Hiring an executive director is one of the most important actions that the governing board of a nonprofit agency will take. The board depends on its director to achieve the agency’s purposes and objectives within the constraints of its budget on a day-to-day basis—not an easy task to accomplish year in and year out. Also, the working relationship between the director and the board, the staff, volunteers, clients, funding organizations, and other service agencies can significantly influence the agency’s effectiveness and reputation in the community. But finding a great Executive Director can be a tricky process as they are senior positions, but tend not to be as well paid as in the private sector, meaning that hiring someone who is in it for more than just financial compensation, someone who is in it because of passion, is critical.

 This blog outlines a process designed to help ensure that, in selecting its next director, a board will meet its own needs and those of its constituencies. It’s equally applicable whether a board is hiring its first director or is replacing one who has resigned or been fired. If a clearly agreed on successor already is working for the organization, the board might want to proceed directly to negotiations with and appointment of him or her. However, even in such a case, the board may want to use part or all of the process suggested below in order to be certain that it has given this important choice the most careful deliberation.

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step 1. Assess the Needs of your Organization and the candidate skills necessary to meet these needs

Before beginning the official search for a new executive director, take time to assess your organization’s strengths and areas for improvement. A clear assessment of the current situation helps you to design a position profile and job description that reflects the unique needs and characteristics of your organization in its current state.

List the demands of the job. Before doing anything else, you should start by anticipating the future demands on the executive director: What will be happening in the community that will affect your agency’s mission and operations? What are the strengths and the weaknesses of your organization as it moves into the future? What will the staff be like, and how will it change? How does your board want the director to divide his or her efforts between internal management of the organization and external management of the board’s agenda in your community? The answers to these questions are likely to be different for almost every organization, and may have changed since the last time you went through the process to hire an executive director.

List the assets (knowledge, skills, and abilities) of an ideal director. Having taken time to anticipate the most important issues facing your organization in the future, you should identify specific assets that you’re looking for in candidates. Otherwise, you risk choosing a director on the basis of stereotypical characteristics that might not be relevant to your organization’s particular circumstances. For example, if your agency is in financial trouble, an otherwise attractive candidate who has worked only for large, financially-flush agencies and has had no direct responsibility for fundraising, budgeting, or financial controls is unlikely to meet your needs. Similarly, an agency experiencing serious problems of employee morale might want to make an effort to attract applicants who have demonstrated records of effective staff management.

Agree on a salary range. Setting a salary range when hiring has the same advantage as setting a ceiling when buying a car: it makes the search realistic and limited. Like a car buyer, your board might later decide to deviate from your planned limits if you want a candidate badly enough to do so, but setting some limits initially provides a firm foundation from which to make such a decision. In setting the salary range, your board should consider factors such as the knowledge, skills, and abilities included in the ideal candidate profile; the size and the complexity of your agency and its operations; the general cost and standard of living in your community; and the salary levels of directors of comparable agencies.

Providing salary information in your job posting can also serve as a screening device. If the salary is significantly higher or lower than a prospective applicant’s needs or reasonable expectations, he or she might be less likely to submit a fruitless application, and your board will not waste time interviewing candidates who have salary expectations that you’re unable to meet.

Complete the candidate profile. Once you have listed the demands of the job, identified desired characteristics, and agreed on a salary range, you need to combine all of this information into a profile of the ideal candidate, which will be used in your job posting. Having such a profile also makes almost every other step in the hiring process easier and more effective.

 

Step 2: Plan a hiring strategy and recruit applicants

Agree on tasks and schedules. Before going any further, you and your board should outline the hiring tasks that need to be completed, and lay out a rough timetable for hiring the new director. Doing this accomplishes several purposes. First, it gives board members a realistic view of how long the hiring process will take. Second, it requires them to decide how to provide for management of the agency in the interim if the director being replaced already has left or will leave before recruitment can be completed. Third, it gives them an idea of how much time they should expect to devote personally to the effort. The board should agree on realistic target dates for completing each task in the hiring process, consistent with the commitments that members and others who will participate are willing to make.

