Nonprofit Social Service Director Career

Nonprofit social service directors, also known as non­profit directors, nonprofit chief executive officers, nonprofit administrators or social and community service managers, are at the top rung on the agency’s ladder. No matter what area the agency specializes in—health care, services for the aging, or youth development, for example—the director is the individual who spearheads the organi­zation’s efforts, operations, and progress. A director’s duties may include hiring and managing staff, fund-rais­ing, budgeting, public relations, and, depending on the agency, working directly with the clientele served.

Nonprofit Social Service Director Career History

Social service organizations have been around in various forms for hundreds of years. During the Middle Ages, organizations formed to care for the sick and the poor. By the 1800s, the industrial revolution was changing society’s structure as numerous people moved from small towns and farms to cities where they worked in industries and had few, if any, established social support systems. The cities became more crowded, wages were low, and life became more complicated. After the Civil War, there was an explosion of social service organizations—groups caring for the sick and the poor, and, increasingly, for immigrants. Under President Roosevelt’s administra­tion during the 1930s, many New Deal programs, such as unemployment insurance, were established to help people deal with the effects of the Depression. During the 1960s, President Johnson’s administration followed a similar agenda of promoting the well-being of all citizens with the “Great Society” programs, such as Medicare. These programs increased the role of the government in the welfare of individuals and stimulated the growth of private social service organizations. In the years that fol­lowed, the older organizations expanded and many new organizations emerged.

Nonprofit Social Service DirectorBy the end of the 20th century, however, social sup­port systems had begun to change. The federal govern­ment, responding to the unpopularity of the expense of many government social service programs, eliminated some programs and cut back on many others. Perhaps the best-known cutback was the Welfare Reform Bill, which was designed to shorten the length of time welfare recipients receive benefits. Reforms at the national level mean that state governments often find themselves try­ing to provide money to keep programs running. If the funds can’t be found at the state level, the slack may be picked up at the city level. If the city is unable to come up with the necessary funds, the services usually pass out of the hands of governmental officials altogether and into the hands of local or national nonprofit organizations.

The need for nongovernmental organizations to fill in gaps left by federal, state, and local programs has changed the profile of charity work. Where many organizations once had untrained volunteers, they now often require trained, full-time staff. As nonprofit social service work has become more crucial to the national infrastructure, nonprofits have become increasingly professional. Non­profit organizations are dependent on intelligent, edu­cated, and savvy direction in order to work. Fund-raising, budgeting, resource management, and public relations are just a few areas where top-notch business skills are a necessity. The role of those who run the organizations— administrators, executive directors, and directors—is crucial.

Nonprofit Social Service Director Job Description

Anyone looking for a career that provides a diversity of responsibilities, satisfaction, meaning, action, and a wide realm of options should certainly consider entering the field of social work. Social workers are people who are committed to making a positive difference in the human condition, and the director of an organization has the primary responsibility of seeing that the organization achieves its goals and impacts positively on the lives of the people it’s designed to serve.

An aspect of social work that sets it apart from other help­ing professions is the concept of helping people in their envi­ronments. Social workers help clients not only with how they feel about a situation, but also with what they can do about it. For example, a woman suffering stress from being a single par­ent may be referred by a social worker to a child care agency. The social worker also might help her explore other options, such as getting flex time at work. In addition, the social worker might provide therapy or counseling or refer the client to a qualified therapist for assistance in man­aging her stress. A wide variety of nonprofit organizations are at work in the United States today, and each has a different mission and set of services.

Because it now takes such a high level of professional sophis­tication to keep a nonprofit going, directing these sorts of organizations is becoming a complex, challenging, and varied career. At one time, the biggest prerequisite to those who wanted to work in social services was a big heart. Today, compassion is still a necessary quality to have, but knowledge, skill, and talent are just as important. A director of a social services organization may be in charge of managing staff, over­seeing the budget, spearheading fund-raising efforts, and handling public relations issues.

Sheri Flanigan served for three years as the executive director of La Casa Latina Inc., a nonprofit organization with the mission to “empower the Latino population to become part of the Siouxland community.” Flanigan says about her work, “There was no ‘typical day.’ I spent about half of my time on administration: budgeting, fund-rais­ing, grant writing, staff supervision, community meet­ings, and board meetings. Because we were small (five staff members and a $150,000 budget), I did all of the bookkeeping and payroll. The other half of my time, I provided direct services—translations and interpreta­tion primarily. I also filled in when another staff member was out.”

