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What Differentiates a Nonprofit Executive Search?

When a nonprofit hires an independent party to assist with the search and selection of its next leader, it can pursue various options: large, globally branded retained search firms; boutique firms; contingent search firms; individual search professionals — or variations of them.

However, anyone recruiting for nonprofit leadership positions must understand and appreciate the differences of the sector and the unique competencies required for its leadership. There are several factors that sets a nonprofit executive search apart from its corporate counterpart.

Search Committee

The nonprofit sector relies heavily on a search committee — especially for the roles of executive director, president, or chief executive officer. The committee is typically comprised of board members, donors, and other key stakeholders. Each has a different perspective of the role, the requirements for success, and the vision for the organization. While the search committee provides valuable insights and diverse perspectives, it also adds a layer of logistical and decision-making complexity to the process. Search consultants who focus on the nonprofit sector are accustomed to working with committee members’ varying opinions and are able to navigate the added complexities.

Nonprofit Boards

Nonprofit executives report to an ever-changing volunteer board. The board chair at the time the position opens may not be the board chair at the time the position is filled. Recruiters must understand this governance structure and evaluate the candidate’s ability to work with the board accordingly. A nonprofit executive’s ability to develop and maintain strong relationships with a rotating roster of board members is critical to long-term success and stability.

Nonprofit Core Competencies

Nonprofit executive candidates will be evaluated for traditional leadership competencies. They should also be assessed for competencies that are specific to the sector, such as fundraising acumen, volunteer and board relations, donor cultivation and stewardship, and, for many organizations, member or constituent relations. Every recruiter should possess an understanding of these “nonprofit core competencies.”

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Nonprofit organizations are not unique in their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their operations and hiring practices; however, because nonprofit searches rely on volunteer leadership, few search committees possess expertise on hiring practices that center a commitment to DEI. Search consultants bring an understanding of current best practices and can guide the search committee through a process that maximizes the diversity of the candidate pool, mitigates the impact of implicit bias on candidate evaluation, and results in a more-equitable search and selection process overall.

Multiple Interest Groups

Donors, grant-makers, and other funders will be watching the nonprofit executive search process with keen interest. Multiple parties will have a vested interest in the outcome, creating a level of scrutiny and potential for disagreement. A hiring process that is inclusive of many constituent groups will position the hiring organization and the new executive for long-term success.

Community Visibility

Executive transitions in the nonprofit sector – particularly the search process – are often very visible in the community. Whether it be in arts and culture, human services, education, foundations, or associations, the process is closely observed. Communication throughout the process is critical to ensure the nonprofit is viewed as transparent and authentic in all its actions. For nonprofits, the stakes surrounding executive search and transition could not be higher. Each organization’s mission of service relies on strong, effective leaders at the helm now and in the future. Ensure that whoever conducts the search for your leadership understands the nuances of the sector — from the search committee to the board to the perspectives of the greater community.

Adam guides clients through critical change moments, including leadership transitions. A member of Benefactor Group’s talent management practice …

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