organizations [17] comprise the bulk of the organizations, with foundations [10] and scientific research facilities and museums [3] completing the sample.

The study explores the personal dimensions of mobility, career choices, education and gender-related issues among fifty nonprofit executive directors; it also considers the personal qualities that directors feel are required for the development of nonprofit careers and explores the movement of nonprofit directors between different fields and sectors.

The fifty personal interviews conducted for this study were both structured and open-ended; this combination provided a core of quantitative data and elicited rich qualitative data in the form of personal histories, career mobility decisions, and visions of the nonprofit career of the future.

This study sample is not representative of California nonprofit organizations. These data are probably not generalizable to smaller nonprofits or even to smaller nonprofits within the same categories; the data only provide preliminary insights into the career paths of nonprofit executives in large organizations.

The study found that although a substantial 20% of this group of directors admitted that they would consider a job offer from a corporate employer, most considered this an unlikely scenario. Contrary to earlier findings, these directors expressed a relatively uniform set of beliefs which creates an important barrier to executive mobility between sectors.

For these executives, the barrier is primarily created by a·perceived conflict of values. Executives in this study group care passionately about the value of their work - both its value to people and its greater value to the community. They share a common commitment to make things better in their community and for society as a whole; they do not believe that such values can survive in the corporate world.

Thus, while some executives might be attracted to the private sector through attractive incentives and enthusiastic recruitment, this issue of values would need to be carefully analyzed. Values, ethical behavior and social commitment are a large part of the incentive system for this group of directors. From these directors' viewpoint, sector shifts, especially to the for-profit sector, have potentially negative personal and career consequences.

Educational background and degrees were found to be important career path determinants among this group of nonprofit executives. Contrary to findings in foundations, the women in this sample have a higher education level than the men.

The qualitative findings show that women have had to overcome sexism, deal with unequal salary structures, and create a personal balance between family duties and management careers. The general outlook is encouraging in the sense that younger women in this group of executives are moving ahead faster and making better salaries than women who entered the field twenty years ago; they have also found personal relationships that give them the career support essential to job movement, upward mobility and peace of mind.

Mentors and personal networks were found to be pivotal factors in the career mobility, recruitment and hiring procedures experienced by these directors. There was a clear generational, gender-related difference in affiliations with mentors, as well. The data are quite clear that mentors for this group of managers had a strong tendency to mentor people of the same sex; this generation seems to have dramatically equalized the distribution of mentoring relationships, however, and predominantly mentor junior staff and colleagues of both sexes.

There was also evidence throughout this study that board members, as well as mentors, had a great deal of informal influence on the executive recruitment and selection process. Often the key personal linkage between a manager and an important job interview was facilitated by board members in the midst of an executive search.

Although the executives in this sample were consistent in their acknowledgement of long hours and inadequate pay, these factors had not yet driven them from the nonprofit sector. Since the average age of these directors was 48, however, their current positions may represent a management career pinnacle which may substantiate contentions from the nonprofit literature that blocked mobility leads to migration to other sectors.

There is strong countervailing evidence in these data and the in-depth discussions that executives may lower their salary expectations, or engage in money-making projects outside their management careers, in order to remain in their nonprofit careers.

Further, there was no evidence in this study that movement of executives between sectors is a major source of upward career mobility; it was not found in the patterns of lateral job movement in the directors' prior positions, or in the attitudes of the majority of the directors directly interviewed about this possibility.