One of the most difficult decisions to make as a new or existing nonprofit is whether to hire an executive director. Many nonprofits start with this position, whether they’re the founder of the organization or they were brought in to provide leadership and wisdom. But for a lot us, there is no primary person to deal with the execution of long- and short-term goals. If you and your staff find yourselves doing too many things at once without any clear direction, it might be time to hire an executive director.
Hiring any full-time staff member, especially an executive director, isn’t a decision you should take lightly. Before your board even begins the search, you need to make sure your organization is in a place to support such a hire—both financially and with your personnel. Assuming you don’t have the resources to hire a nonprofit executive search firm (if you do, that’s great—they’ll be able to guide you through most of the process), your board and staff need to work in tandem to be as comprehensive as possible. There are a few ways to do that.
To establish your list of potential candidates, form a search committee comprised of dedicated board members. Preferably, these committee members are well-versed in nonprofit management and governance. You can include staff members in the committee as well, but tread lightly—it might not be best to have current staff members essentially choosing their next boss.
If you’re replacing a sitting executive director, it’s imperative that you don’t include them in the search committee. Even if they’re in good standing and leaving on their own terms, you never want a director or CEO picking their successor. To maintain objectivity, try to keep your search committee small (between five and seven members) and made up of committed, experienced board members.
An often underplayed job duty of the executive director is writing—a lot. They write emails to potential donors and volunteers, newsletters, press releases, intra-organizational communications and so much more. Before you even begin interviewing your candidates, read something they’ve written about an organization they care about. Could you feel their passion and their excitement? If they’re unable to capture those emotions in writing, it’s not likely that they’ll be able to do it face-to-face either. Your executive director needs to be your organization’s champion, both on the page and off.
It’s not likely that someone who wants to run a nonprofit organization—specifically your nonprofit organization—has never donated, volunteered or attended any of your events. So, more often than not, your candidates are already in your database. No, I’m not telling you to assemble a list of your most loyal donors and start from there; I’m merely saying that your next executive director might very well be a supporter already.
Many nonprofits are reluctant to hire interim executive directors, but they shouldn’t be. They can provide support in a number of ways. Not only can they help keep an organization afloat in times of distress, but they can also help lead your organization while your board focuses on finding a full-time hire. Executive director searches can take months, and having someone in place to ensure the day-to-day operations are taken care of can alleviate a lot of stress.
If you think it might be time to hire an executive director, keep these things in mind. It could be the most important decision your organization makes (no pressure), so be exhaustive and always use your mission as a guiding light.