Flanigan notes that the diversity of her experiences was one of the best parts of the job. Because she worked for a small organization, she could work on both a macro and a micro level. She was able to see the fruits of her organization’s labors on a community-wide level, but she also enjoyed the time she was able to spend working directly with the agency’s clients.

In any nonprofit organization, even as the top indi­vidual in the structure, the nature of a director’s work likely will be determined largely by a board of directors. This board, plus the size and nature of the organization, will define the director’s duties to a large extent.

Nonprofit Social Service Director Career Requirements

High School

If you’re interested in nonprofit social services work, you’ll want to concentrate on humanities and social science courses such as English, history, government, sociology, and psychology. Such courses will give you perspective on the issues confronting the people that a nonprofit organization will be trying to help. Commu­nication skills are critical, so in addition to English, take public speaking courses to hone your skills. The ability to speak a foreign language will be a big plus in many organizations; consider taking Spanish, as it is the second most common language spoken in this country. At the director level of a nonprofit agency, you will be respon­sible for budget expenditures; therefore, you should have mathematics and accounting knowledge, so be sure to include these classes in your schedule. Finally, take com­puter science courses so that you will be able to use the computer for activities such as creating budgets, writing grant proposals, and keeping a database of information on clients.

Postsecondary Training

Most nonprofit social service organizations will require that you have a degree in social work from a college or university program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. The undergraduate degree is the bach­elor of social work (B.S.W.). Graduate degrees include the master of social work (M.S.W.) and the doctorate in social work (D.S.W.) or Ph.D. The undergraduate degree will allow you to find entry-level positions at many agen­cies. Typical courses of study for the B.S.W. include classes in social welfare policies, human behavior and the social environment, research methods, and ethics. In addition, accredited programs require you to complete at least 400 hours of supervised field experience. To advance to the level of director, you will need to have a master’s or doctorate degree. Obtaining an M.S.W. degree usually requires two years of courses along with 900 hours of supervised fieldwork. You may be able to enter a master’s program without having a B.S.W.; however, you should have a background that includes psychology, sociology, biology, economics, and social work courses.

Certification or Licensing

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, all states have some type of licensing, certification, or registra­tion requirement for those practicing social work and using professional titles. However, the standards and requirements vary from state to state, and those wanting to work as social workers will need to check with their state licensing boards. These licensing, certification, or registration requirements may or may not be necessary for the director, depending on the nature of the organiza­tion and the duties of the director. Again, those wanting to work as directors will need to contact the regulatory board of the state in which they want to work to find out specific requirements. The Association of Social Work Boards may also be able to provide such information.

Other Requirements

It takes a certain kind of person to succeed in social ser­vices. According to Sheri Flanigan, “you can’t be afraid to ‘touch’ low-income people. From my experiences, I find that even the most well-meaning people have difficulty working in this field if they are uncomfort­able interacting with the clientele. In addition, social services are notoriously understaffed, so you also have to be willing to do the work (answer the phone, make copies, etc.). Even though you shouldn’t be doing these things for a large portion of the day as a director, you have to be willing to work side by side with the other staff.” Social services workers and directors also need to be emotionally stable, objective about situations they face, and responsible.

Exploring Nonprofit Social Service Director Career

The best way of exploring this field is by doing volunteer work for a nonprofit social service organization such as a hospice, shelter, or community outreach organiza­tion. Volunteering will give you exposure to the work environment as well as the situations an organization’s clients face and help you develop your listening and com­munications skills. It can also give you an understanding of the way nonprofits work and the kind of expectations employers will have.

Sheri Flanigan agrees and says, “Volunteer at a variety of social service organizations. This will give you the opportunity to see close-up how these types of organiza­tions function and to evaluate the pros and the cons. The experience will also look good on a resume.”


Nonprofit social service organizations vary in size, pur­pose, and location. There are large, national nonprofit youth advocacy agencies in the thick of policy issues in Washington, D.C., for example. On the other hand, there are hospices, shelters, and youth support centers in small, community-oriented settings. The nature of the work a director does may also vary, depending on the orga­nization and its size, needs, goals, and board of direc­tors. For example, some social welfare nonprofits focus on changing legislation or public perceptions of certain social issues. These organizations will work differently from those that focus more on working directly with those needing services.

Starting Out

With your B.S.W. or M.S.W. in hand, you should be able to find entry-level work in the social services field. Your college placement office will have contacts to get you started, and the contacts you’ve made through your pro­fessors and colleagues will be invaluable in referring you to vacant positions.

