On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Author's photos with the "7 tips for finding the right CEO for your nonprofit" caption
7 tips for finding the right CEO for your nonprofit

by Robert Mayer (he/him) and Diana O’Neal (she/her)

This article is part of our “In conversation with On-Ramps'' series, which captures discussions we’ve had about the issues facing today’s social sector hiring managers. In this edition, two On-Rampers with focused experience filling Chief Executive Officer positions at nonprofits discuss what to consider when hiring for this role.

1. Get clear on what you’re looking for.

Rob: Most commonly, these are the roles social sector CEOs play in their organizations: 

  • They function as mission and culture evangelists—both to those inside the organization and to the public. 
  • They serve as a public face of the organization, talking about and representing the organization’s work to the general public and to donors; fundraising is often central to the role. 
  • Internally, CEOs motivate, inspire, and foster collaboration among their staff. Many CEOs are also focused on increasing equity across lines of difference within teams. 
  • Another common function of a social sector CEO is organizational leadership, which involves everything from managing the team to overseeing the finances—anything that needs to happen for the organization to run properly and sustainably. 
  • And the final common function across CEOs is having a strategic vision for the organization and laying out the path to realize that vision, while solving any problems that may arise along the way. 

Those are the verticals most social sector CEOs cover, and we’re assessing for competency in those verticals about 90% of the time in our CEO searches. 

Diana: I agree with everything Rob said, and I’ll add some further color to that. 

  • We see the CEO as the person who not only leads the organization’s vision, but also works to ensure that the vision is consistently carried out across all the organization’s verticals. 
  • The CEO is the person that is also thinking about the external-facing work of the organization, including identifying potential partners and other organizations with whom they may be able to form a mutually beneficial relationship.
  • Additionally,  most CEOs work with the board. It’s their purview to think about who is on the board and how they can bring diversity—not just in terms of identity, but also in terms of experience and thought—to the board, so that the board is able to offer outside advice from a range of different perspectives. 

2. Be open to candidates with different career paths.

Diana: One of the most important qualifications we look for is experience managing across different functions. We also take into account the size of the organization. If it’s a large organization, then the CEO will usually need experience managing a large team. And, we want someone who is genuinely excited by the team management portion of the role—someone who wants to be the person that is motivating their team and thinking about how to grow their teams professionally within the organization. 

Again, a CEO also needs to be able to hold that external piece, so depending on the needs of the organization, we might be looking for someone with experience in fundraising and development.

Lastly, we look for that mission piece that Rob mentioned: How have they been committed to the organization’s mission throughout their career? How have they carried the mission of another organization at which they’ve worked? We also have to consider if the client is looking for someone who has spent their whole career working towards the organization’s mission, or if they’re looking for a CEO who has experience shifting organizational culture and transforming industries regardless of whether their previous work was mission-aligned.

Rob: We sometimes think about the experiences needed for a specific CEO role in terms of profiles, or the types of people we see moving into these roles. Diana mentioned a lot of the experiences that people need, which is a much more inclusive and objective way of thinking about it, but we're often also thinking of candidates in terms of three profiles. 

  • The first is a candidate who is currently a CEO at a smaller organization. For them, this role will be a big step up. They’ve run another organization, so the role they’re applying for represents a new, unique challenge at an equal or greater level.
  • The second profile we see is the development profile that Diana mentioned, where the candidate has robust experience running the development side. All organizations really do need to think about their revenue streams, and because the CEO is so external facing, they’re a big part of assessing the revenue and making sure that there’s enough of it. As a result, someone with a strong fundraising background can be a really good candidate. 
  • Third, we see Chief Program Officers, who have experience actually running the work that drives the mission forward. This profile usually has experience in all the areas that Diana mentioned: they’ve managed a big team, they’re deeply familiar with the organization’s mission. They might not have expertise in all those areas—particularly fundraising—but as the Program Officer, they're in the field representing the work to very different communities. This often includes funders so development work won’t be new to them.

Diana: One trend that I'm seeing is an openness to people that haven't necessarily been a CEO or in the C-suite prior. More and more organizations are open to what we call “up and comers”—people that show really strong potential and have had some sort of senior position, but haven’t been at that top level of leadership. There's more and more appetite for having a CEO position be more of a stretch position for someone. 

Rob: I totally agree with that and I think that attitude allows you to hire more people with profiles like Chief Program Officer, who you might not think is the right person initially. The most obvious choice might be someone who has done a very similar role at another organization. But just because someone has worked at an organization of the same size, scale, and complexity doesn't mean they're going to be successful moving into a different mission. Being the mission evangelist of an organization is really the core role of a CEO, so they need to motivate and inspire everyone around them to really buy into the mission and work of the organization. If someone has a unique story to tell about that mission and the type of work the organization does, it can be much more valuable than having experience in the C-suite.

