Speed is Key in a Nonprofit Executive Search

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What is the first rule of nonprofit executive search? Move quickly. Slow progress on filling an executive vacancy is usually costly. Leadership vacuums, especially in small organizations, impede fundraising, erode morale and can bring work to a near halt. Meanwhile, top-tier candidates are a volatile commodity. Take too long to engage, interview and make a decision and a board will often find talented targets already working at another organization.

This all seems pretty obvious, right? Then why is it that so many nonprofit boards, having received a surprise resignation or retirement announcement from a chief executive, respond with caution, delay or a complete lack of action?

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague who transitioned last year out of an executive director position with a small nonprofit. The rest of the staff was relatively inexperienced and included no potential replacements, so this individual gave 90-days’ notice. They wanted to make sure that the search for a new ED would be well along—maybe even complete—by their last day on the job.

The board was surprised by the resignation but ignored the first rule of nonprofit executive search. They waited more than a month to meet and discuss the ongoing transition. The ED’s last day came and went, yet the board had not even scheduled an interview. They were disorganized, distracted and seemingly unaware how much damage they were potentially inflicting on this organization they had pledged to lead and safeguard.

I serve on a board, so I’m sympathetic to the fact that it can be hard to schedule nonprofit crisis management around family and work responsibilities—especially in the middle of a pandemic. But hiring a new executive is a nonprofit board’s most important function. It’s not something you “get to” when you find some free time. An executive opening needs a board’s (or at least an executive committee’s) immediate and full attention.

Here are a few suggestions for handling an unexpected executive resignation or retirement:

  1. Prepare a succession plan—now. I’ll discuss succession plans in future posts but they are less of a “who’s next” guide and more of a best practice playbook and checklist for addressing future executive openings.
  2. Move quickly (at first). The executive committee should meet to discuss the opening within a day or two after receiving notice. If you don’t have a succession plan, create one and start working it.
  3. Slow down (one your plan is in place). Urgency is helpful but “accurate speed” is essential. That means investing time early in the transition to assess the organization and determine leadership needs. A search committee should be appointed and tasked to develop a shared vision of “best fit” before the job is ever advertised.
  4. Get some help. Yes, I’m promoting my own business, but I don’t understand why more boards don’t hire nonprofit search consultants. It’s not nearly as expensive as you think, your search will move faster and you’ll get access to quality candidates who are truly a good fit for your organization. Plus, consultants will help navigate the obstacles that invariably appear during every search.

If you are a board chair with an unexpected resignation letter in hand, or maybe an executive director who wants to make a planned departure easier on your board, give me a call at (800) 941-7311. I’m happy to offer a free consultation to help you develop a plan for a speedy and successful nonprofit executive transition.

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