Recruit—and Keep—Top Tier Talent: Ensure the right visionary change agents are at the helm

Dec. 15, 2020

Debbie Katz

[This article was originally published by The Center for Nonprofit Advancement for their annual 2020 publication ‘Nonprofit Agenda’ ]

Times of uncertainty can be windows of opportunity, and COVID has certainly created some new and unforeseen challenges. For some nonprofits, this has meant a different skillset is now needed at the top.

Many boards are considering hiring ‘wartime chiefs’ at the C-suite level to reconstitute strategic plans, assess talent and organizational structure, and engage the donor base.

To fill critical leadership positions, some nonprofits choose to handle the search and hiring process internally, while others elect to work with an executive search firm.

A firm can help you move quickly to meet the immediate needs of your organization, while also connecting you to the right leader—not just for the moment, but also for the foreseeable future. A good firm should do a deep dive into your organizational needs and culture, recruit exceptional candidates, facilitate the interview process, and help negotiate the offer.

For a successful search, there are steps leadership can and should be taking at each stage of the process—regardless of whether you work with a firm or not—to lay the groundwork for the best possible outcome.

1.  View yourself as a buyer and a seller

Top talent will always have options. Expect strategic leaders to be strategic about their career paths, and exceptional organizational advocates to be fierce negotiators for themselves. To attract the best and brightest, ready your- self for an interview process that will be going both ways.


2.  Keep it confidential

Nothing sinks a search faster than informally checking on candidates. It can cost them their current jobs, and word gets out fast that it is not a good bet to express interest in your organization’s job.


3.  Build your search committee strategically

Start off right by including key stakeholders whose participation in the hiring process will keep them invested in the new leader’s success. A Search Committee typically consists of a subset of the board, community partners, key constituents and/or major donors.

  • Keep it small: There is no magic number, but five to seven works well. Choose people who play well with others, are known for discretion, and reliably attend meetings.
  • Keep it odd: You’ll be happy for the tie breaker.
  • Keep it diverse: Choose people who can advocate for different constituents within your organization. Whoever you hire will need to represent them all.
  • Keep it organized: Outline who will ask what to avoid overlap and ensure all questions are covered.


4.  Craft your job description thoughtfully

A job description is an official board document by which the incoming leaders will be setting their goals and against which they will be assessed. If done right, it becomes a living document, updated over the term of the executive.

The job description also serves as:

    • An opportunity to make staff feel heard, a touch point for major donors, and a time to reassess current priorities and future goals. Reach out to a wide range of constituents and listen carefully.
    • A marketing piece that includes what the job offers. Will the candidate have the opportunity to set the vision and build a team? Craft a narrative that both rings true and attracts top talent.

Many nonprofits find it’s easier and more effective to bring in professionals. Putting together a good job description takes considerable time and expertise, and a neutral party frees people to discuss organizational pain points without repercussions.


5. Interview with empathy

While there’s no one-size-fits-all interview process, there are a few best practices that will help you connect with candidates and that can be incorporated into whatever structure makes sense for your organization.

  • Play Fair—The strongest candidates emerge when everyone faces the exact same vetting process. Consider investing in implicit bias training and make sure to interview a diverse pool of candidates that bring a broad range of professional and lived experience, fresh ideas, and new perspectives to the role.
  • Be transparent—Leave time at the end of each interview for candidates to ask questions and be clear about the challenges your organization is facing. Now is the time to assess whether they can handle them.
  • Play Nice—If you know you won’t be moving a candidate forward, let them know. If done well, you’ll have turned an awkward conversation into a new connection.
  • Debrief—After every interview, debrief with the team immediately. Discuss what was learned and determine if there are any follow up questions.


About Debbie Katz

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Read my previous article ‘Profile of an Executive Recruiter: Mary Wheeler’s Career in Search



[This article was originally published by The Center for Nonprofit Advancement for their annual publication ‘Nonprofit Agenda’ ]