The CEO doesn’t have to solve every problem themselves. If they're lacking some of those quantifiable skills, they can build out a team to fill in those gaps. Having someone who's from the community that your organization works in can be huge and is something that can’t be supplemented or learned. Having the ability to tell a story about what your organization does and why you choose to lead that work based on your own lived experience is really powerful. It can transform the organization and gives you the credibility to inspire students, volunteers, and donors.  

But, I will add the nuanced caveat that you don't want to assume that having a personal story will inherently be compelling or motivating. It’s important to also be a good storyteller and be able to use the lens of the work to tell the story.

3. Listen to employees.

Rob: For most CEO searches, there is no hiring manager. Instead, we’re working directly with a board—a group of people who usually don't work in the organization. The thing I almost always encounter is that, because they’re external, they make well-intentioned assumptions about what the staff and the communities the organization serves are looking for from a CEO. But, those assumptions might not be totally accurate.

For example, I had a search where the board thought the CEO needed to have experience working in a specific community in DC in order for the staff to respond to them. We put up four candidates and the one the staff reacted most positively to didn't have that experience. We had another search where the board thought the CEO needed to come from the nonprofit space to really resonate with the team and to drive the mission and internal culture. The team actually resoundingly chose a private sector leader.

It’s really important for board members to not make assumptions and to really take time to listen to the people in your organization. You need to understand what they really need in that particular moment; the best way to learn that is to ask and listen.  

Diana: I agree, particularly with the importance of listening. Part of our process is to present what we're hearing from employees about what they see as high priorities at the organization and ask how that shifts the board’s thinking about who the next CEO needs to be. The conversations we have with employees already working at the organization at the beginning of CEO searches are extremely insightful. The reason why we conduct so many of them is because we want to hear the internal perspective and  come to the board or the hiring committee having identified where their organization is aligned and where there’s a disconnect. 

Although the hiring committee—which is usually made up of board members—is ultimately the final decision maker, we have the candidates meet folks from across the organization during the final stages of the search process. This allows employees to share feedback on the candidates and how they’re measuring up against the core competencies. Then, the hiring committee can consider that feedback when deciding who to make an offer to.

Rob: Along those lines, it’s important for board members to admit when they’re not the experts in the room, even during interviews with candidates. It’s important to allow candidates to ask questions at every stage of the process—that’s something we build into every interview recommendation. But making room for questions doesn’t mean you have to know the answers to everything. It can actually be very impactful for a board member to tell a candidate that they don’t know an answer and will need to check it out; it shows that the board is willing to defer to the people with expertise. 

4. Prepare your current CEO for the transition.

Rob: When we first consult the staff, the outgoing CEO shares their insights and perspectives, but if they've truly made the decision to leave the organization, our recommendation is that they really recuse themselves from a decision making role in the process. They provide the context, they let the board or the selection committee make the final decision, and they often meet the candidate and offer their insights. They should never be the decider. We say that because replacing yourself is a very hard task.

You have unique insights into what you think the organization needs, but those insights are often based on your particular skill set, which can restrict the types of candidates you’re willing to look at in a limiting way. Objectivity is really challenging in these situations. Even interim CEOs often bring biases into the process. We often see an, “I can't be replaced” complex emerge when they start evaluating candidates.

When the CEO is also a founder of the organization, this can be even more complex. Sometimes, it’s not just the profile and skillset of the CEO position that have been built around the outgoing CEO, but the whole organization. It’s all been shaped by the founder’s strengths and preferences so there’s a lot of nuance that needs to be thought through. The way we often navigate that complexity is by really emphasizing that engagement with different stakeholders so that we’re still able to hear and synthesize a variety of perspectives. 

And, it’s crucial that the outgoing CEO is genuinely willing to let go and let the new CEO lead. Sometimes people think they are ready to hand over the reins, but when the time comes, they cling on. For instance, they may try to sit on the board. It may seem nice to stay involved but it can be a real challenge not just for the incoming CEO, but also for the organization when they're trying to attract a new CEO because an over-involved outgoing CEO is often a red flag to a candidate considering taking over. So, if an organization is founder-led, or even if the same person has been in the CEO role for ten-plus years, the organization has to be able to really lay out for the candidate what it will mean to step into this position. 

5. Take a holistic view.

Rob: The number one mistake boards make is only using the latest information to make their decision. They’ll choose a new frontrunner at every step of the process: after the initial interview, after the activity, after they meet the staff, and so on. It’s important to take a step back and look at the person throughout the process, not just in one moment, because each stage of the process assesses a different competency.

