Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Search for a New Executive Director in a Small Nonprofit

Whether an organization is large, medium or small, it is a very big deal when an Executive Director leaves. But when it happens in a small nonprofit there are usually limited resources available to keep things afloat AND conduct a search for a replacement.  This is an area that I am working in specifically – executive search for small nonprofits.

When I get a call from a Board President about conducting a search s/he is often at one end of the spectrum of possibilities.  There is the person who feels that the organization is in crisis and worried about how they will continue to operate in the interim and wants somebody “really fast” before the whole place falls apart.  The other scenario is a Board and Board President that are clueless about how the Executive Director handled a zillion things concurrently and really kept the place together.  They are sometimes all too happy to have a breather from the expense of an Executive Director and have a chance to do some things their way.

No matter where on this spectrum an organization’s leaders are, it is a big deal when an Executive Director leaves.  Don’t panic and don’t be oblivious about the impact of a departing ED either.  First step – read my article In the Interim - Appreciate and Use that Time Between Leaders.

Although each search is unique, here is the outline of the process I use.

Step One: Make Sure You Know What You Want and What You Can Afford
When I first meet with a Board President and search committee I do a lot of listening.  I try to find out what are the most important skills their ED must have, what are their expectations and what kind of relationship an ED can expect to have with the Board.  I gather background information about the organization and write a draft job description so that we have a starting point to describe the job. 

I ask about salary and benefits and advise them about its reasonableness.   This can be an interesting discussion.  If you want someone with advanced skills and experience and demonstrated results it will cost you.  If you are willing to hire someone in their first ED position you will pay less.  These candidates can bring energy and new ideas to the position but you will have to give them some breathing space to grow into the job.  The job description draft is then finalized.  Benefits are also important.  If all the other employees are part time or hourly the small nonprofit is sometimes unprepared to deal with the expectations for medical and 401K and perhaps tuition reimbursement benefits.

Step Two: Finding Qualified Candidates
I always post a full job description at Idealist.org and the Foundation Center and for a New Jersey client the Center for Nonprofits website.  I always recommend that the job be posted on the organization’s website and that it is emailed to funders and other nonprofit leaders. Depending on the mission of the organization there may be some other key places to post the opening.  One important rule – always list when applications must be received by.

Although I am a consultant, I have the organization set up an email for me usually entitled humanresources@organizationemailaddress.org

Step Three: Assessing Candidates and Reducing the Number Considered
Here are two alternatives I have used to identify the candidates who will be considered for the position:

I set up a folder on the google G drive so that the search committee members can see all the applications and when the application date closes, I provide a spreadsheet with candidate name, my assessment based on the key skills/experience required  - very qualified, qualified, not qualified and a brief description of their skills.

As an alternative, I meet with the Search Committee and depending on the number of resumes, have a variety of ways of identifying the candidates to be considered further.  All of the resumes are reviewed – sometimes by sub-groups and then narrowed by exchanging resumes with another sub-group.

In either case, the Search Committee chooses candidates that I will conduct telephone interviews with.  Based on these preliminary telephone interviews I recommend candidates for in person interviews.  Typically I conduct 6-10 telephone interviews and the Search Committee interviews 3-5 candidates.

At this point the Search Committee needs to impress the candidate as much as they are trying to impress you. You need to put your best foot forward.  Smaller organizations sometimes need some extra coaching about details at this point in the process and having professional help can make a difference.  We discuss where the interview will be held and make sure that this space and the ED’s office hasn’t been turned into a storage area if it will be shown during the interview. These things are usually not issues in larger organizations but unfortunately can be awkward for small nonprofits.

We discuss the interview format and what is appropriate and legal to ask. Often I am asked to meet and introduce the candidate and kickoff the interview. I also play the role of putting the candidate at ease.  I am the timekeeper, make sure the candidate has an opportunity to ask questions too and wrap it up in a timely manner –especially if someone else is expected.  I then notify candidates who are not selected and provide individualized feedback to them if requested.

Step Four: Final Interview and Closing the Deal
In most cases, there is one more interview for one or two of the remaining candidates.  This interview is with the whole Board.   Again Boards of small organizations may need some coaching before the interview.  Board members who are not in the workforce or do not have management experience need to have some guidance about what is appropriate and not appropriate to ask candidates.  If the board has a lawyer or human resources professional they can provide this guidance and if not, I meet with the Board to prepare them for the interview.  The candidate may have some tough questions for the Board also – such as questions about the financial strength of the organization, its fundraising capacity and the expected board and staff relationship.

Once the Board has selected a candidate, I will ask for references, contact them and make a reference report.  The Chair or other member makes the contact directly with the candidate and makes the offer. Once an offer is accepted, I let any remaining candidates know that they have not been selected.

General Advice
One of the biggest issues I have when working with a Search Committee is usually the committee members all are busy people.  You need to remember that once you begin to advertise the position you are dealing with candidates that are on a parallel path of being on a job search.  It is important to keep the process moving so that your best candidates don’t drop out as they receive other job offers.

This is a straightforward process and if you are experienced, it is not intimidating.  If you find yourself in the position of being a Board Member in need of a new Executive Director – even if you are a small nonprofit – consider hiring a consultant to manage the process for you.  It will be an excellent investment.


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