Many small nonprofits aren’t ready to hire a search firm to find their next executive director. Organizations can do the search themselves but should involve people in the process who have experience in searches and follow best practices. Below is an overview of the process that will result in the best possible hire on a budget. Keep in mind that this method will take a significant amount of the board’s time to carry out.
You’ve started your nonprofit organization and it has grown with the help of an amazing team of volunteers. But now it is getting too successful. You and your fellow volunteers have full-time jobs and can’t devote the time to the nonprofit that it really needs. What’s the next step? Hiring someone is a big decision and has the possibility of growing the organization significantly. But it also comes with a lot of challenges as the current board and volunteers are used to doing things their way and need to be ready to let someone else take over.
Hiring that first staff person can make a tremendous difference for your organization. It levels up your work in a way that is hard to imagine in advance. Having paid staff means you have someone with the time to devote to the work and to building relationships in the community. It also means someone who has professional experience in nonprofits or who has the time to dedicate to learning about how nonprofits best work. And finally, having paid staff often leads to more stability in your organization as compared to an all-volunteer group. Funders and potential partners will take your organization more seriously if you have paid staff – they know you are going to be around and doing the work long-term.
Being promoted to acting executive director can be an honor but comes with its fair share of stress. You are suddenly taking on a new set of high-level responsibilities while still trying to maintain your existing work. There’s a huge advantage to the organization to temporarily fill a position internally. It is a fairly fast and simple process, but there are significant challenges to overcome.
Becoming a strong executive director takes a wide range of skills. No one can be strong in every single area, of course, but you do need to have the basics down in each and know where you can improve. The skills listed below are all ones you can learn with practice.
When I first became an ED, I had a variety of skills from my previous nonprofit position, but there was a lot to learn. The biggest areas of growth for me were financial management, fundraising, and HR, as I came from an organization with whole teams for those tasks. Other skills I had already. I was passionate about the cause, and cared about helping others. I had written and managed grants of all kinds. I had managed staff, and programs. Especially in those first few years, I spent my time learning the areas that I wasn’t as strong in.
Below are a few of the broader skills to consider developing if you are interested in an ED role. The good news is that they are applicable across all sectors. All my ED knowledge was quite valuable in my later roles as an interim ED in very different types of nonprofits.
Interviewing someone for an executive director position is not as easy as hiring for any other position in a nonprofit (or business for that matter). Making a good hire is critically important to the organization. It’s frustrating when I see board members rush through the process or assume it is easy to do.
Here I provide some sample questions you can use in initial screening interviews and second-round interviews.
A wide range of terms are used in succession planning and the type of plan you create varies depending on your current stage in the process. I covered the basic types of planning necessary for all organizations in my article on succession planning. In this article, I will provide an overview for those organizations that have a long-time executive director who is planning far in advance for a transition.
What Interim Executive Directors Do – recorded August 12, 2020
Interim executive directors play an important role in a nonprofit leadership transition. But what do they actually do? Why are they valuable? How can you become one?
Good succession planning is about more than choosing a successor to the executive director. It needs to encompass planning for all leadership roles to strengthen the organization for the long term. A key component is leadership development planning, which provides a structured method to build leadership capacity.
As a young program manager at a social service agency, I was lucky to have many supervisors who were great mentors. They encouraged me and stretched my skills. They expected me to learn how to budget for my program, ask hard questions, supervise and mentor staff, communicate clearly, and develop partnerships in the community. They supported me in learning these skills by stretching my thinking and giving me opportunities to take on higher-level tasks. When I left that role to become an ED of a nonprofit, those leadership skills helped me tremendously, although I still had plenty to learn.
The possibility of a long-term trusted and high performing executive director leaving their position is a scary prospect for most boards. It can be made more manageable by intentional planning and open discussions. In addition, taking the time to explore succession planning and leadership development now will benefit the organization immediately through reduced workloads, better-trained staff, and the opportunity for future growth.
Through a new program called Successful Transitions, Lincoln organizations developed their plans and prepared for the future. The first Successful Transitions cohort consisted of six nonprofit organizations. One has an executive director who had a firm retirement date less than a year away. Two others have founding executive directors considering retirement someday in the future, but knew they needed to put plans in place for a smooth transition. The other three have no departure plans but understood that succession planning would benefit the entire organization now and in the future. There was also a wide range of organization size (staff sizes between 1 and 75) and executive director tenure (2 to 40+ years).
In this video, I cover all of the basics of succession planning. It’s an important tool for long term sustainability for nonprofit organizations. Contact me and I’ll be happy to help you develop your own organization’s succession plan.