Diana: One of the misconceptions is that your CEO has to personally solve all the problems an organization is facing. I’ve learned that it’s really important to think about how the CEO is going to compliment the expertise of people already working at the organization and is able to look across the organizations to build leaders from within, so that those other leaders can draw on their expertise to help problem solve and plan for the organization’s future.

Rob: I think that's a perfect answer. Clients often come to us with a long list of criteria and they’ll say that each of those criteria is equally important. But, to Diana’s point, they’re really not because the existing talent at the organization is going to have some of those skills to fill in the gaps and compliment the CEO’s skills.

Another trend to consider is hiring CEOs whose career experience comes from the private sector. Clients are increasingly introducing some type of fee-for-service component to their work—meaning they’re funding some part of their work by selling or licensing out some type of product to other mission-driven organizations that align with their values. As a result, nonprofit CEOs are increasingly focused on generating revenue from services.

For example, I'm doing a search right now for a $30 million organization where they thought they would be hiring a leader from within the social sector. The person they made an offer to is a private sector leader who has overseen revenue generation because the organization is looking to expand into that work in the future. And so the lines are increasingly blurred between those spaces.

6. Be transparent.

Diana: The hiring process needs to be honest and transparent regarding the status of the organization. The last thing you want to do is have someone come into your lead role and feel like there's all these unexpected issues that no one told them about during the hiring process. There's a delicate way to have those conversations that respects confidentiality. We coach clients to be transparent with a candidate, especially if they’re intending to make an offer. That way, that person is set up for success and has a foundation of trust with the board. 

Rob: I’ve personally worked on a CEO search where we coached our client to maximize transparency in the process around the real financial challenges that the organization is facing and had shared with us. They did not want to share those challenges in writing or include them in the thought activity we gave to the candidate. As a result, when they made an offer to their front runner, that person started asking all these questions that we told the organization they should have answered in the process. The lack of transparency led to the candidate being unsure of whether or not they wanted the job so they weren’t able to close their front runner. I think had we approached this differently, we would have a different outcome.

And the importance of transparency isn’t limited to finances. An organization  might be having big issues with internal culture, a horrible incident may have happened around DEI, or they might be struggling to retain employees. It can be all of those things, but the truth of that is different for every organization and they're all equally important to address.

Diana: Absolutely. Ultimately, you want the person, your next CEO, to be motivated to be in that position and help tackle the challenges, while also building on the successful aspects of your organization. You're going to find people who say, "I don't want this anymore," when they hear about the internal issues, but then you're hopefully going to find the person that is up for the challenge and has creative ways and a different perspective. That attitude and drive is really valuable.

Rob: Earlier in our conversation, we talked about not making assumptions about what the staff think. A reason for that is that boards are usually disconnected from organizations. Members go to quarterly meetings, hear presentations, and read reports. They’re also usually large donors, so everyone is inclined to make things sound lovely for them. Very often, we get into this work and we discover through our listening sessions with staff that there are lots of problems under the hood of the organizations that board members just don’t know about. Some board members may know things that others don’t because there isn't generally a lot of communication. 

But that’s why a good search partner, like On-Ramps, who can really get under the hood and find out what’s happening is so important. We do that fact finding, bring it back to the board, and initiate an honest, open conversation so that we can all move forward on the same page. 

7. Think about who is—and is not—in the room

Diana: Maintaining the most equitable process possible is key. But often, especially in CEO searches, the candidates are people that are known within their field and that leaves a lot of room for back channel conversations because the board members and the hiring committee are also very well connected. We wrote an article about why back channel references undermine equity, so I won’t get into the details here. But it can introduce a lot of bias into the process, and it can undermine the relationship you’re building with the candidate. When you rely on back channel references, it almost always gets back to the candidate. On-Ramps makes it a priority to be really transparent with every candidate about who they’re going to meet and what is going on behind the scenes. You're building trust from the point that person enters the interview process and you don’t want to do anything to risk disrupting that.

Rob: Another thing to consider is who sits on the hiring committee. We wrote a blog post a while ago about building an inclusive hiring committee. The board ultimately votes on who to hire, but more and more organizations are creating hiring committees that include members of the staff and members of the community to make sure that those voices are represented throughout the search process. Increasingly, organizations are creating hiring committees with more diversity of role and experience. It’s a trend we’re really excited to see and I remember we wrote a really great blog about best practices for creating an inclusive hiring committee. The downside is that it can make searches a bit more complicated because there might be issues with confidentiality and information management, but including all of those people in the committee process can be really beneficial.