Secrets of a Successful Nonprofit Search
The following article is based on a recent presentation by James Abruzzo and Sig Ginsburg to a
group of nonprofit leaders. In the following paragraphs, they discuss the hallmarks of a
successful nonprofit executive search.
Conducting An Executive Search
How do you evaluate a search firm? First, they should know your business. Look to see which
firm has the most experience. But, more importantly, look at the people within the firm who
are working for you. Ginsburg notes, "When you hire a search firm, you are buying the
experience of the person assigned to your search. Demand the top people." Question the
work that the person has done, because you want someone with experience in your organization's
area. In general, most search firms charge approximately one-third of the annual salary of the
position to be filled.
The process of a search involves more than "hiring a body." It is an interaction on a business
and strategic level, and it's about building a relationship. A good search firm will talk to
the people in and around the organization before beginning the search for candidates. They
should spend a lot of time getting to know the organization; they need to know more than the
public image and public relations spin. Ginsburg advises openness and honesty. Don't withhold
information because it might be embarrassing, and do identify minefields for potential employees. A good searcher will ask good questions of you: "What ticks you off about people? What is your personality type? What do you expect of your employees? Why did the last person leave this position?" Truthfulness is needed in order for the searcher to find the best possible candidate to meet the executive's and the organization's needs.
A search firm will also help you develop an appropriate job description, taking into account
the tasks to be performed, the skills needed and the organization's culture. Take your time
and be careful in developing the position description. Ask each stakeholder within the
organization who will have to work with this person what qualities and skills will be helpful
to have. Be as specific as you can about the responsibilities, but be judicious in your use of
adjectives in the job description: you don't want the description to make it look like you're
trying to hire God.
Once you have crafted the job description, you must decide who approves the ads, who places
the ads, and where they will be placed. Ads in publications like the New York Times will bring
a huge response, but the qualifications of the applicants will be all over the place. Abruzzo
stressed the importance of placing verbal ads in addition to written ones. Ask all of your
contacts if they can recommend someone for the position, although this can be a delicate
situation in that you don't want to be seen as poaching other's staff. Consider placing ads
in trade publications, such as Chronicle of Philanthropy, Chronicle of Higher Education, or
other relevant journals. (The Foundation Center has an online site where ads can be placed
for free at http://fdncenter.org/pnd/jobs as well as other job placement resources. NPCC has
a listing of over 60 organizations and institutions where nonprofits an advertise job openings.
Members can request a copy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.)
With or without a firm conducting the search, you may need help with the process. Some
organizations appoint a search committee to do a lot of the hands-on work or an advisory
committee to simply guide the person who is running the search. Once you receive responses
to the position announcement, how do you evaluate them and decide whom to interview? Define
the six or seven most important characteristics you need for the job. It could be fundraising
skills, management expertise, or public speaking, but as Abruzzo and Ginsburg remarked,
you must define the musts. These will help eliminate unqualified candidates and will help
you focus on what you need. If fundraising abilities are a must, but the candidate doesn't
have that skill, move on even if she charms you in every other way.
Also make sure you look at the quantitative. If an applicant's resume indicates that he
increased funding at his last job by 25%, find out exactly what that means. If it means
that contributions went from $1,000 to $1,250 but your job needs a person who can manage
a multi-million dollar capital campaign, you want that clarified early on. "People have
become very good at manipulating their resumes-they can say virtually anything and mean
absolutely nothing," notes Ginsburg.
"It's not just the job applicant who should practice for an interview," said Abruzzo.
"The interviewer needs just as much practice in developing the questions that will give
him a sense of the candidate." You may have to work to get beyond a prepared script, as
many job seekers have been coached in the interviewing process. That said, you should
also develop standard questions that are asked of all of the candidates. This is especially
important where there are different parties interviewing different candidates. Abruzzo noted
that he would never select a candidate to move forward in the hiring process based on a good
feeling alone, but he would never go forward if he had a bad feeling about a candidate.
References provided by the applicant are of little value (only slightly ahead of a written
letter of recommendation), according to Ginsburg. A potential employer will need to use his
network to get accurate information about candidates. Try to find out who the person's
immediate supervisor was, and give her a call. Unfortunately, securing references can be
very difficult, especially when making a cold call to someone who doesn't know you. People
are very wary of providing information given the fear of litigation. Read between the lines
on references. An intelligent candidate would never use someone who won't provide them with
a good recommendation. How do you get beyond the standard answers to a reference check?
Try to ask the unexpected. Ginsburg sometimes asks a reference "if you were sending [the
candidate] out to represent you and meet with people he didn't know, what would you caution
him about his style and approach?" The answer, e.g., he talks too much, he doesn't listen
well, etc., will often be more instructive than any other information you receive.
If you don't like your candidates, you have every right to go back to the search firm and
tell them to start again. Given today's job market you don't have to settle when there's a
vast pool of talent available. On the other hand, you may have to review your search
criteria to make sure that it's feasible and that you're not trying to find Superman and
Wonder Woman all in one.
When you've found the right candidate, how do you get an acceptance? Don't try to get
someone on the cheap, Abruzzo cautioned. Although unemployment is high now, the market
will eventually change and if an employee feels he was treated shabbily when hired,
you can be certain he will take the first opportunity to move on.
Be clear in offering the employment package. Tell the candidate what the salary is,
what benefits are provided, and when they will be eligible for a raise. Be reasonable
in your negotiations. The goal is for both sides to be satisfied, not for one side to
feel it got the better deal. You want to avoid having the perfect candidate walk away
from the offer thinking, "Is that all they think of me?" Ask candidates about their
current compensation and benefits. If you can't offer the salary your candidate wants,
Abruzzo notes that there are several moving pieces when structuring an employment
package. Think beyond the base salary to other possibilities: a sign-on bonus, an
allowance for moving costs, a bonus offered during the first year, an early salary
review, help in getting placement on a aboard of directors, or help in finding a job
for the candidate's spouse. In Ginsburg's and Abruzzo's experience, motivation and a
rising career path are more important to many people than the salary.
Finally, Ginsburg urged organizations to help new employees fit into the organization.
Make sure you provide an orientation into the culture and systems of the workplace, and
stay in touch especially during the beginning. Make the investment you've put into the
search process pay off for the employee as well as the organization.