Check-Up Clinic: Nonprofit CEO Searches

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No Pause in the Quest for Innovative Nonprofit CEOs

By Eden Stiffman

Laurie Martinelli was well into the process of interviewing for the top job at a Boston legal nonprofit when Massachusetts went on lockdown due to the coronavirus. She had recently met with Project Citizenship’s executive search committee, which wanted Martinelli to next meet with the group’s founding executive director, the woman she was applying to replace, as well as the senior program director, who oversees workshops for more than 700 individuals with legal permanent-resident status seeking citizenship each year.

But at that point, everything had shut down, and those interviews had to be held over Zoom.

Navigating a job-interview process virtually was challenging.

“When you’re meeting with someone face-to-face, you know that you’re connecting with them just by the way you interact with each other or maybe your eyes meet or something,” Martinelli says. “On Zoom, you don’t have that opportunity.”

Each online conversation she had after that presented a different view into the organization, its response to the crisis, and its aspirations for its future leader.

The staff members were candid about their immediate concerns and their focus on how they could continue delivering the organization’s mission digitally for clients who didn’t have computers at home.

The trustees had a bigger-picture agenda: They were more focused on finding a leader who could help achieve their grand vision of organizational growth.

But despite the disconnect, both Martinelli and the search committee were sold. Martinelli says those conversations with the staff were critical in helping her understand the group’s day-to-day operations and ultimately decide to accept the executive-director job.

Today she’s in the process of learning about the organization and plans to start working half time in June alongside the outgoing executive director, who will also scale back to half time.

If the coronavirus pandemic had not happened, she probably would have had a week or so of overlap with the outgoing executive director. But Martinelli thinks this additional time together will be useful. “Ultimately, it’s going to help the organization,” she says.

Whether they work together virtually from their homes or at the organization’s offices in Boston’s Faneuil Hall (which Martinelli has never seen) is still up in the air. Beginning on June 1, the organization will allow one person to be in the office at a time.

“In the same way that it’s an interesting thing for an organization that’s never hired somebody just on Zoom before, it might be really weird and unusual, especially at the senior leadership level, for somebody to accept a role when they haven’t met in person,” says Kathleen Yazbak, founder and president of the nonprofit executive search firm Viewcrest Advisors, which was involved in Martinelli’s hiring. But it’s happening.

Some groups took a pause on job searches so that everyone could adjust to remote work. While some organizations have instituted hiring freezes, for the most part, groups are pressing ahead in filling key roles.

“We’re finding that nonprofits are moving ahead and filling those really mission-critical positions,” says Ericka Miller, partner at nonprofit search firm Isaacson Miller. “In some instances, the pandemic has further enhanced the importance of their mission.”

For organizations considering a leadership transition before the pandemic, “now more than ever they need a capable, effective, forward-looking leader who can successfully navigate a potentially new landscape coming out of the pandemic,” Miller says.

In some cases, that requires re-evaluating the organization’s needs and adjusting expectations for the role.

At several organizations Yazbak has worked with in recent months, hiring committees have been asking questions like, “Is the role the same? Are the needs the same? Is the profile of the leader that you need the same?”

While the organization’s long-term aspirations tend to stay the same, organizations are emphasizing leadership qualities like creativity and nimbleness, flexibility, and adaptability.

“In early February, they might have thought or hoped they were hiring somebody for big growth,” says Yazbak. “But I think they need to really think about what the next two to three years require the most and focus there.”

Fundraising Track Record

Development experience and financial literacy are more important than ever. Organizations are asking candidates how they think about the future and whether they understand what donors are grappling with.

“We’re seeing an increased interest in finding a leader who has a demonstrated track record of bringing funding into an organization,” Miller says. “There’s an even greater emphasis on that piece of the role and wanting to understand how the candidate thinks about generating revenue in these somewhat uncertain times.”

While neither Miller nor Yazbak has seen hiring organizations reduce compensation expectations, there is the recognition that budgets could be tighter in the future and that funding could be harder to come by.

Transparency on the part of hiring organizations is critically important right now, Yazbak says. In a few cases, her clients have had finalist job candidates sign nondisclosure agreements before opening up their books and asking candidates to participate in scenario-planning sessions. That’s not unusual in normal times, given the lag time between when nonprofits file financial reports and when that data becomes public, but in the Covid-19 environment, some groups are allowing finalists to delve into budgets and internal strategy documents a bit earlier, Yazbak says.

“Everybody appreciated the transparency of it — certainly the leaders going into new roles,” she says. “Candidates actively participated and were able to share thoughts and ideas around the scenario planning that ultimately they would be inheriting.”

Small-Group Interviews

For organizations beginning their search at a time of social distancing, the basic principles still hold, Miller says.

Nonprofits should work to develop a diverse candidate pool. And talking to people who have worked with the candidate before — when you can’t meet in person — is especially important.

In most states, face-to-face meetings aren’t possible right now for job seekers and hiring organizations. Conducting video interviews has had pluses and minuses.

To make the most of video conversations, search-committee members and candidates must be well prepared. “People are being really intentional about what they’re trying to learn in every conversation,” Yazbak says.

Small-group conversations, as opposed to including everyone on a big board or employee group, can help Zoom calls feel more personal, she says. “If we have one, two, or three people on the call, you can really get to know somebody better.”

Those interviews can be recorded and shared with a broader group when that makes sense.

In some cases, recruiters say, nonprofits and job candidates have more opportunities for conversations than they might have had in a traditional face-to-face arrangement. It’s easier to continue conversations on a follow-up video call than it is to travel from one conference room to the next in a typical job-interview day.

If the new role requires relocation, candidates may have logistical concerns.

But that hasn’t stopped some hires. “We’ve seen some searches that go all the way to conclusion without face-to-face meetings with client organizations and candidates,” Yazbak says.

Learning the Ropes at Home

For leaders who begin their roles during the pandemic, the process of getting to know the organization has many challenges.

In March, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., announced Laura Brower Hagood would be its new executive director. She posed for photos on the steps of the Carnegie Library, where the organization’s offices are located.

She gave a month’s notice to the National Building Museum, where she held the development-director role. And she was set to begin her new position in early April.

But just days after Hagood’s appointment was announced, Washington’s cultural organizations shut down. Hagood hasn’t been able to clean out her old office, and she hasn’t seen or set up her new space. Instead, the new CEO is working like many employees across the country — at home on her laptop.

“The announcement of my position was literally the last thing that happened before our entire world fell apart,” she says.

Her first week on the job, she walked in to a set of staffing cuts. “No one wants to start like that,” she says.

She’s technically on furlough and took a 25 percent pay cut but continues to work full time.

Hagood was lucky enough to have met her colleagues in pre-Covid times. Her interviews began in January, and she had met some people through past work with the organization in the early 2000s.

But even though board members and others have been happy to answer her questions and join calls to assist with her orientation, getting to know her new colleagues doesn’t look anything like what she had imagined.

“I had envisioned weeks of coffees and breakfasts and lunches and cocktails and glasses of wine — and formal meetings, too — in order to get to know the community,” she says. “I’ve had to really pivot and learn to get to know people on the phone and through Zoom,” she says.

“You’re trying to fill in the gaps of what you don’t see, and you hope that you’ve got it right,” she says. “It’s kind of like reading a text where a third of the words are missing. You have to make assumptions about what words go in those blanks. It’s just not the same.”

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