Advantages of Executive Search Firms for Nonprofits

Partnering with an outside search firm to hire the next executive director allows the board to focus on leading the organization, and on choosing the best candidate, rather than getting bogged down in the details of the search. Too often, boards try to do everything themselves, not realizing until it is too late how much time a search takes, and how different it is from a corporate hire. The executive director is the most important position in the organization and putting in the necessary time to get it right will save everyone time and frustration later on.

A local nonprofit board chair recently told me that he was thrilled that they were able to hire a firm for their recent search. “Our board didn’t have the time nor the expertise to do the search ourselves. Instead, with the firm, we had a professional process that resulted in the best candidate accepting the position.”

Another nonprofit I am familiar with decided to do the search themselves. The board focused on hiring someone with fundraising expertise. A search firm would have helped the board realize that while fundraising was important, at a small organization the ED needs skills in many areas. (The firm could also have helped the board understand their own role in fundraising.) The ED that was hired only lasted a year. He did some fundraising, but he wasn’t able to run the programs or manage the staff and the organization began losing community support and key staff.

Some board members may have experience hiring at their full-time jobs and expect they can handle overseeing a search. They quickly realize that the amount of time (100-150 hours on average) that it takes to hire a community leader is far more than a typical hire.

The advantage of hiring an executive search firm, especially one with significant experience in the nonprofit sector, is that they will bring tremendous expertise to the process. Here’s an overview of how a firm can help the organization:

  • Assess the organization and the needs of the position. This includes gathering input from the board, senior staff, and community leaders to give a full picture of what the nonprofit needs.
  • Draft a compelling job description that lets potential applicants know that the board has put significant thought into what the organization is looking for in its next ED.
  • Help the organization find a strong pool of qualified candidates through their existing networks, targeted advertising, and community leaders.  Many great candidates aren’t actively searching for a position and may not see the posting. A search firm can go deeper and help identify and contact those potential candidates.
  • Collect and sort through the numerous applications for those that best meet the qualifications.
  • Conduct in-depth screening interviews with the most promising applicants.
  • Conduct comprehensive reference checks that go beyond confirming dates of employment. Reference checks are a great way to learn how to help a candidate be most successful in their new position.
  • Help the board conduct the full interviews in a way that brings forward the most important information on the candidate.
  • Manage staff involvement, including securing confidentiality for internal candidates.
  • Facilitate the final negotiation process with both the candidate and the organization.
  • Plan a strong onboarding process for the new executive director.

In total, the process takes 100-150 hours over many weeks.

There are additional benefits to finding a firm that specializes in nonprofit executive searches. Often the search consultants have been executive directors themselves, and understand the demands of the position. They can help the board craft reasonable expectations for their new hire, and determine the necessary qualifications for the position. They can be an objective observer helping the board see beyond potential blindspots.

Search firms vary greatly by size and area of focus. Some will allow boards to pick and choose the services they want. Others work on retainer and guide the board through the entire process. The latter want to support the organization every step of the way to bring integrity to the process, rather than leaving the board to figure out the additional steps on their own.

While the cost of a search firm may cause a board to think they should just run the process by themselves, they should seriously consider if they have the time and expertise to do so. On average, a placement through a search firm is a better fit in their position and stays in the role longer than any other type of recruiting scenario. Spending the money upfront to recruit the top candidate will be a significant advantage to the organization over the long-term, as a strong hire will best serve the mission and raise funds.

Interested in talking through whether your organization needs an executive search firm? Read more about how I can help, and contact me for a free consultation.

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