Hiring the First Executive Director for Your Organization

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.  

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Nontraditional Ways to Recruit Nonprofit Candidates

Hiring a new staff member? Once you’ve put together a great job posting, it’s time to start finding great candidates. In the past, you could expect people would find you but with the incredible competition out there for great workers, that’s not enough anymore.

Job illustrations by Storyset

Especially for high-level positions, remember that your best candidates have jobs already, and may not be actively looking for a new position. How can you find those folks and encourage them to apply?

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Crafting a Compelling Job Posting

Too often, job postings are simply a copy of the internal job description. They’re long, not too interesting, and aren’t going to cut it in today’s competitive environment. With fewer people applying for positions, you need to stand out from the crowd.

Your job posting is a marketing document. It’s advertising your organization and the great job opportunity you have. A generic laundry list of duties and requirements won’t excite applicants or tell them what the job is really like. Emphasize the job is about making a difference. And keep it to the point. Experts say a job description should be 500-600 words.

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The Number One Reason You Should List Salary Ranges on Nonprofit Job Postings

Over and over, I see job postings from nonprofit organizations that don’t list salaries. Instead, they say things like, “Salary shall be commensurate with experience.”, or “The company offers a competitive wage and excellent fringe benefits package including health, dental and life insurance, and tuition reimbursement.” It’s nice to know there are benefits, but the salary range is still the primary piece of information.

Employers have budgeted ranges for each posting, so why can’t they disclose the details? Do they hope they can find someone who will work for less than they budgeted? No one would admit to doing that, but it is likely that some organizations do it. Are they embarrassed by how little they are paying? They need to be upfront about it, and then work to change that in the future. Are they just following the lead of corporate job postings? How about doing something different and being transparent about what you are able to pay?

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Succeeding as an Acting Executive Director

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.

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Conducting a Great ED Interview

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.

I’ve shared a number of resources previously including How to Make a Good Hire, the Advantages of Using an Executive Search Firm, and the Value of Using an Interim Executive Director.

Here I provide some sample questions you can use in initial screening interviews and second-round interviews.

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Exit Interviews

Inevitably all employees are going to leave their position. You’ve prepared through good succession planning, but there’s still a huge advantage to talking with the departing person before they go and getting their input on the organization. Take time to do an exit interview and make use of the information you receive.

There are many advantages to conducting interviews. Besides the information you gather, it just helps the employee feel valued, even when they are leaving. And you know that a former employee can be an ambassador for the organization in the community, so it helps to end on a high note.

There are a few pitfalls to watch out for during exit interviews. If at all possible, the employee’s direct supervisor shouldn’t conduct the interview. If that’s your ED, can a board member with some HR experience do it? You’ll get more candid responses. You could also contract with an HR professional to conduct the interview. Also, make sure to prioritize the interview so it actually happens. Holding exit interviews consistently is key to gathering a better picture of how staff feel about the organizations. Finally, if the departing person doesn’t want to do it, don’t force the issue. Offer to let them give you written feedback instead.

You can even consider holding board exit interviews. There’s something about having a final conversation that helps people be more introspective and share information you might not have otherwise heard. Plus it just gives the board member a positive feeling to know someone cared enough to interview them at the end of their service.

Here are some useful questions to ask.

  • Why are you leaving your current position?
  • When did you start considering moving on?
  • What prompted you to look for other positions?
  • Were you given the resources you needed to do your job well?
  • What did you like most about your job?
  • What did you like least about your job?
  • What are you most proud of from your time with the organization?
  • What skills and qualities should we look for in your replacement?
  • Do you have any recommendations for the organization for the future?

Exit interviews are a great way to get feedback on your organization. As part of a consistent evaluation process, they will help you see how you can improve.

Board Source shares some great tips on exit interviews for board members in this article.

Departure-Defined Succession Planning

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.

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Practical Tips for Addressing Issues with Employees

It’s never easy to tell someone they are doing something wrong, and it is especially hard if you’ve put off doing it. It’s easy to hope that a minor issue will go away. But it also doesn’t help anyone to let an issue linger. Think about the effect it has on other employees who may see someone getting away with shoddy work. Or think about how much time you are wasting worrying about talking with the staff person. Not to mention that the staff person can’t correct the problem if they don’t know it is an issue.

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Creating a Leadership Development Plan

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.

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