Board Cafe: Hiring a New Executive Director?

Board Cafe

Hiring a New Executive Director?

By Jan Masaoka

One board member I know recently told me, "The executive director of the organization where I'm the president is thinking about retiring. I know this will sound bad, but my main thought is this: 'Don't retire until my term as president is over!'" With the strong economy, both nonprofit and for-profit companies are experiencing difficulty hiring and retaining key staff. This month's "Main Course at the Board Café" takes a look at hiring nonprofit CEOs.

How long do nonprofit CEOs (executive directors) stay? The David & Lucile Packard Foundation here in California recently surveyed its grantees and discovered that 40% of the sample had experienced a change in executive directors within the last 3 years. Other studies have found median tenures of 4.25 and 3 years.

Whether an executive director is leaving after many years of achievement, or leaving after having been fired by an angry or disappointed board, the departure of an executive director always represents a stressful time for board members. As with the boards of for-profit corporations, the selection of a new CEO is often the most important decision a nonprofit board will make in many years.

This stressful period of executive transition is also an exceptionally powerful moment in an organization's life for change: it is an opportunity for the kind of transformative change that is usually more difficult and more protracted than if the same executive director stays throughout. When for-profit companies decide to change strategies or to grow in a new direction, the first thing they do is think about what new CEO they can hire who can help them make that change. When I look around at the nonprofits I've seen make great leaps into new areas of service, or dramatic changes in scope or in who they serve, I'm struck that most of those changes are made possible by a new ED who both reflected AND initiated transformative change.


First, boards should realize the importance of their hiring decision and make sure they have enough time to do it right. Hiring an experienced interim executive director may be one way to "hold down the fort," make some changes, and give the board time to plan and think about what kind of person they really want and need. The Presbyterian Church offers an interesting model: many congregations seeking new pastors engage in such thorough planning and assessment processes that they hire an interim pastor. These interim pastors undergo special training and have access to support to enable them to do their job well.

Today in the wider nonprofit sector there are individuals who see themselves as "professional interims"; in fact, the director of the Executive Transitions Program here at CompassPoint, Tim Wolfred, has held 16 interim executive director assignments.

Second, the board should seize the opportunity for changing the organization, and decide how to make strategic use of the vacancy. The board might decide this is the right chance to hire an ED with more of a personal connection to the agency's mission, rather than the competent manager they've had before. Or they might decide this is the time to bring in someone with big organization experience rather than relying on staff who have no experience with the size the organization has suddenly become. Or this may be the opportunity to choose an ED who more closely reflects or is connected to the client population, or to choose an ED with specialized experience, such as in earned income or in political action.

Third, the board should consult others about what kind of person to hire, and involve others in seeking the right candidates. Staff, funders, clients, sister agency leadership and other constituents may have valuable insights into the right kind of ED for the agency, and can often help recruit and identify strong candidates. Some agencies have had good experiences with search consultants and board consultants who help them work through these decisions as well as help find good applicants.

Finally, the board should be prepared for changes in its own makeup. Executive transition typically interrupts the natural turnover on a board. When an ED leaves, some board members usually decide to stay on a little longer than they might have in order to see the transition through. Some board members may have been principally involved because of a connection to the departing ED while others may leave because they don't like the new hire. As a board member myself, I've been in all three of the above situations. In any case, for the new ED this change in board composition can be seen as an opportunity to build a new board that is better suited to the new challenges. But it can also leave just two or three people on the board with all the knowledge and clout ...which can create special challenges for the new ED or for incoming board members.

This "Main Course" is adapted from an interview conducted by Sean Bailey with Jan Masaoka. Originally published on the web by Philanthropy Journal Online. 

Original publication date: 3/20/2000

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