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How to Hire the Right Executive Leader for Your Nonprofit

Choosing a new executive director or CEO for your nonprofit is arguably the most important decision your board has the responsibility to make. As such, it’s important to realize that the quest to hire the ideal candidate begins long before you schedule a single interview. It starts with a well-structured, thorough search process.

In today’s competitive hiring landscape, the way you approach your nonprofit executive search is more important than ever. To win the War for Talent and weather The Great Reshuffle, you can’t afford to sit back and wait for good candidates to find you. You must leverage every resource available in order to attract a robust and diverse candidate pool.

Even if you’re fairly certain that an internal candidate is best suited for the job, it’s crucial to engage in a comprehensive search process. Doing so will help the winning candidate establish credibility and build trust with internal and external stakeholders alike. 

Here’s what it takes to identify and hire a new executive leader at your nonprofit and set them on the path to success.

Proactively Reach Out to Diverse, Well-Qualified Candidates

Most board members underestimate the time and energy it will require to attract the attention of worthy applicants. Why? The strongest candidates typically aren’t in the market for a new position. They’re highly unlikely to apply to a posting on your website, Linkedin, or Indeed on their own.

Your outreach to candidates needs to be proactive (even relentless) in order to identify talented leaders with the right mix of experience, skills, and expertise your nonprofit requires. Beyond that, in a competitive labor market, many in-demand professionals need to be persuaded that your opportunity is worth their consideration.

An experienced, well-connected executive search partner can make this process far less daunting. A good consultant will have:

  • The ability to tap into a large, well-established network of nonprofit leaders in a variety of sectors
  • Proven skills in modern search techniques, including specialty certifications in areas such as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion-focused recruitment  
  • Time to devote to contacting well-qualified leaders, speaking with them about the role one-on-one, and inviting them to apply
  • Insight into ways your organization might be communicating unconscious bias or a non-welcoming atmosphere to members of underrepresented and marginalized groups 

Benefactor Group consultants employ a variety of targeted search techniques to provide nonprofits with a well-rounded slate of candidates to consider. 

Give an Honest Overview of the Organization and the Role

Executive leaders are seasoned professionals who have spent years building an impressive track record. They have goals for their life and their career, and they possess deep insight into what they want and what they offer. At a minimum, they’ll want to be sure your organization’s mission and values align with their own. But they’re also likely to ask pointed questions about your organizational culture, the vision and strategic direction of the organization, your team’s morale and turnover rates, and your willingness to offer a flexible approach to work.

Even at the executive level, applicants are looking for flexibility now more than ever. For some, this element is as important as compensation. And they’re not simply concerned about their own work/life balance. They’re cognizant that they’ll need to be able to extend flexibility to their own teams in order to attract and retain top talent. This is a key consideration since losing high-performing fundraisers comes at an astronomical cost.

To that end, be prepared to give an honest overview of your organizational culture and your vision for the future. Consider questions like: 

  • What do you expect your leader to achieve in the coming year? 
  • What is your organization’s reputation in the community? 
  • How do you communicate with stakeholders? 
  • How are your organization’s mission and values reflected in the culture of the staff and the board? 

Think through cultural considerations like these in order to provide candidates with an accurate preview of what to expect.

An outside perspective can be incredibly valuable here, as well. By having a search consultant conduct in-depth discovery work with your internal and external stakeholders, you can be sure your search prospectus and position descriptions are thorough, detailed, and focused on the right priorities for your organization.

Establish Structured, Unbiased Assessment Criteria

Finding good candidates and persuading them to apply for your nonprofit’s leadership position takes a lot of time, but it’s only the beginning. Next, you’ll need to establish transparent, uniform, objective criteria to assess each applicant’s capabilities. 

Lay out measurement criteria to evaluate the experience, expertise, and competencies each person needs to meet in order to emerge as a top-choice candidate. Then, use validated interviewing methods and questions to look for alignment with those core competencies.

When evaluating candidates, it’s crucial for your search committee to consistently assess every candidate with all these factors — and any others you deem important — in mind.

Be aware that maintaining objectivity throughout this process can be challenging for many board members. As a volunteer leader, you tend to see your organization through the lens of your own experience. Therefore, you may be unconsciously drawn to candidates who will best serve your interests and needs. Likewise, you might favor a well-liked internal candidate without realizing it. 

A skilled search consultant can help you lay out a structured process that keeps all your candidates on a level playing field while also balancing out various board member perspectives.

Provide Ongoing Support for Your New Executive Leader

Once you’ve selected your nonprofit’s next executive leader and that person has accepted your offer, it might feel like you’ve crossed the finish line. But the truth is your end point is your candidate’s starting line. Your work isn’t done quite yet. 

Smart nonprofit boards provide ongoing support for the incoming executive. This includes developing a thorough onboarding plan, setting clear expectations, and offering ongoing leadership coaching. 

To set your new leader up to make a long-term impact, take time to define what success looks like. Spell out the early wins you’d like your new leader to work toward. And be sure to keep those expectations realistic and achievable to keep the entire team motivated and on track. 

Hiring a Nonprofit Executive is More Challenging than Ever. Are You Ready?

As a board member, you have a number of fiduciary and governance responsibilities to fulfill. On top of that, you have a day job, too. So it’s only natural that you might be concerned you can’t devote the time to the executive search process that it deserves. 

You don’t have to do this alone. Benefactor Group can help you find a talented, capable, dynamic executive to lead your nonprofit into the future. 

When you’re ready to begin, reach out. We’d love to leverage our extensive network on your behalf.