Non-profit leadership is the great equalizer

leadership2Last night I had the privilege of being invited to a non-profit organization’s year-end holiday party stewardship event. In attendance were board members, capital campaign volunteers, auxiliary members, and various other stakeholders. There was no solicitation presentations, but there were a few powerful testimonials from alumni and lots of gratitude. The energy in the room was palpable, and I was reminded me of the old expression that “hope floats“.  It was in this dynamic setting that I had an amazing conversation with someone about the power of leadership.
In the middle of the event, I got locked into a conversation with a former board member. He is an alumnus of the agency’s programs, and he did two different stints on the board of directors. So, the conversation naturally migrated to how much the organization has changed throughout the many decades he has been involved.
Right in the middle of the conversation about organizational change and capacity building, this gentleman paused, appeared to reflect genuinely about what he was going to say, and then said:

“It is all about leadership and who the board hires to lead the organization.”

While I like to think your organization’s formula for success is about a variety of ingredients, I can’t really argue with this wise alumni and former board member’s assessment. I’ve seen lots of organizations overcome large gaps in their formula for success just because they have the right leaders sitting around the boardroom table and sitting in the CEO’s seat.
This comment also got me thinking about a recent CEO job search process that I helped a client lead. There was lots of conversation around “what does the right person look like” and what skill sets and experiences does the right person need to possess.
leadership1The following is a list of competencies and skill sets the search committee reviewed during its search criteria conversations:
Communication skills

  • Informing
  • Listening
  • Presenting
  • Writing

Decision making skills

  • Analyzing
  • Fact Finding
  • Innovating
  • Judgment
  • Problem Solving
  • Systemic Thinking

Developing Organizational Talent

  • Coaching
  • Delegating
  • Performance Management
  • Providing Feedback
  • Staff Development

Leadership Skills

  • Developing Commitment
  • Empowering
  • Encouraging Innovation
  • Facilitation
  • Influencing
  • Leading By Example
  • Managing Change
  • Providing Recognition
  • Team Building

Personal Initiation Skills

  • Contributing to a Positive Work Environment
  • Organizational Awareness
  • Personal Development
  • Proactivity
  • Professional Development
  • Striving for Excellence

Planning Skills

  • Action Planning & Organizing
  • Business Planning
  • Monitoring
  • Project Management
  • Recruitment
  • Strategic Planning
  • Time Management

Quality Skills

  • Implementing Quality Improvements
  • Satisfying Customer Requirements
  • Using Meaningful Measurements

Relationship Skills

  • Conflict Management
  • Meeting Skills
  • Negotiating
  • Networking
  • Relationship Building
  • Teamwork

Safety, Health & Environment Skills

  • Fostering Organizational Wellness
  • Supporting a Safe Environment

Hmmmm? Leadership is the great equalizer, but it certainly starts looking complicated once you begin searching for it.    🙂
What skill sets have you looked for when trying to hire or recruit the right leaders into your non-profit organization? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Attention board members: Beware of staff complaints about the executive director

pandoras boxIf you Google the definition of “Pandora’s Box,” the all-knowing internet oracle says the term means: “a process that generates many complicated problems as the result of unwise interference in something.” I love this expression, and I used it a few months ago when talking to the board president of a non-profit organization who was describing to me how they were handling a complaint about the agency’s executive director.
In a nutshell, the board president in question was approached by a staff member with a complaint. The board president asked the staff member to put the complaint in writing and agreed to take it to the entire board of directors.
While on face value, this might make sense because the executive director works for the board. I believe this opens the flood gates, and anytime staff have an issue they will now likely circumvent the executive director and go straight to the board.
My advice?

Don’t undercut your executive director like this. You might as well fire them if this is how you’re going to manage them.

