Hiring A Nonprofit CEO

Sarah Lutman
Hiring A Nonprofit CEO

The process of hiring a CEO can be an especially daunting task for nonprofit boards.

It’s time-consuming and requires wrangling disparate volunteer board members into a cohesive group that can interview candidates and agree on the right one to hire. Frequently, nonprofits cannot afford to hire a search consultant or firm to help them manage the process and instead have to dig in and get the job done themselves. With or without a search firm, it’s hiring by committee.

In fact, it’s the search committee that is the distinguishing characteristic of nonprofit executive search. “Nonprofits have a participatory culture,” Lars Leafblad tells me. Leafblad is one of two principals in Ballinger Leafblad, a one-year-old firm specializing in what they term “civic search,” working in the universe of foundations, nonprofits, associations and higher ed institutions.

“A lot of voices are engaged,” he says, “and the process is never streamlined. This is both a strength of nonprofit search and the challenge.” Cindy Chandler of the Chandler Group agrees. “The size of the search committee in nonprofits can be large, 12 or more people,” she says. “Nonprofits want not only board members but often other outside stakeholders involved in the search process.” Here’s some advice from these experts for nonprofits facing the CEO search challenge.

Recognize there is a difference

Board members accustomed to hiring in the business sector are likely to find the nonprofit hiring process cumbersome. However, effective nonprofit leaders must be able to relate to and engage with a very diverse set of people, including board members, staff, constituents, funders, government officials and program participants, to name a few. Search committees need a sense of how effective candidates are in front of these diverse groups. If you’re the candidate, “you should come into the job with your eyes wide open,” says Leafblad, “having met with the organization’s funders, partners and donors.” Further, boards should plan a multifaceted input process to see all sides of a candidate’s strengths. “Don’t just interview,” Leafblad suggests, “but also see the candidate’s writing ability, their group and one-on-one interactions, and be sure to do a deep check with multiple references who know the candidate well.”

Get aligned

Nonprofits should spend time carefully developing a job announcement and agreeing on the competencies needed. Often this requires one-on-one interviews with staff, board members and stakeholders who weigh in on the organization’s current status and future needs. Chandler says that it’s not unusual to interview two dozen people or more to inform the development of a position announcement. “This alignment should never be cut short,” Chandler says. “Where we see failure in these processes are times when getting to alignment in the beginning—before the search began—was incomplete.”

Watch out for the echo chamber

Nonprofits and the people in them tend to operate within known networks of people, and it’s among these networks that organizations typically look for candidates. But, says Leafblad, “you have to figure out how to tap into new pools of talent. This requires intentionality about how broadly the search will be conducted.” Leafblad urges organizations to think through all of the possible connections they can make to inform as many people as possible about the job opening. The right candidate may not be within the known network; plus, the process of reaching out to new people and groups has long-term benefit.

Draw on available resources

Free and low-cost information and workshops are available from places such as Minnesota’s MAP for Nonprofits, the national BoardSource project and websites such as GuideStar. They’re full of resources for nonprofit boards involved in succession planning and executive searches. Boards do not need to reinvent the wheel in terms of ideas and templates for the search or the interviewing and hiring process. It’s also helpful to talk to other volunteers who have been through the process recently and can share their perspectives and lessons learned.

Don’t stop with hiring

“Whatever you do, don’t stop with hiring,” Leafblad warns. “Successful onboarding and supporting the leadership transition is hugely important.” Search firms often provide independent onboarding support, something that organizations working without consultants may not consider. Making sure a transition committee is in place is one approach. Forming a “kitchen cabinet” for the new leader is another.

A significant difference between the business sector and nonprofits is what Leafblad calls the difference in “succession methodology.” Businesses, in his experience, “are more likely to consistently think about succession in all leadership positions across the organization.” He suggests an annual or even quarterly analysis of key leadership roles and identification of who in the organization is being prepared for new responsibilities. Adopting a succession mentality can help organizations prepare for the inevitable transitions that can be destabilizing when they’re not anticipated.

What’s the reward for a well-run executive search process? “A search is really an engagement strategy that allows nonprofits to connect with key people, align around the organization’s future and create a transformational moment. Then everyone benefits—the nonprofit and the community it serves,” he says. For those going through this process or planning to, there’s a lot of help available. Establishing a careful, broad-based and inclusive process is the essential first step to hiring well. TCB

Help from Search Firms

Three Minnesota-based foundations recently contracted with search firms to assist them in finding successors for retiring top executives. The new leaders of the foundations are:
Ben Cameron | President | Jerome Foundation | St. Paul
Eric Jolly | President | Minnesota Philanthropy Partners | St. Paul
Tony Sertich | President | The Northland Foundation | Duluth

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.

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