It is unusual for a board to do a thorough job of recruiting outside candidates and have a new director on the job in less than three months. Four months is a more reasonable expectation for a straightforward recruitment with no special problems. More time may be necessary if there is substantial discord among board members, a shortage of good candidates, or other complicating factors. Overall, time spent up front on developing a clear profile of the new director and on planning carefully for recruitment can save time in the long run by making everything else the board does more efficient and more effective. It also is important to have board members discuss openly and honestly how much time each can devote to the recruitment and to organize and carry out the process in a manner consistent with the commitments people make.

Decide how to involve staff and others. Any kind of change causes stress in an organization, and a pending change in leadership always creates unease. People’s natural fear of the unknown will compound the stress commonly existing in a nonprofit staff that is stretched to the limit. Keeping staff members informed about the process and, if possible, involving them in it can mitigate anxiety over the transition. As you plan for recruitment, you should share with staff as much information as you can about the general procedure you’re planning to follow, a general timetable, and your target date for having a new director in place. You may also choose to schedule each finalist to meet with staff members as individuals or as a group. If your board invites staff members to share their impressions of candidates from these meetings, you should determine and communicate clearly how much weight you expect to give to their observations in making a decision.

Gather a pool of candidates. The next step in the hiring process is to gather your pool of candidates, and there are several ways to approach this process. Keep in mind that whatever method(s) you choose to use, you should allow two to six weeks to complete the advertisement of the position and receipt of applications.

The first and most obvious method is to post your job opening online. Platforms such as LinkedIn are great for this because you can tag your position with required skills that will help LinkedIn target and advertise the role to the right candidates. LinkedIn also allows you to see what connections you may have in common, as well as endorsed skills and recommendations from a candidate’s contacts.

Another great method is to hire a recruiter to help find ideal candidates. These recruiters do full-time employee searches and are only paid if they successfully find a candidate for a client company. The only downside of hiring a recruiter is that they can be expensive. As a client, you will usually pay a percentage (15-35%) of the first year’s salary to the recruiter.

A third option is to establish a search committee within your organization to identify and directly contact people who may know of good prospects for the position. Keep in mind that many people at the executive level did not hear about their current position by traditional methods, because they were not looking for a new position at the time. Instead, they responded to a direct message from someone who believed that they were the right person got the job.

 

Step 3: Screen and assess candidates

After the application deadline date, your hiring committee should screen the resumes using a candidate assessment sheet that lists the key criteria for the position. Ideally, you will be able to narrow down the field to a short list of three to seven candidates.

Screen all of the received applications. The board has many options for screening applications. A staff assistant might eliminate applications that clearly fail to meet basic factual qualifications in the profile, or sort applications into several groups according to apparent level of qualification. A committee of board members might do an initial screening for the whole board. In the interest of openness, most boards give all their members access to all the applications no matter which method of screening they use. This has the advantage of making it less likely that a promising candidate will be overlooked in the screening stage. When reviewing applications and resumes it’s important to remember that these applications will reveal whether applicants meet basic education and experience requirements, and they might reveal low-level writing skills, but rarely will they reveal reliable information about how well applicants performed in previous employment. Beyond the basics, the board can only draw inferences from the candidates’ resumes relative to its list of desired knowledge, skills, and abilities.

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Choose who to interview. When you and your board members have reviewed applications, the whole board can meet, compare notes, and decide whom it wants to invite for an interview. Most boards invite three to seven applicants. However, some boards conduct 30- to 45-minute screening interviews of ten or so applicants before narrowing the field to a smaller set of finalists. Your board or recruiting committee can conduct these screening interviews over the phone, via Skype, or in person. In any case, when the screening interviews are complete, the recruiting committee or the whole board usually agrees on a few finalists to invite for more intensive assessment.

