Prepare Now and Follow Sound Search Process for Your Nonprofit’s Next Leader

by | Mar 22, 2023 | Featured Nonprofits

Sam, the board chair, opened the board meeting with a sharp whack of his gavel. He looked a little concerned. A few board members noticed his serious demeanor. They thought maybe it was just worries about his business or family. “Before we get into this evening’s business, I want to share some important news with you all,” declared Sam. “I just received the resignation letter of our executive director. She will be leaving us within 30 days.”

Sam had reason to be worried. His nonprofit did not have a succession plan, nor had it been actively developing potential internal leaders. He knew the board should have planned for this eventuality, but they never seemed to have the time to put together a plan. Now he was stuck.

>>Succession planning helps your board think in advance about how to set the stage for a strong transition.

Executive leadership is a critical component for the success of nonprofit organizations. An upcoming period of leadership transition is predicted as substantial numbers of baby-boomers approach retirement age. With nonprofit organizations growing in both size and number, an impending leadership deficit is a concern. Succession planning can prepare organizations for this imminent leadership challenge.

Candid Learning, a firm offering resources for nonprofits, explains that “one of the most important responsibilities for nonprofit boards is selecting the organization’s next executive director. The search and transition can be complex, and both generally require careful planning, well before a planned – or unplanned – departure occurs.

“This process, also known as succession planning, includes developing your staff’s knowledge, skills, and abilities, and preparing for the many changes that come with a change in leadership.”

 The Annie E. Casey Foundation argues that “nonprofits should have a succession plan because it:

  • Ensures the organization’s viability in the event of a key manager’s unplanned absence
  • Makes the organization more nimble and flexible by developing a deep talent pool
  • Makes the executive’s job more “doable” because leadership is shared
  • Energizes and reassures the board by providing opportunities to develop high-level strategies for the future
  • Strengthens the local nonprofit network as staff develop their skills and ambitions.”

More nonprofits are realizing that executive director transition is a crucial moment in an organization’s life: a moment of great vulnerability as well as an excellent opportunity for transformative change. Succession should be a topic broached even when no one is anticipating a change in leaders. And of course, illness and other events can lead to sudden and unanticipated departures.

>>Investing in staff leadership development can prepare your organization for transition.

Most nonprofits have a good potential pipeline of next generation leaders who, with the right development, mentoring, and compensation, may be ready to take on the demanding job of leading a nonprofit organization. At the same time, more and more grant makers are recognizing the need to invest in leadership development and succession planning.

However, most nonprofits are not actively investing time and resources in the adequate preparation of these future leaders.

Ken Saxon, founder of Santa Barbara’s Leading From Within, explains it this way. “Nonprofits in this country have engaged professional managers for the past 50+ years and yet there is little formal support or preparation for nonprofit leaders. We haven’t built institutions or set standards of practice yet for this important group of professionals.

“Many think that time invested in one’s own professional growth takes away from serving the mission.  I see it differently.  I want to see our nonprofit professional and volunteer leaders invest in themselves, so they can be more effective in advancing the organization’s mission. 

“Our Emerging Leaders Program is a year-long professional development program for managers in nonprofits–mostly program, development, and administrative managers at Santa Barbara County nonprofit agencies.  The program focuses on leadership development, personal development, and nonprofit business skills. A big emphasis of this program has been to connect these folks to others in the larger community. 

“Many of these young managers know only people their own organization, and few have a supportive group of professional peers. We invite outside presenters and lunch guests who are leaders in the field. Group members have a chance to ask questions about the speaker’s professional journey. This process develops a much deeper sense of being part of a broader nonprofit community beyond their agency.”

>>Understanding the executive search process can help inform your succession plan.

The Bridgespan Group is a global nonprofit that strives to make the world more equitable and just by helping social change leaders find solutions to economic and social barriers. In their recent article, Finding the Right ED: Creating and Managing an Effective Search Committee, they explain that “For many nonprofits, recruiting an executive director is a challenging experience. And creating a search committee to oversee the recruitment process can seem like a daunting task. We have found that having an organized, effective search committee is a key factor in the successful recruitment of an ED.” Their article explains the role the committee should play, what makes a good search committee member, and how to select a search chair.

Even if your board is not actively involved in a search for a new executive director, it is helpful to have an overview of the process.

  • Vision for the Future. I like to start with a visioning process to describe what you would like your organization to look like in the future. This process can also help inform your strategic planning and give board members and senior staff a clear picture of what they are aiming for. You can invite board members, key staff, and even supporters to take part in this powerful process. Simply begin by telling the group, “We are gathered today to celebrate our success at achieving our goals for 2030. What do we look like.” At this point, everyone pretends the year is 2030 (or whatever year you choose) and they explain what they see. Transcription of these ideas will yield a clear picture of an imagined future for the organization.
  • Describe the Leader. The next step is to ask everyone, “What kind of leader will it take to partner with us to achieve this vision?” Once again, transcription of everyone’s ideas will result in an overall description of the future leader’s competencies, experiences, and leadership qualities. This list can be used ultimately to prepare the job description.
  • Search Committee Chair. Choosing the chair of the search committee is a very important decision—to be made by the board chair, working with the rest of the board—because a strong search chair is essential to a disciplined, effective, and professional search process. The ideal search chair will be a strong leader, a consensus builder, an effective communicator, and a person who has the time and dedication to see the search through to completion.
  • Search Committee. The search chair’s first task is to form a search committee, ideally of five to eight people. Establishing co-chairs will help the search chair manage the tasks of executing the search and will provide backup.
  • Outside Facilitator or Search Firm. Early on, the search committee will decide whether to hire an outside firm. This will depend on the organization’s budget as well as the amount of time the committee members are willing to devote to the search process. A search firm can add objectivity and may have broader resources, but it can also be expensive.
  • Managing the Search Process. After the job description is written, the committee members will decide on the salary range and benefits package. They will advertise the position using the most advantageous sites and compile an information package for candidates. Next, they will screen applicants, conduct interviews, check references, and choose the top two or three candidates to present to the board. The executive committee or larger board will step in to interview the final two to three candidates. In addition, some organizations invite the top two or three candidates to meet informally with staff and/or constituents. The search process usually takes an average of four to eight months.
  • Extending the Offer. The search chair and search committee will determine who will present and negotiate the offer. In some instances, this may be the board chair or the search chair. The decision should be based on the relationship that has been formed between the candidate and the members of your organization, coupled with the negotiating ability of the persons being considered for this task. Be sure you choose someone who can convey the offer with enthusiasm and who has established a relationship with the candidate during the search process. This will provide a smooth foundation for negotiations.
  • Transition. Having a well thought out onboarding and leadership transition plan will be critical to the success of the new executive director. However, this is a topic for a future article. Most importantly, enjoy the process and use this time as a renewal opportunity for your organization.