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Nonprofit HR’s Blog

We appreciate go-getters—those self-motivated people who work with passion and initiative, who move forward with confidence and unstoppable drive. But when faced with big, important decisions—the ones that impact your entire organization and its future—pausing to do a little (or a lot) of planning goes a long way.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the executive search process, we’ve seen nonprofits stumble before they even start. This surprisingly common misstep has nothing to do with finding candidates, interviewing them or making a final selection—but it can have an effect on the entire process and more importantly, the end result.

How exactly do these nonprofits get off track before they begin? They skip over the upfront work that is necessary for a successful search.

Rather than dive right into an executive search with a call for applicants or candidate recommendations, it’s crucial to take time to do research and plan out the process. If you don’t, the ultimate outcome of your search may not be the best one for your organization.

So what do you need to think about before starting your nonprofit executive search? What important steps should you take? Here are our top four “pre-search” action items. They’re the same ones we take our clients through when beginning a search engagement.

  1. Understand current state and direction of the organization.

Before you move forward, it’s a good idea to assess where you are right now. Take a look at the organization’s current state and the direction it’s heading. As a part of the leadership team or board, do you feel good about the present picture?

An in-depth look at which areas are in need of improvement—perhaps a poorly communicated mission, a lack of strategy, unclear leadership roles, a negative workplace culture—will guide you in the process of finding the best leader for your organization’s future. This person will help carry your organization forward in the right direction while also working to strengthen any weak points.

  1. Agree on priorities for the search.

Once you have a sense of the organization’s current state and strategic direction, you can determine the top qualities, skills and experience you’re looking for in a new executive. What type of leader does your nonprofit need in order to advance its mission? Who would be best suited to make required strategic changes or a necessary transformation internally and externally? Who would be a good fit for the culture?

As a search committee, discuss these questions and come to an agreement on the answers before starting the actual search. Prioritize the skills and expertise that are most important. With a clear understanding of the organizational needs and the type of executive leader who can best meet those needs, you’ll be more successful in finding a good match.

  1. Outline plans for communication throughout the process.

Communication is crucial at many points during the process. Keeping in touch with key internal and external stakeholders—through conversations about strategic direction, leadership, the action steps of the search committee—will help guide decisions and make the upcoming transition smoother. Listen to stakeholder input, and include your staff, particularly senior team, in the process. Encourage them to become “ambassadors” by recommending candidates, asking thoughtful questions and sharing feedback when appropriate.

Also, plan for how you’ll communicate with applicants and candidates at the beginning, middle, and end of the search process. Keeping candidates informed and engaged by communicating next steps is important, but transparency in a search process is also a best practice. Candidate confidentiality will be critical so that you don’t compromise the integrity of the search process.

  1. Plan for the transition.

It might seem strange to think as far ahead as the actual transition before you find the person who will be coming on board. But having a transition plan in place allows you to go into the process with a clear picture of what comes next and ensures a smooth executive onboarding. Determine a timeline, delegate duties and make plans for training and communication. These details will inform your conversations with candidates as well as your final decision.

By keeping your transition plan in mind throughout the search process, you’ll be better able to find someone who will easily move into this new role, someone who is best suited to the organization’s needs from a timing and resource perspective. And once the committee has chosen a new leader, everyone will know what needs to happen next in order to complete the transition.
When you have a big project and a big decision ahead of you, it’s tempting to just jump right in. But if you look before you leap—by assessing, prioritizing, gathering input and planning—you’ll find that all the upfront work will pay off during the process and in the end.

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