Many social service directors started their careers as volunteers, then, as employees, they worked their way up the ranks. Sheri Flanigan entered the field as a Volunteer to Service in America (VISTA) volunteer. “VISTA was an excellent way for me to become familiar with the social service organization without having to start at entry level. I believe that service corps is what you make of it. It is easy as a volunteer not to put a lot of effort into the job, but don’t fall into that trap. It is an excellent time to explore your opportunities, and to put a lot of effort into making your project work.”


As the director or executive director of an organization, it can be difficult to see advancement opportunities because these people are already at the top levels of their organi­zations. A director, however, may see advancement as broadening the goals of his or her organization, increas­ing funding, or raising public awareness about the issues the organization addresses. Directors can also advance by moving from one nonprofit to another, larger nonprofit agency. Sheri Flanigan has a recommendation: “Look to grow your organization. You start as the executive direc­tor of a small nonprofit organization and soon you’re the executive director of a large nonprofit—an organization that you nurtured and grew. There is also the possibility of being hired at a larger organization or an organization more tailored to your interests.”


Salaries in nonprofit work are typically lower than those paid for comparable work in the for-profit sector. In addition, salaries in the nonprofit sector vary tremen­dously depending on the size, location, and purpose of the organization. Large, high-profile nonprofits with specialized staff and budgets in the millions of dollars, for example, may pay directors well over $100,000, but six-figure salaries are still the exception in this field According to, the median annual income in 2006 for social service directors was $79,941. The lowest paid directors earned $69,422 and highest paid directors earned $92,677 or more. The business publication The NonProfit Times, which conducts periodic salary sur­veys, reports the average earnings for CEOs and execu­tive directors at nonprofit social services and welfare organizations were approximately $100,118 in 2006. In addition to information on CEOs’ pay, the survey also included earnings information for other top administra­tive positions. The survey showed the national average for development directors was $65,004; for program directors, $60,577; and for directors of volunteers, $38,423. Addi­tionally, the survey reported salaries varied depending on a specific organization’s budget. The median salaries for executive directors of nonprofit organizations with annual budgets of $500,000 or less were $56,500 while the median salaries of executive directors of nonprofits with budgets of $1 million to $9.9 million were $90,413. Directors work­ing for nonprofit organizations with budgets of $50 mil­lion or more reported average salaries of $207,145. It is important to keep in mind that the top director job is an advanced position. Those just starting out in the field will earn much less than CEOs. People in this field, however, find that they have the reward of emotional satisfaction not found in every job.

Nonprofit organizations often offer benefits packages that can’t be beat. In most agencies, employees can expect liberal annual paid vacation days, generous sick leave, health and hospitalization insurance, retirement plans, and good personnel practices.

Work Environment

Many social services directors feel this emotional satis­faction to be the best part of the job. In addition to the emotional benefits gained from working directly with clients, there are also the benefits from close relation­ships with colleagues. Nonprofits make great employers because of the positive work environment that they pro­mote; nonprofits are typically humanitarian, responsive to stress, and supportive emotionally. However, these organizations almost always are run on tight budgets, and directors may have to deal with the constant threat of cutbacks or even closure. This can be stressful, and the director must concentrate on the “business” aspect of the work by getting funding, keeping costs down, and meeting with legislators or potential donors. Directors interact with many different people throughout their workdays and must be able to handle a variety of social situations. The tone of the work environment—dedi­cated, creative, community-oriented—is often set by the director’s actions. Working hard and long hours pro­motes commitment to the job by everyone.

Nonprofit Social Service Director Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, numer­ous job opportunities will be available in social services through 2014. The overall employment growth rate for the social services industry is projected to be faster than the average. The expected rapid growth is due to expand­ing services for the elderly, the mentally and physically disabled, and families in crisis. Our nation’s elderly com­prise a rapidly expanding segment of the population that is likely to need a wide range of social services. The grow­ing emphasis on providing home care services, enabling aging seniors to remain at home rather than relocate to costly skilled nursing facilities, will contribute to employ­ment growth in the social services industry. A continu­ing influx of foreign-born nationals to this country will spur the demand for a range of social services, such as financial, relocation, and job training assistance. Child protective services and special groups, such as adults who were abused as children, are also on the rise. In addition, crime, juvenile delinquency, mental illness, developmen­tal disabilities, AIDS, and individual and family crises will spur demand for social services. Every agency will need to be overseen by a capable and savvy director. Many job openings will also stem from the need to replace non­profit social service directors who leave their posts.

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