Steps of an Executive Director Search

For many small nonprofit boards, hiring a search firm to find their next executive director simply isn’t an option financially. 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.

  1. Choose search committee members and chair, or choose a chair first and then that person can recruit the members. Five to eight members is ideal, including both some board members and some outsiders, especially executive directors and people who have been involved as a board member in an ED search.
  2. Communicate! The committee chair is responsible for keeping the full board and the staff informed of the process. It is much better to communicate too much than too little so they understand what is happening and support the final decision.
  3. Take time to thoroughly review the current executive director’s role and job description. Interview the current ED and staff to determine what the organization needs. Set expectations for the incoming ED.
  4. Develop a compelling, but realistic job description that will attract candidates. Set salary range to include in the job posting. (Here’s why.) A good data source in Nebraska is the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands Salary and Benefit Survey. The board must approve both the job description and salary range.
  5. Post the job – In Lincoln, Cause Collective and Nonprofit Association of the Midlands are the best places, but you should also look at national groups related to your nonprofit, and promote it to everyone in your organization’s network.
  6. Recruit candidates – ask peers, funders, past board members, and staff for recommendations and then reach out to those people. Your best candidates probably aren’t currently looking for a job, so you need to find them. More details on finding good candidates.
  7. Develop a process to screen candidates. The committee should rank resumes based on the criteria and expectations developed earlier to narrow the pool to 5-10 candidates. Carry out a round of phone interviews by some committee members to assess fit for the position and organization.
  8. Develop interview questions. Focus on questions that ask about past behavior in specific situations, as that is the best predictor of future success. Structured interviews are much more effective and have less bias.
  9. Schedule interviews with the full committee. All committee members need to be present for each interview so that the final recommendations are balanced and fair.
  10. Carry out reference checks. Consider how to ask quality questions, and whether to include references other than the ones the candidate submitted. Perform any necessary background checks.
  11. Meet as a committee to discuss candidates and choose one or two finalists.
  12. Schedule time for full board to meet with finalists, and perhaps have the candidate make a presentation to the board. Also consider including senior staff at the same or another time.
  13. Make the final choice. The committee will provide a recommendation to the board, who will make the ultimate decision.
  14. Finalize offer details and employment agreement and present to the candidate. Negotiate the details and plan for a successful onboarding process and first day.

How long will this take? It depends, of course, on many factors, but you can expect at least three months if everything goes incredibly smoothly and you quickly find great candidates. Six months is a more realistic time frame.

Hiring an executive director takes careful thought and significant amounts of time. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the process, feel free to contact me for help at or 402-730-2532. I have resources to help you along every step of the search process.

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