With that being said, I bet there are many of you who are wondering what the right course of action should be. After all, it is a fiduciary responsibility of the board to hire and manage the executive director.
Here is how I suggest the board handles all staff complaints pertaining to the executive director:

  1. Immediately ascertain if the executive director has done something ILLEGAL, UNETHICAL or VIOLATES AN AGENCY POLICY.
  2. If the issue rises to the level of illegal, unethical or policy-related, reach for a bottle of Maalox or Pepto and ask for staff to put it in writing (and if illegal call the police and an emergency board meeting immediately!). Or more importantly, follow the written process if you one.
  3. If the issue doesn’t rise to this level, then politely turn them around and ask them to try working it out directly with the executive director. Explain that there is a process to follow and it starts with trying to first work it out with the boss. Empathize with their situation and express confidence that it can be worked out. Walk them through your agency’s policy/procedure. Explain the circumstances of when they might submit something to the board in writing after they try to work it out with the executive director (e.g. retaliation, etc). Be transparent. Be genuine. Empathize. But draw the line clearly.
  4. Circle back around to the executive director. Be transparent about what happened. Encourage them to work things out. Remind them of the importance of staff morale and the power of team. Remind them to stay within the agency’s policy boundaries. Express confidence in their abilities to solve the issue.
  5. Prepare for the worst case scenario.

Please don’t misread what I’m saying here. I did not just tell board volunteers to wash their hands of staff complaints unless it rises to the level of “illegal, unethical, or policy violation“. What I am saying is . . . not all complaints are equal and the ones that don’t rise to the level of illegal / unethical / policy violation should be handled in a way where you’re not undercutting your executive director.
Because . . .
If you choose to allow staff to circumvent the board’s one employee — the executive director — then you’re opening Pandora’s Box, and I guarantee that you won’t have an executive director for long. You will either fire them or they will quit.
There are some assumptions that I’m making about your agency when writing this blog post such as:

Let me bottom line this complicated issue:

  • You don’t want to undercut your executive director
  • You don’t want to abdicate your fiduciary responsibilities to supervise the executive director and ensure the agency is well-run
  • You want to think these things out in advance — proactive and not reactive
  • You want written policies and procedures in place and you want to follow them (don’t be arbitrary or capricious in enforcing the rules)
  • You don’t want to put the agency in a position to get sued

Is that it?
LOL . . . yeah . . . that’s it. Good luck!
Since we can all learn from each other. Please scroll down and use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic. Please also feel free to point your fellow non-profit professionals and board volunteers to awesome samples and online resources to assist them in managing risk.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Is your non-profit organization dead or alive or BOTH?

alice1Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a post titled “Alive AND Dead,” John shares a thought experiment that was devised by Austrian physicist Irwin Schrodinger. It was a mind bending story about a box, a cat, poison, food and a conclusion that proves that the cat is dead AND alive until someone opens the box to check the situation out.

Yes . . . my friend, John Greco, shared a story that was used to demonstrate the nature of quantum mechanics in a blog post about organizational development.

Yes . . . I am going to go down the same rabbit hole this morning and apply all of this to non-profit organizations by sharing two stories. One story is about an organization that was both alive AND dead. The other story is about an executive director who was also both alive AND dead.

I encourage you to click through and read John’s post. But, if you haven’t done so already, please keep in mind that the basic premise to all of this is best summed up in John’s own words:

It seems our perception is reality only until we see reality. In this sense, during times of great change, we can be living and working in a world that no longer exists if we do not actually see the changes in the world we are actually living and working in …”

The agency is alive AND dead

alice2If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it hundreds of times. And I bet you have, too. I will omit the names to protect the innocent.

Once upon a time . . . there was a non-profit organization that everyone in the community looked upon as being big, strong and invincible. Their staff was well regarded. They had very impressive volunteers who sat on their board. They are what I describe as a “blue chip agency“.

Ask anyone in the community and they would tell you that the organization was awesome. Ask any donor what they thought, and they’d swear the agency was a terrific investment. Ask any of the agency’s board members, and they’d tell you that they can do ANYTHING (and they actually believe it). Ask the staff and you’d hear the same thing.

