A Word to the Wise Nonprofit Board: Don’t Misfire and Mis-hire your next ED. 

As an Executive Director of several not-for-profits, I always believed if the agency was stagnating, it was enroute to its demise. For me there is nothing more exciting than a turnaround no matter what the circumstances Joining a team that is struggling, one needs humility about the experience you bring and a dedication to helping the team envision and skill up to greet a bright, new future.

Let’s begin with a hypothetical story about a failed leadership transition. 

An Executive Director of a mid-sized not-for-profit agency left after 8 years for a bigger job and salary. The Board scrambled to find a replacement. In its haste the Board mis-hired badly. The new Executive Director behaved like a tyrant. She belittled staff publicly and hired her friends into made up, unfunded positions. It took the Board 15 months to fire her – after staff wrote directly to the Board. In her wake were complaints to the Ontario Human Rights Commission and a new union representing 16 staff. Unions form for a reason. Staff had feared for their emotional well-being and job security.  

Hiring an effective Executive Director in the not-for-profit sector is challenging. Firstly, it is an impoverished sector with little “unrestricted” funding for leadership development. Most Executive Directors have learned the hard way with the battle scars to prove it. Secondly the pay and benefits – especially of the small to mid-sized agencies are meagre compared to the private sector.  

But don’t despair because there are strong leaders out there with a passion for social justice so seek them out for your organization with these five tips for hiring strategically.  

Tip #1: Know The Organizational Life Cycle
When an Executive Director needs or wants to exit, the Board needs to take a deep breath and do a deep dive. Where is the Agency in terms of its organizational life cycle?  

  • Is it in start-up mode which may mean you need a leader who can bring process, systems, and order?  
  • Is it in growth mode with stable funding, a stable workforce and on the cusp of change? Look for a change agent with the vision to get to the next stage of development.  
  • Is it a mature organization that needs to shift into maintenance mode with incremental growth?  
  • Or is it in decline with a disengaged workforce, decreased funding and a shrinking client base? This type of agency has sadly suffered from inadequate leadership and management, poor planning, minimal or non-existent fund development and/or limited donor relationship management and failure to change. To move forward, find a leader who can raise a phoenix from the ashes.  

In each case, it is critical to seek the experienced leader who is familiar with the agency’s circumstances and will know whether a turnaround, a merger, a shared service arrangement to lower costs or an exciting new vision will be required.  

Tip #2: Survey Staff
If a Board really wants to find out what is happening on the front line, ask staff. That is always  my first activity as a new or interim Executive Director. This is not to “spill the tea” about the former or current leader. It’s about learning what is working or not. What do we keep, build upon or eliminate? Ask staff about the kind of leadership that would help them do their best work.  

If the current Executive Director is still in place, they can play a hand in choosing a third party to conduct the survey and develop the questions.  

Tip #3: Survey the Influencers and Leaders in the Sector About Organizational Reputation
A small to mid-sized social service agency should not exist in isolation – its survival and/or growth may depend on its partnerships and its relationships with others to manage the new agency effectively, you need to know how your partners view the agency’s contribution. 

When a new Executive Director succeeded the tyrannical leader above, she began to network with other colleagues in the sector. One influential sector leader was quick to divulge that the agency had suffered reputational damage under the predecessor. Again, a Board isn’t seeking gossip but rather, what is the perception of the agency in the sector? Is it seen to have a strong brand? Is it a player at the table in terms of influencing government or building collaboration?  

Tip #4: Don’t Be Wholly Reliant on a Recruiter
Many agencies turn immediately to a sole proprietor to recruit the new Executive Director and there are many strong recruiters out there. But on a weekly basis, I receive emails from those recruiters asking for potential candidates from my network.  Are there contacts in each Board member’s network who might surface potential candidates? Then the Board search committee should be armed with tough questions and real-life scenarios; request pre-work and presentations. Test for the capabilities that will be required at this stage of the organizational life cycle. 

Tip #5: Create a Transition Plan
Statistics Canada recently reported that never has the number of people nearing retirement – the boomers – been so high. More than one in five workers (21.8 percent) is close to the mandatory or proposed retirement age of 65. Many long-time Executive Directors in the not-for-profit sector are retiring and that requires the leader and Board to develop a proper transition plan that begins with all the points above and continues with overlap as the successor onboards.

In closing, I encourage Boards to be thoughtful and consider the organization’s needs from all angles. When looking for your next leader, don’t rush to make a selection you’ll regret. Cast the net again if the first pass failed to attract a winner. The Osborne Group can always help with interim leadership if you need time and insight to get it right.  

Judy Fantham is a high energy executive with a strong track record of NFP Leadership – creating innovative award-winning programming to strengthen organizations and encourage and facilitate social change.