Non-profit boards ask: To search or not to search?

Dani Robbins is the Founder & Principal Strategist at Non Profit Evolution located in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve invited my good friend and fellow non-profit consultant to blog this week about board development related topics. She also agreed to join the DonorDreams team and contribute a board development post every month. Dani also recently co-authored a book titled “Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives” that you can find on I hope you have enjoyed the genius musings of my friend for the last next few days . . .

The question comes up anytime someone resigns, and often when someone is forced out as well.  Do we really have to do a search?!?!  It’s usually followed by “we have someone that’s great” or “there’s a Board member that’s interested.”  Wonderful!  Encourage those people to apply and do a search.

Why?  Because it’s the most legitimate way to ascend to leadership.  The absence of a search leaves people, at a minimum, with the perception of impropriety. Even if you are the one they think is great, or you are the Board member who is interested, encourage the search and then apply. Perception is reality and leadership is hard enough without people thinking you didn’t earn the spot.  Why set your new leader — or yourself — up for that?

In the absence of a search, people, at best, become mildly uncomfortable by the thought that there might be something unsavory going on.   At worst, they choose not to follow what they perceive as an illegitimate leader.   Either way, an internal conflict gets created that takes people’s attention away from the work at hand. It is a conflict that could have been easily avoided.  It may also be a violation of your organization’s policies.  Most policies include a requirement and a process for doing a search.  Any lawyer will tell you that once you violate one policy, the remaining policies become more difficult to enforce.

Now is the easiest and least expensive time to post an opening.  In Columbus, Ohio alone, there are a variety of free or low-cost search web opportunities including OANO, the United Way and Craigslist.  Post it on your organization’s website; and if your organization is part of a larger national organization or state or county-wide collaborative, then post the position opening on the group’s web site as well.

You can also create a posting and send it out to all the agencies with whom you partner and ask them to post it.

Finally, if you have a budget, you can pay for an ad, and because of the internet, that ad can be as long as you’d like.  If you’re interested in advertising in the classified section of the local paper, you will still have to pay per word, but even in that case, there is usually a contract with an internet site to post the ad as well.  In your ad, I recommend you request a cover letter as well as a resume.

Before you post the position . . .

  • review what you want in a candidate (both overall and by priority area)
  • determine what salary range you can offer
  • review the current range for such a position in your community
  • consider the job you want the applicant to do and the skill set and experience they will need to be successful (both the minimum requirements and your preferred qualifications)
  • consider the culture of your organization and the values a candidate would have to have to be successful in that culture.

If you are seeking resource development staff, consider if you want an event planner, a grant writer or an individual giving / major gifts person.  If you are seeking an executive director, consider if you want someone to grow your organization, maintain it or turn it around.  Each is a different skill set, and even if the applicant has previous experience in the role, then it may not be relevant to the needs at hand.

Prioritize the skills you seek.  Write your interview and reference questions to reflect the needs at hand, by priority area.  An Executive Director may be proficient at resource development, board development, operations, community profile building, marketing, financial acumen, and more.  They may or may not be a subject matter expert.  They may have prior experience at a similar agency.  What are the top 5 priorities in order of importance to your organization?  Develop three questions under each priority area and one or two questions, each, for everything else.

Inquire as to what applicants have done as opposed to what they would do.  There are lots of things we would all like to do in a perfect world, but what we have done is a much better gauge of what we will do in the future.  Plus, you can confirm it during the reference check.

Once you begin receiving resumes, filter applicants by their ability to follow your instructions to include a cover letter and resume, their writing ability (if writing is a piece of the job), and if they meet your minimum or preferred qualifications.Education and relevant experience are the price of admission to an interview.  After that, good judgment and fit are the most important criteria for me.

In addition to the standard questions confirming relevant experience and preferred education, I also recommend including values-based questions:

  • How does the candidate respond to mistakes s/he made and mistakes made by others?
  • Within what amount do they return phone calls/emails?
  • How has s/he handled it when s/he disagreed with a supervisor?
  • Do they generally get work in early or at the last-minute?

You will learn a lot about the judgment of your applicants, and their ability to fit onto your team during the interview process.  Good leader can do a lot to groom and guide a mentee, but improving someone’s judgment or changing their values are not usually among them.

Create a measurement tool to rate applicant’s answers by section.  Interviewing should not solely be about feel.  While it’s true that you should always trust your gut, you should also always have a process to assess candidates.  I recommend prioritizing the skill sets you seek and use a 1-3 scale for each answer that allows you to tally up answers by priority area.  This process will allow you to compare applicants against your criteria by area and overall.  I recommend a minimum of two interviews, with a background check being conducted in between, and a reference check of your top candidates being conducted after the final interview.

When you call the finalist to make an offer, include information about salary and benefits.  When you finish speaking, wait for them to accept. Know before you make the call if you have the authority to negotiate salary and if so, how high.  Be prepared to answer benefits questions.  Once they accept, discuss start date and a plan to announce your new hire to your organization’s constituents. Congratulations!

Hiring is one of the most critical factors to the success or failure of your organization.  It takes time, as does almost everything worth doing.  A search will inspire the board, the staff, and the community’s confidence in your leader and your confidence in their success. It is one of the most important roles and responsibilities of your non-profit board.

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