As the story goes . . . one day someone gets the bright idea to run a capital campaign and double the size of their existing facility. Donors are engaged. Millions of dollars are raised. The facility is expanded.

Putting aside the question of “alive vs. dead” . . . let’s re-frame it a little differently. Did this agency have the “organizational capacity” that everyone thought they did?

As we learn from John’s blog post, the answer is both ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ until you open the box and take a good look.

In this story . . . everyone perceived that organizational capacity existed; funding was secured based on those perceptions and the building was expanded. Unfortunately, when you looked a little deeper this organization didn’t have the capacity to raise the necessary annual operating dollars to run a facility twice its original size.

For a period of time, this agency was both alive AND dead.

The CEO is alive AND dead

alice3We’ve also all seen this situation.

Once upon a time . . . there was an executive director who was well thought of by their peers. They were doing what was necessary to keep the agency together and everything moving in the right direction. Donors love the executive director. The staff would take a bullet for their boss. The board of directors continued to say nice things on the year-end evaluation.

This person seemingly had lots of job security, but one day everyone in the community wakes up to the news that the board voted to fire the CEO.

(Spoiler alert . . . before you start asking ‘who’ is Erik talking about, let me confess that this example is an amalgamation of many different situations that I’ve seen over time.)

So, what happened to precipitate this reversal of good fortune for the executive director? Here are just a few real life explanations that I’ve seen turn things upside down very quickly:

  • A major grant or funding source is lost and great stress descends upon the agency.
  • One employee decides they should be the executive director and starts rocking the boat.
  • One board member has been unhappy for quite some time about (insert issue here) and decides to stop being quiet. They finally have the courage to stand up in the face of general contentment and makes it an issue, which gets traction quickly.

For a period of time, this executive director was both alive AND dead.

The moral to these stories?

head in sandA non-profit organization that doesn’t invest time and resources into evaluation and critique is akin to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

Does your agency . . .

  • Host a critique meeting after each of its special event fundraisers?
  • Formally evaluate its executive director at the end of every year?
  • Host a critique meeting after its annual campaign pledge drive?
  • Formally evaluate every board board volunteer at the end of every year?
  • Host an annual meeting for donors to learn more about your agency? And survey your donors to solicit feedback on how they think you’re doing and what you can do better?
  • Formally evaluate every employee at the end of the year?

If you answered ‘NO to any of these questions, there there is a possibility that your organization is both . . .

Dead AND Alive

As always, John sums it up better than I can, when he says:

Help people look into the box. One key component of change management is communicating the need for change early and often.  It is selling the problem.  It is noting the forces and effects that require change.  It is articulating the “burning platform.”  It is projecting out in compelling fashion what the consequences are if we don’t begin transitioning.”

Is your organization dead? Is it alive? Is it BOTH? Using John’s words, what does your agency do to “help people look into the box“? By the way, I know someone who can help you look inside that box and provide an outsider’s perspective.  😉

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Non-Profit Governance: The Work of the Board, part 1

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 the first Wednesday of each month about board development related topics. Dani also recently co-authored a book titled “Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives” that you can find on 

Governance: The Work of the Board, part 1

Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive

By Dani Robbins

board of directors3

As mentioned in Board Basics and reposted on this very siteBoards are made up of appointed community leaders who are collectively responsible for governing an organization.” That includes:

  • Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan,
  • Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director,
  • Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent,
  • Setting Policy, and
  • Raising Money.

As you know, one of my goals is to rectify the common practice in the field of people telling non-profit executives and boards how things should be without any instruction as to what that actually means or how to accomplish it.

Since I wrote a recent post on Strategic Planning, I’m going to circle back to that one and start with Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director.

What that means is:

It is the Board’s role to hire the Executive Director, also called CEO. Prior to hiring, interviewing or even posting the job, it is imperative the Board discus what they want and need in an Executive Director. This conversation cannot be farmed out to a committee primarily consisting of non board members, or to a consultant or hiring firm. That will only get you what they want and think you need – not what you want and actually need.

