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Hiring an Executive Director

With the coming "Silver Tsunami" of retirements, many nonprofits are going to be losing their leadership in the next few years. A survey 501 Commons conducted in 2012 found that one-third of organizations in the state expected to have a senior leader leave in the next three years.

A Changing of the Guard

In an ideal scenario, leadership transitions would be meticulously planned and seamlessly executed. When an executive director is set to depart, it's crucial to provide ample lead time during which staff, board members, funders, and donors are informed about the impending change. This holds especially true if the executive has been a founder or served as the organization's leader for an extended period. Whenever possible, having a successor selected and in place, with a transitional overlap, allows for a smooth handover of relationships and responsibilities. While it might appear as an additional expense, this investment yields significant long-term benefits.

Moreover, organizations should establish a succession plan even in the absence of immediate expectations for the departure of the executive director. Rather than being a safeguard against unexpected events, it should function as insurance for unforeseen positive developments, such as the ED "winning the lottery." A robust succession plan doesn't merely revolve around identifying a replacement for the ED. Equally important is the implementation of a clear and intentional process within the organization, ensuring cross-training, comprehensive documentation of procedures, and ongoing involvement of other team members in relationship building and stewardship.

A simple yet powerful reminder is that the ED isn't fulfilling their duty regarding succession if they leave the parking lot with an empty passenger seat on their way to a meeting. The future leaders of the organization need to be nurtured and provided with opportunities today to guarantee a resilient and sustainable tomorrow.

Job #1: Board Selection of the Executive

When the time comes for a board of directors to select a first or new executive for a nonprofit, the importance of the board of directors becomes crystal clear. In order to hire well, the board needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Keen understanding of the organization's mission, programs, and business model
  • Awareness of the organization's capacity limitations and operational challenges
  • Relationships with the organization's key stakeholders (clients, partners, funders, volunteers, etc.)
  • A vision of the organization's future that helps them distinguish if there is a difference between the leader needed in the past and the one needed in the future.

Executive search and human resource professionals

If the board does not have a human resources professional on the board, it would be a good idea to contract with one or recruit a qualified volunteer to help.

The board may also want to contract with an executive search firm. You can find those recommended by nonprofits through our Consultants & Other Nonprofit Specialists page under the "Human Resources - Employee recruitment & executive search" categories. A search firm will help the board define what characteristics and background it is looking for and will recruit applicants meeting that criteria. The firm will also help the organization in the selection, hiring, and onboarding process.

A third type of support available to the board is interim management.

Interim executive directors

If your organization is unable to facilitate this kind of transition, fear not—there are nonprofit specialists readily available to step in, whether the transition is abrupt or planned. Engaging an interim executive director (ED) during periods when the current ED is on a leave of absence, retiring, resigning, or being asked to leave, is a widely adopted and highly effective practice. Fortunately, finding a skilled interim professional is not a daunting task. We provide a comprehensive list of experienced and recommended interims through the Consultants & Other Nonprofit Specialists page under "Interim Management."

An adept interim professional possesses a unique skill set, managing in ways that surpass mere caretaking or fulfilling the role of a temporary ED/CEO. A professional interim brings fresh management expertise, incorporating assessment and evaluation skills and tools. They have the courage to pinpoint an organization's underlying issues and propose necessary changes in structure, roles, or positions to enhance the organization's impact significantly. To delve deeper into the benefits of working with an interim, explore our dedicated page on Interim Executive Director (and Other Interims).

Rest assured, expert assistance is within reach to ensure your organization thrives, regardless of the transitional challenges it faces.

Turnaround needed?

Sometimes the board realizes when the executive leaves or they ask the executive to leave because the organization is financially unstable or having management difficulties. For some good resources and information about transitions and restructuring, visit the website of La Piana and their blog, and visit our Resources about Turnaround Management page.