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  • Pat Libby

Five reasons why nonprofits struggle to hire senior talent

It’s that time of year! The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and people in the nonprofit sector are retiring or changing jobs.

I’ve heard lots of grousing lately about how hard it is to find quality candidates – particularly for senior-level nonprofit jobs. And while I’ll admit that the hunt for the perfect match has never been a walk-in-the-park, there are five common reasons why organizations struggle to find the right hire:

1. They don’t know what they need

At the Executive Director/CEO level, hiring decisions at nonprofits are left to the Board. Yet because most Boards operate at 30,000 feet (as they should), they have no idea how the organization functions on a day-to-day basis. That lack of insight can lead to a search for a clone who has the identical training, managerial style, and personality of the departing exec. That’s fine unless the organization needs someone with different attributes and talents (which I find is true more often than not). Don’t confuse having passion for your cause – which is ESSENTIAL – with the skill set needed to advance the work.

One of the most important things an organization can do before it begins a search is to have heart-to-heart discussions with its senior leaders about what is working well, what could work better, and what everyone thinks is needed to move the organization forward. Those discussion will go a long way toward framing a profile of who you need at the helm.

2. They aren’t paying a comparable wage

Compensation is king. If you want to hire someone who is talented, you have to pay them decently and show that you respect them by providing good vacation, healthcare and other benefits (if you’ve read my other blogs, you know I believe this to be true of all staff). I still see Boards who are stuck in the 1980s in terms of how they think about compensating charity leaders. There are lots of available compensation studies that can guide your organization through comparable pay and benefits for nonprofits in your area (In California, I’d recommend a study sponsored by CAL Nonprofits that provides a breakdown by position and region). And regardless of the laws affecting your organization, you need to fully disclose the compensation range and benefits on your job announcement. If you don’t, you’re simply wasting your time and that of your candidates.

3. Their network stinks

As Marcus Sheridan says in 8 Brutally Honest Reasons Why You Can’t Find Good Employees, “In this day and age of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, social groups, etc.; there is simply no reason why a business owner should be stuck depending on a help-wanted ad in the local paper to find good people. Such a strategy is nuts and typically attracts everything you don’t want. So use your networks. Let people in your social groups know you’re looking for a particular employee/skill. Trust me, the results will be completely different than what you may be used to.”

Your nonprofit has formal networks with other organizations, your staff have personal and professional networks, and your board members have them too. These networks consist of online and real live contacts. Everyone within your organization needs to use their networks to share the job announcement, talk about what your organization needs, and to inform people about the timeline for your process. You should do this in addition to using social media sites and standard search job sites such as Indeed.

4. They don’t thoroughly vet candidates

Boys and girls, there is a magical tool called the Internet that allows you to search the work history and social media of your candidates. This is a critical first step to ensuring that your candidates are who they claim to be.

Second, it’s essential for members of your senior staff and board to have honest discussions with your top candidates about the current state of your organization. Is it experiencing a lot of turn-over? Is it struggling with DEI? Are staff reluctant to work in the office at least 3 days per week? Is its funding stable? Does it have a strategic plan? Is it positioned for growth? Does it have measurable outcomes? Does it have an active board? There are some candidates who will balk at challenges and others who will relish them. You need to have frank conversations with candidates to know where they stand on these issues and how they envision their role.

5. They don’t take the time to do it right

Good searches require the board and senior staff to roll up their sleeves and dig deep in order to get answers to the four things I’ve talked about here. One of the most important functions of the board is to find the right person to lead the organization. If done well, the person you hire should be a good fit for organization and be committed to taking it to its next level of impact.

You don’t need a search consultant to do a good search. But you do need to take the time to go through these steps in order to do it right.



Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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