What skill sets and experience do you need in a leader?

Growing, turning around or maintaining an organization require very different skill sets. Which trait do you want your new leader to have? Does your leader need to be a subject matter expert? Does she need to be local? Does he need to be a fund raiser, an operations person or both?

I recommend a search, REGARDLESS OF . . .

  • if there is a good internal person,
  • if someone on the board wants the job, or
  • if there is an obvious heir apparent.

Do a search, let everyone apply and see who best matches your needs. For more information on conducting a search, please click here.

exec searchOnce your hire an Executive Director, s/he needs to be supported. Supporting an Executive Director is where the rubber meets the road.

I once had a colleague tell her board to “Support her or fire her, but to choose.”  While I was shocked, I was also in agreement. The job of the Executive Director is very difficult and energy spent on worrying is not spent on moving the organization forward. (To the Executive Director’s out there: Worrying about keeping your job precludes you from doing your job. You have to do what you believe is best, based on your experience, information and training, within the boundaries of your role and the law. We all know that any day could be the day you quit or get fired. That can’t stop you from leading.)

Communication is key: the Board needs to know (and approve of) what the Executive Director is doing and the Executive Director needs to know (and be willing to do) what the Board wants.

It is the Board Chair’s job to be the direct supervisor of the Executive Director and the entire Board’s job is to support him/her, set goals and hold her accountable to those goals. This means the Board has to let the Executive Director fulfill the bounds of his/her role. There should also be a strategic plan that is being implemented, board approved policies that are being followed and an annual evaluation process for the Executive Director (and the rest of the staff).

The vast majority of Executive Directors rarely get evaluated, and when they do it’s often because they asked for an evaluation. (To the Board Presidents out there: Executive Directors, just like Board members and most other people, when left to their own devices will do that they think is right. What they think is right will not necessarily be aligned with what the Board wants, especially if what the Board wants has not been discussed or communicated. It also may not be aligned with anything anyone else is doing. See the Strategic Plan link above to create alignment.)

Executive Directors should be given expectations and goals (just like all other staff) and should be evaluated against those expectations and goals every year. There should be a staff (including executive) compensation plan that has a range for salaries for each position and reflect comparable positions in your community; raises should be given within the confines of that plan, or the plan should be revised. (More on that in the Setting Policies blog to come in the next few days.)

Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director has to happen – in full- for your executive to be an effective leader, for your board to fulfill its responsibilities and for your organization to fulfill its mission.

When an Executive Director is hired right, supported appropriately and evaluated effectively there’s no end to the impact it can make on an organization and a community.

What’s been your experience? As always, I welcome your insight and experience.
dani sig

There are BIG BUTS to consider when planning for change in your workplace

leading2Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a post titled “Big Buts,” John talks about leadership and how changing the culture at your agency starts at the top. I just love the Chinese proverb with which John starts his post: “The people follow the example of those above them.”

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked in the front door of an agency because they need help changing something.

Something being . . .

  • We’re not raising enough money.
  • We’re not hitting our goals.
  • No one is on the same page.
  • The agency is adrift.
  • The programs aren’t achieving the necessary impact.
  • Donors are abandoning ship.
  • The board is disengaged.

In these initial conversations, I’m always asked to help fix the situation, but the fix is always something like:

  • Help us write a strategic plan, board development plan, resource development plan, annual campaign plan. Plan! Plan! Plan!
  • Conduct a program assessment.
  • Facilitate a training.

leading1Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that assessments, plans and trainings aren’t important. They are crucial! However, there are questions that must be asked first. Those questions are:

  • Is the leader (or leaders in the case of a non-profit organization) willing to lead the change?
  • Is the current leader the right leader to lead this change? Or are they part of what needs to be “changed”?
  • Is the current leader willing to lead by example after the training, assessing or planning is completed?
  • Is the current leader willing to do whatever it takes to get everyone else (e.g. middle management, board members, etc) aligned and on the same page?
  • Is the current leader willing to advocate and lead on issues pertaining to policies, procedures and practices (e.g. budget practices, fundraising policies, HR policies, board practices especially around creating accountability in the boardroom, etc).