Once you’ve reached this point in the process, it’s customary to send some background information about your organization and its work to the candidates who are invited to interview. This might include brochures and other publications about your services, information about your organization’s financial status, information about the community you serve, and any publicity about your organization that would help applicants understand its origin and nature, its role and acceptance in the community, and any formative events or issues in its history.

 

Step 4: The Interview Process

When scheduling interviews, be sure to plan enough time to allow both the committee and the candidate to get to know one another, and to cover the interview questions. You’ll also want to allow time for the committee to write down impressions of the candidate at the end of the interview, while it’s still fresh in their minds.

Conducting interviews. Allowing for introductions, follow-up questions from board members, and closing questions from the candidate, an interview panel can explore only four or five questions adequately in a one-hour interview. If the board wants to obtain more information, the interview panel should plan a longer interview. One and a half hours is not unusual, but more than two hours probably goes beyond the limits of endurance and effectiveness of candidates and panel members alike. If the board thinks that it has more important questions to ask than a reasonable interview time will allow, it might consider other ways to obtain some of the information, such as observations and opinions from candidates’ references.

When interviewing, the panel should administer the interview consistently across the candidates. Asking each candidate the same set of questions in the same sequence and in the same manner provides a yardstick by which to compare candidates’ responses. As long as the panel establishes this common basis for comparison, it still is free to vary its follow-up questions to explore the differences among the people whom it interviews. Most interview panels have found that they become more consistent and efficient with each succeeding interview. This in itself introduces some inconsistency across candidates. One way to mitigate the inconsistency (it probably cannot be eliminated entirely) is to rehearse asking the questions once or twice before the first interview. This also suggests keeping the same people on the panel for all the interviews. Finally, after each interview, while impressions are fresh, panel members should share their ratings. If the ratings differ significantly, divergent members should discuss their reasoning. Sometimes one person sees, hears, or infers something that another does not. It is helpful for members to exchange information and impressions and try to resolve the different perceptions.

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Agree on a choice. After the interviews, the panel usually tries to reach consensus on one candidate unless the board of directors has instructed it to do otherwise. If the board uses a panel of less than its entire membership, the panel might recommend a first choice and a backup, or rank-order the finalists from best to worst, and then communicate that to the board. The panel’s explaining the reasoning behind its recommendations usually helps the board. When there are serious conflicts on a board, a candidate might accept only an offer based on consensus, believing that anything less would make his or her position too tenuous. Many candidates, however, are willing to start with the tentative security of support from a simple majority of the board.

Negotiate the details and draft an employment agreement. Usually the board arranges for a final background check while it negotiates the terms and the conditions of employment with the prospective director. When the facts and the quality of the candidate’s experience have been corroborated, the board should confirm the new director’s agreement to come to work, take whatever action is required by its bylaws, notify the other candidates, and then announce the new director. These last steps should be taken in this order so that other candidates do not find out secondhand that they were not selected. Although care is obviously required in these actions, experience suggests that the more time that passes after the final interview, the less control the board has over the time and the conditions under which the decision becomes public knowledge.

The agreement that you draft for your new executive director should set out a variety of conditions of the director’s employment, such as leave, use of a car or mileage reimbursement for official business, an expense account, participation in professional activities—virtually any matter on which the board wants to have a clear understanding with the director. The agreement also might specify the conditions under which the director should give notice of resignation and under which the board may ask the director to leave involuntarily.

Conclusion

Hiring an executive director for a nonprofit or Human Services agency is neither quick nor simple if done thoroughly, but a meticulous process is critically important to effective governance of the agency and effective administration of the agency’s mission. Time and effort spent on defining carefully what the agency and its governing board need in the near future, searching systematically for candidates with attributes that will meet those needs, and thoroughly examining the candidates can yield significant returns in the form of satisfied clients, board members, and employees.

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Have any tips to share from your experience hiring an Executive Director? Share them in the comments section below!