Should a nonprofit hire a consultant to lead its executive leadership search?

The executive leader of your organization is leaving and now your team is faced with the tremendous task of finding a replacement. You're having visions of late nights spent sifting through resumes, reviewing interview notes, and calling various board members while searching for the perfect candidate.

Worried there might not be enough coffee in the world to get through the process, you consider seeking outside help. But do you really need to hire a consultant? What would you get for your money? And can you really afford it in the first place?

Staff members at Dunleavy & Associates have helped dozens of nonprofit organizations standing at these critical crossroads find the answers they need. The first thing we advise our clients to do is develop a positive mindset about the whole process: Anxiety is normal, but so much can be accomplished when you focus on the opportunity presented. This is a unique moment to regroup as an organization and bring together team members, board members, and stakeholders to reflect on the past and plan for the future.

The leader’s impending departure creates a tremendous amount of pressure to post the position and start receiving resumes. This is a knee-jerk mistake. First you need to take a step back and determine, "What is our strategy for the next era?" and "Who do we need to lead that strategy?"

An outside consultant can provide valuable insight in guiding this internal discovery process. Specifically, the consultant can help you identify responsibilities that should be in the executive director’s job description and responsibilities that should be shifted to other senior members of your team. Clarifying the job description will allow you to develop a posting that reflects your current needs and attracts the right candidate. You'll not only engage existing leadership and strengthen your organization, but also set a clear path of priorities for the incoming executive director.

If this is the first time in institutional memory that you are seeking a new leader, it's easy to underestimate the amount of work that goes into a search. Even if you're not planning to restructure responsibilities, a lot of groundwork is needed to ensure a strong foundation for the process.

Doing the groundwork is too big a job for one person; you'll need to form a transition team. Ideally, this team blends expertise from across your organization, including finance, communications, analysis, and even organizational psychology. In our experience, the team will need to devote more than twenty hours of combined time each week and have the ability to successfully lead focus groups, communicate with stakeholders, frame out operational priorities, and, of course, lead a comprehensive search for your new leader.

If your organization lacks the skills, knowledge, or time needed to conduct a search in this manner, it's likely that an outside consultant is needed. Hiring an executive director is one of the most important decisions an organization can make, and even a high-caliber candidate may turn out to be the wrong choice for a nonprofit if compatibility pitfalls aren't identified and avoided.

You don't need to break the bank to get outside help, either. Any good consulting agency knows that many nonprofits operate on tight budgets, and will work with clients to share responsibilities and minimize fees. Hiring a firm such as Dunleavy & Associates means you won't waste time learning how to conduct a search and ensures you'll find the best possible leader for your organization.