Advice for Senior Level Job Seekers in Non-Profit Management

Search committees require a significant time commitment for both candidates and committee members. Typically, these are thought of as a way for a non-profit or association to evaluate potential senior staff. However, it is also an opportunity for a candidate to evaluate the non-profit or association. Potential staff members are sometimes so anxious to make a good impression on the committee, that they forget this important aspect of the process that could save them from getting into a bad situation.

The following are red flags that might indicate the initial interview should be the last interview:

There are no staff on the committee.

Professional staff may hear a laundry list of reasons for not including a staff representative on a search committee. These excuses simply cover up one or two realities that are at the foundation of this decision.

The first real reason behind the excuses is the Board views staff as the “hired help” and not as full partners in accomplishing the mission of the organization. The other reason may be that the Board wishes to control the way the organization is presented in the search process with candidates. They wish to “spin” the story of the organization’s past and present in their own way. Having a staff member present who knows the real story is a hindrance to what the board wants to do.

Both of these are troubling reasons behind the rationale presented for not having a staff representative on the search committee. I have known people to not even agree to an initial interview when they discovered the makeup of a search committee did not include staff. This is perhaps a wise course of action.

There is more talk about money than mission.

Given the financial constraints almost every non-profit faces, it is understandable that members of the board may be very anxious about finances and the future.

The problems begin when board members become short sighted and start to evaluate senior staff almost entirely on fund raising. Robert Egger in his book “Begging for Change” warns that non-profit organizations often get into an endless loop of chasing money. Senior staff, especially the CEO, need a variety of skills, the most important of which is to be able to communicate to a wide range of people from various backgrounds. Core values such as vision, passion, compassion, and relationship building are quickly cast aside for the expediency of “how much, and how fast can this person raise revenue?”

This type of short-sighted thinking is usually accompanied by such phrases as “these are not the kind of skills that meet payroll or pay the bills.” Limited thinking ultimately burdens the senior staff with unrealistic expectations and typically demonstrate a lack of vision and long range planning. It is often professional suicide to get involved with volunteer leadership like this.

Signs of trouble on the 990 Form.

The 990 form can provide insights into the financial health and stability of an organization over the long term. This information is available to the public. It is usually best to review 7-10 years of data to get an overall picture of the organization. A review over the long-term usually spans more than one CEO and multiple development professionals. It allows for incidents such as national disasters or economic downturns. This type of review is the best way to determine the make-up and effectiveness of the board.

Regular deficits demonstrate one of two things about a board: they do not know how to contain expenses, or they do not have the necessary resources or connections to raise the needed funds. Perhaps it is both of these issues. In a recent article Alice Korngold (2006) describes two very different kind of organizations. One is the top tier of organizations that draw the best, the brightest and the most influential board members. Another kind of organization is one where the board and the finances are usually “in daily crisis and a continuous cycle of pain; they never know how to get a leg up.” A long term review of the last 7-10 years is the best indicator of the effectiveness of the volunteer leadership.

In the final analysis, experienced professionals realize that interviewing is a two way street. Not only is important for a candidate to effectively communicate their own skills, passions and experiences, but it is important to determine if the potential organization is an environment where these can be effectively utilized.