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not just talking about the executive director of a non-profit organization. Depending on the circumstances and requisite change, these questions can also pertain to:

  • board president
  • board volunteers who serve as committee chairs
  • fundraising professionals
  • program leaders

All I am saying is that step one to any change initiative at your agency needs to involve taking a good hard look in the mirror and asking some tough leadership questions. To John’s point in his post “Big Buts,” the issue goes beyond just “Do we have the right person(s) sitting in the right seat(s)?” It includes a lot of BIG BUTS.

Only after those questions are asked and answered can planning or training efforts take root and spark the cultural change you seek in your non-profit agency.

An old friend of mine is famous for saying: “Non-profit success starts and ends with leadership.

To channel Jim Collins this morning . . . Does your agency have the right people on the bus? Are they all in the right seats? How do you know? What tools do you use to answer these questions? Annual performance plans? Committee work plans? Year-end individual board member evaluation tools? Written annual personal performance plans for individual board members? If it is change you seek, are those individuals willing to lead by example?

Lots to ponder on a Friday morning. Once you have some answers, please share a few of your thoughts in the comment box below.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

The key to your non-profit’s success? LEADERSHIP!

leadership3Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a post titled “Dr. Pepper’s Shadow,” John talks about:

  • how we view leaders,
  • how our leaders’ words and deeds are hugely influential, and
  • how leaders can have an unintended impact on all types of situations.

I know that I’m oversimplifying John post, but everything he says points to how important leadership is to any organization. Like it or leave it . . . I believe it is likely the biggest factor in determining your successes and failures.

I’ve worked with non-profit organizations that have great programs, great mission, great vision, great staff, great systems, great policies and practices and great history, but they find themselves “in the tank” because leadership is lacking. As John talks about in his post, the leaders in my example are casting a “long shadow” and its impact is negative.

I’ve also worked with non-profit organizations that have serious gaps and deficiencies. They lack resources, their technology is bad, their systems and policies are poor or nonexistent. . . and they seem to overcome all of it. In these cases, it is always the leader who makes a huge difference.


I’m also not just talking about a non-profit organization’s executive director. I’m also referencing board leadership.

The reason I am on a leadership kick this morning is because of an online article I read a few weeks ago about J. C. Penney at

Here is the story in a nutshell:

  • J.C. Penney’s hires a new CEO.
  • The new CEO boldly casts a new vision and changes everything!
  • Everyone follows the new CEO. (He has a LONG shadow)
  • The new strategy doesn’t seem to work and a lot of money is lost.
  • The board fires the new CEO and stock prices go up as investor confidence rises.
  • The board hires the previous CEO and stock prices go down.

There is a lot going on with this story, and I suspect John can carve two or three different blog posts out of it. However, I will point to the one obvious thing . . . “LEADERSHIP! Everyone places tremendous importance on this idea and that person casts a long shadow!”


Now there are all sorts of ideas floating around about leadership. Servant leadership, situational leadership, democratic leadership, charismatic leadership, bureaucratic leadership, and the list goes on and on. There are also all different kinds of leaders.

One point of view on leadership that I’ve become enamored with in the last few years comes from organizational psychologist and management consultant, Noel Tichy, who has worked with a number of troubled and successful companies throughout the years. Here is what he has to say about successful organizations and leadership in the introduction of his book, “The Leadership Engine“:

“The answer I have come up with is that winning companies win because they have good leaders who nurture the development of other leaders at all levels of the organization. The ultimate test of success for an organization is not whether it can win today but whether it can keep winning tomorrow and the day after. Therefore, the ultimate test for a leader is not whether he or she makes smart decisions and takes decisive action, but whether he or she teaches others to be leaders and builds an organization that can sustain its success even when he or she is not around. They key ability of winning organizations and winning leaders is creating leaders.”

