by Neel Hajra, President & CEO
Later this year I’ll be moving on after nine years at NEW. Our transition process has spanned nearly five months, which has let us guarantee a smooth-as-silk leadership change. One key question along the way was whether to use a search firm for finding our next CEO. It’s a classic situation that many nonprofits face from time to time. I’ve learned some lessons along the way that might be helpful to others. I’ll break it down into some of my concerns that are probably common to many others:
THE ISSUE: Search firms can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars. NOT CHEAP! It’s not like we have a ton of spare cash sitting around, waiting to be used for this
OUR REACTION: First, the cost of failure (hiring the wrong CEO) is much higher than the cost of the search firm. Having the wrong leader can set an organization back in terms of time (years) and cost (way more than tens of thousands in lost fundraising, lost opportunities, etc!). Still, that doesn’t make the actual cost more affordable. So we turned to a range of long-time funders that we knew believed in us and our mission. Individual supporters, foundations, and our own board members all agreed to chip in to defray the cost of hiring a search firm. The result is a process that has no adverse impact on our current operating budget! (I realize this is much harder with smaller organizations, but even in those cases it’s possible if you have enough long-term supporters).
(2) It’s a Buyer’s market!
THE ISSUE: The current economic climate has produced countless skilled professionals looking for work, and many more seeking to “make the jump” to the nonprofit sector (whether currently employed or not). Why would we need to spend money on a search firm when there’s so much talent begging to be hired?
OUR REACTION: Well, our first reaction was to test this by posting the job publicly and through word-of-mouth. What we discovered is that there’s a lot of talent out there, but not necessarily with the specialized skills and experiences for a fairly non-standard position (an executive that oversees an intermediary support organization with a hybrid fee/contribution revenue model). What I concluded was that there’s A LOT of talent for certain kinds of positions common across many nonprofit and for-profit industries, but niche skills/experiences are hard to come by no matter what the job market looks like.
In fact, we concluded that the only way to crack this nut was to include in our search people who weren’t currently looking for jobs. That’s precisely where search firms excel! Proof is in the pudding, and in our case the slate of potential finalists through our public process weren’t nearly as deep as the finalists presented by our search firm.
(3) Search Firms Can’t Really Understand Us!
THE ISSUE: How could any outside firm understand the unique needs of an organization? Our board and staff dynamics? The history? The unusual combination of skills we’re looking for? Our relationships with stakeholders and clients? Aren’t we better off doing the hiring process ourselves?
OUR REACTION: I was worried about this going in, but then realized a key point: Searching for and hiring talent is a niche expertise that most of us don’t have. So yes, a search firm might not understand us as well as we do. However, that’s easily outweighed by their skill in knowing how to find and engage appropriate talent even in light of their more limited understanding! So yes, I might do marginally better in crafting the job description for the position, but the firm will blow me out of the water when it comes to finding the talent to fit the description. They even enhance the interview process, which is critical.
I suppose the ultimate proof won’t be available until the new CEO succeeds spectacularly. Based on all of the above, I REALLY like our chances
(Thanks to tableayny for the photo!)