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.
Members of a board discuss
Best practices for an effective board-led search

by Rob Mayer (he/him/his)

Board-led searches—when an organization’s board of directors handles the interviewing and hiring process to fill a certain role—are quite common. But they often call for a very different set of guidelines from the standard search process. 

Unlike a regular search, where there’s usually one hiring manager making the ultimate decision, board-led searches have multiple voices weighing in—typically with an equal share of approval power. It’s also common that the full board doesn’t partake in the search, but instead selects a handful of folks from the board and other parts of the organization to act as a selection committee. With so many voices coming from so many places, it’s crucial to have best practices that add clarity to the roles and responsibilities of those in (and out) of the room. 

On-Ramps has conducted many board-led searches. Here are the best practices we recommend to our clients that help make coming to a consensus smoother.

  1. Build a diverse selection committee that represents the communities you serve. This is a real tension for a lot of boards in the nonprofit space. Oftentimes, these boards consist of people who are not entirely representative of the community their organization serves. When putting together your selection committee, consider how to make it diverse across race/ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual identity/orientation if that doesn’t occur naturally in the board. This may mean looking beyond your board and including members of staff, other funders, or even folks who are participants/recipients of your organization’s work. If your selection committee doesn’t come together with the diversity you seek, work to ensure diverse voices are reflected at the interviewer level and highlighted for the committee. 
  2. Set clear guidelines upfront around roles, responsibilities, and decision making for every stage of the interview process—especially for the full board. It’s easy to think your selection committee is going to quickly and readily agree on a candidate, and that the full board will support it as well. But whether you have a truly diverse group of people or a more homogenous group, that’s almost never possible. One of the most important things to know at the onset of the search is what role each person will play in the interview process—especially the full board if they’re not all involved in the conversations. This can usually be determined in the bylaws of your organization. But in some cases you might need to write it down ahead of time. How will you ensure each selection committee member has a say in the hiring decision? Will your board just vote and take the recommendation from the selection committee? Or are they going to want to meet the candidates and vote themselves? 
  3. Ensure your selection committee is a manageable size and regularly engaged. The number one consideration when choosing members of your committee is understanding who is able to fully commit to the work required. That includes things like regularly attending committee meetings to discuss progress, meeting a realistic number of candidates, asking questions during the interviews, and so on. Consistency of participation is really important. If you need to have a smaller committee to help ensure that, that’s totally within reason. We’ve seen groups anywhere from three to eight people who have been very effective.
  4. Create a system for feedback and evaluation to avoid “groupthink” and mitigate bias. As your committee begins evaluating candidates, it’s important to make sure that every member’s voice is heard. If candidate assessments are influenced by the most vocal person in the group or the person with the most positional power, that opens the door to bias. The key is to focus feedback on data and examples, not feelings. One way to get around this is by filling out feedback forms in advance of committee debriefs and before connecting with each other. Once you have that data, you can have a more productive discussion about where the committee agreed or disagreed based on questions you asked, exercises a candidate completed, and how a candidate’s skills measure up to the role’s core competencies.  

The Takeaway

At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to conducting a successful committee-led search. Even in the social sector, every organization and culture is unique. When reviewing these best practices, take time to have a conversation with your board and committee members about how they will fit into the context of your organization's values.