Uh-oh . . . I may be starting to border on another hot topic and age-old question . . . “Can leadership be taught or are leaders born?” John tackled this question (with regards to a servant leadership paradigm) in his post titled “Born, Not Made“.

I going to stop here and remain at 50,000 feet with my original observations:

  • leadership is important,
  • everyone looks at the leader and they cast a long shadow, and
  • leadership seems to be the great equalizer (and it can make or break your organization).

Does your non-profit organization have great leaders sitting in the CEO and board president’s chairs? How do you know if they are great leaders? Have you ever seen a great organization with bad leadership at the helm? Do you have a “point of view” around leadership like Noel Tichy or John Greco? If so, what is it?

Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts, opinions and experiences. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Through the Looking Glass: When the new CEO and the old CEO collide

alice and the doorA few months ago, I bumped into someone who recently accepted a new executive director position for a non-profit organization. I thought that it would be a neat project to live vicariously through them and try to see non-profit work through their eyes. So, I asked if they wouldn’t mind periodically sharing their challenges and successes with me throughout their first year on the job. In turn, I would translate those conversations into blog posts for DonorDreams subscribers. Fortunately, they agreed to participate in this exercise. I am calling this series “Through the Looking Glass” in honor of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. I hope you enjoy it!

I hope to start each one of these posts with a quote from Alice in Wonderland that ties back to the theme of that particular post. Today, I think the conversation between Alice and the talking door at the beginning of Alice’s adventure is most appropriate.

Door: “Why it’s simply impassible!”
Alice: “Why, don’t you mean impossible?”
Door: “No, I do mean impassible. (chuckles) Nothing’s impossible!”

Sometimes when a new non-profit executive director is hired, there is a transition period between OLD and NEW. It can be the old executive director staying on to help with orientation and training of the new executive director. In other instances, it can be the interim executive director overlapping with the incoming CEO.

When I was a new executive director, the interim executive director stayed on as an employee as a direct report with front line responsibilities. In the instance of our new executive director friend, the former executive director is hanging around for a while. Unfortunately, no one on the board in the beginning defined what this should look like, and there has been some ambiguity around what that employment relationship looks like and when it will end.

When I recently checked in to see how our new CEO was doing, they already had a great blog idea. They titled that blog post “What to do when the old CEO won’t cough up info for the new CEO“.

Who would’ve guessed that without an orderly written transition and orientation plan provided by the board of directors that something like this would happen? (yes, sarcasm is intended)

So, I asked our new executive director this simple question: “That is a great blog topic, but what advice would you give new execs?

alice and the door2This is how they responded:

  1. Politely but firmly continue to request the info (first verbally,then  in writing, and finally in writing with a cc to the Board Chair and Vice Chair).
  2. Doing a work around to obtain the info in other ways.
  3. Using empathy and compassion to analyze the reluctance to share information. Then re-framing the request for info as a way of moving the organization forward and helping with transition.
  4. Talking to the Board Chair and Vice Chair.
  5. Asking who else I should be talking to in order to obtain the needed info.  (e.g. maybe the former ED doesn’t have the information at all and doesn’t want me to know this)

This challenge is REAL for this new executive director. It is also a reality for countless others across the county. Here are a few great online articles and resources that I found that might be helpful to non-profit organizations going through or planning on going through executive transition:

I thought it would be more appropriate to end each of these blog posts by opening it up to the DonorDreams readership and asking you what kind of advice you have for this new executive director. Please use the comment section below and provide your best world-class coaching advice. How would you go about engaging the outgoing executive director to get the documents and information they are needed for a seamless transition?

We can all learn from each other and sometimes peer-to-peer coaching is the best kind of coaching. Please take a minute or two out of your busy schedule to help this new executive director. Pay it forward!

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

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.