Unlike for-profit businesses, which are accountable to their shareholders, nonprofit organizations are accountable to their members, donors, constituents, and above all, their mission. Any revenue they generate must go toward supporting that mission.
When a leadership position opens in a charitable, educational, social welfare, or professional membership organization or association, filling this role must go beyond finding someone with managerial competence. These are 10 factors to consider when hiring nonprofit executives.
The nonprofit world can sometimes feel like a closed loop: the same people keep turning up repeatedly in searches for executive positions. It’s necessary to look beyond the insular bounds of career association executives to find the leader that will drive your mission forward. Expand your search to rising talent in program, development, outreach, membership, financial management, communications, and technology.
A demonstrated commitment to your mission’s core values is essential. The most accomplished business leader with a record of spurring growth, retaining loyal and productive staff, and fiscal responsibility won’t suit a mission-driven organization if their heart isn’t in it.
Nonprofit organizations may disagree on this point. Some think they need a disciplined leader who will rein in spending, build endowments, and pare staff and programs where necessary to save money. However, the same person can leave a path of devastation in their wake with demoralized staff, disgruntled members, and angered donors. This role goes beyond successfully persuading stakeholders that their decisions sustain the organization’s mission.
Any candidate you consider for a leadership position in a nonprofit organization must be able to give a compelling description of their vision for the future of your organization. Vision is more than the usual goals of expanded membership, more effective programming, expanded service to the populations the organization exists to serve or a growing endowment. Vision for the organization provides a goal to strive for and a narrative that inspires stakeholders to strive to achieve that goal.
Nonprofit leaders must articulate a specific vision for the organization’s near and intermediate future with a compelling story that fires up donors and staff to achieve more.
All leadership positions require personal integrity, but communities hold nonprofit organizations to an even higher standard. Candidates should have a solid reputation for principled leadership. They must have a record of willingness to engage in difficult conversations, making tough decisions and demonstrating honesty regarding the risks and potential rewards of their choices. Nonprofit leaders must be above reproach, especially in their dealings with money.
Your board must trust that a candidate will responsibly and transparently steward your organization’s resources while also protecting the confidentiality of donor information.
Absence of Conflict of Interest
There have been many stunning examples of clueless decisions with obvious conflicts of interest occurring in nonprofit organizations. Mistakes made based on a misdirected urge to generate revenue or donations have negatively impacted professional organizations and charities alike.
Among the 10 factors to consider when hiring nonprofit executives, an instinctive ability to avoid conflicts is critical. Candidates for leadership in nonprofit organizations should be able to identify and address both obvious conflicts of interest. Obvious conflicts of interest include their spouse being on the board or the leader having a financial relationship with a major donor. However, they must also address or mitigate perceived conflicts, such as how their behavior toward staff can generate rumors of favoritism and inappropriate relationships.
The talent you need may be right under your nose. Give time and attention to internal candidates who have devoted years to the organization, know its stakeholders well and have ideas about how to carry it forward. Organizations should have processes in place to identify and develop talented and committed staff. Promoting from within demonstrates confidence in existing staff and providing opportunities for advancement can help recruit talent that will grow into greater assets for the organization.
What You Can Offer
Balance a realistic compensation package, including benefits, against what the organization truly needs in the open position and the skillset required.
Non-monetary considerations may have real power to attract leadership candidates. Everything from vacation time and educational opportunities to working from home can be features of the position that attract qualified candidates.
Separate Required From Desired Qualifications
A professional medical organization may reasonably require a leadership candidate to hold a related medical degree and have experience in clinical practice. The same would be true of associations of legal, financial or real estate professionals.
Beware of putting desired qualifications into a position description if those skills and accomplishments aren’t absolutely necessary requirements. It might be nice if your new Executive Director or CFO could play golf or go skiing with key board members, but is that a dealbreaker? Does your Director of Communications really need a Ph.D., or is experience in marketing and communications more important? Sit down with your search committee and agree on what you truly need and what you simply want.
Continuity Isn’t the Same As Competence
When a highly successful executive retires, there is a temptation to look for a clone of that person. Don’t do it. Assess the organization’s needs, some of which the former leader may have neglected. A clone of your former leadership structure may be comfortable but isn’t inspiring and may result in organizational stagnation.
Servant leadership became trendy in MBA programs, and lately, CEOs have seized upon “vulnerability” as a trait they wish to display, at times with disastrous results.
Humility, however, is always an attractive trait for a nonprofit executive. The willingness to roll up their sleeves to dive in and help harried staff and the ability to attend to matters with care are key attributes of a servant leader.
A nonprofit’s leadership team must communicate the organizational mission in a compelling yet concise way. They must be able to inspire staff and earn their respect and trust with honesty and the ability to listen far more than they talk. A record of successful media communications may be vital to your organization’s support. Seek candidates who balance personal magnetism with humility, integrity, honesty, and experience.
Working with a nonprofit executive search firm offers your organization the chance to consider a broad range of diverse candidates your search committee may not be able to identify alone. Before you launch your next leadership search for your nonprofit organization, contact Battalia Winston. Partnering with us can streamline your search while simultaneously bringing you a diverse and highly qualified slate of candidates with a demonstrated commitment to your mission or your cause.