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  • Pat Libby

How to effectively include staff in nonprofit searches

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

There’s a tug of war that happens with almost every nonprofit executive search about if or how to involve staff in the process.

If I could put a theme song to it, it would probably be The Beatles “We can work it out.”

I’ve heard lots of lamenting and sighing about this dilemma lately from CEO’s who are doing COO searches and Boards who are doing CEO searches.

And I’ve also spoken with nonprofit staff who are alternatively jumping for joy or dejected about their role in these searches.

My philosophy (and practice) is to design a process that includes staff as much as possible while still respecting whomever is the ultimate decision-maker (either the CEO or the Board depending upon the type of search that is taking place).

But, to quote my old friend from Boston, Mel King, how do you feed two birds with one hand?

By creating both inclusivity and bright lines of decision-making throughout the process!

In real terms that means allowing staff to have significant input into fleshing out the qualifications of the person you ideally want to hire.

You see, even though the CEO (in the case of a COO search) is immersed in the day-to-day work of the nonprofit, her role isn’t the same as the people who will be supervised by the hire.

And clearly, Board members don’t live and breathe the work of the organization in the same way that staff do (in the case of CEO searches).

Getting the perspective of staff will help round-out the picture of who and what your organization needs to bring it to its next stage of service and growth.

Gathering this input usually helps quell the anxiety that comes with the uncertainty of a new hire. And if we’re being honest, nervousness comes with the territory of pretty much any senior-level search.

Change ain’t easy.

Which is why I also recommend that staff have the opportunity to meaningfully interact with the finalists. By “meaningful,” I mean that staff are given the opportunity to ask questions about how that person works, his vision, and approach.

This isn’t asking staff to give a thumbs up or down (although occasionally that happens). The point is for staff to talk about the pros and cons of the finalists in order to give feedback to the decider – whether that’s the CEO or the Board.

Trust me, that feedback is invaluable!

I’ve been involved in several C-level searches where staff have reported candidates saying some really odd things during their meetings!

That information made the deciders take a hard look at those candidates and realize that if they couldn’t win over staff, they wouldn’t fit well within the organization.

Sure, it can be a bummer if the person you imagine to be your top candidate shoots herself in the foot. But better to know that before you’ve sealed the deal than afterward.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that staff hire their bosses – it’s the duty of the CEO or alternatively, the Board, to make those decisions.

What I am saying is this: information is power—the more you have, the better decision you can make for your nonprofit.


Pat Libby is a San Diego nonprofit consultant and philanthropy consultant. Her executive search consulting services have been helping organizations transition into new leadership for over three decades. Find out more about Pat's services here, and contact her today for a free consultation.

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