What to Look for in a Nonprofit Leader Today
Passion for the mission has always been a critical quality that boards or search committees seek in a new leader, but today's nonprofits cannot afford to run solely on passion alone. As organizations seek new executive directors or CEOs, they look to identify a nonprofit leader who can build a brand, differentiate the organization in a crowded space and guide it to financial stability and sustainability. Clarity on strategic priorities and proof of impact have risen to the top of organizations' priority lists, with substantiated results expected of top nonprofit executives.
In working with nonprofits to recruit executive directors and CEOs, my colleagues and I see organizations prioritizing the following as essential skills and competencies:
Standing apart from the crowd is every organization's intent, but doing what is best for the population being served should be the goal. In recruiting leaders for nonprofits, clients are increasingly looking for entreprenuers, as well as for individuals who seek to partner with other nonprofits or even corporations to further the mission and programs. Wrestling with the best way to scale, expand or do more for a population often means recognizing that there may be other not-for-profit organizations and even in some cases companies who are willing and able to partner to offer complementary services.
Strategic Program Leadership/Performance Metrics
To be seen as a thought leader and an innovator, a nonprofit director or CEO needs both political and strategic skills. Spending dollars wisely, taking a pragmatic look at programs and using hard data to demonstrate that programs and services are impactful are all qualities boards and search committees are emphasizing as they recruit new executives. Today's leaders are expected to introduce innovations that broaden their organization's reach or raise the level of service. They must be able to design and implement comprehensive performance metrics and cannot be afraid to cut programs that drain resources or have run their course. Maximizing each dollar is a must, and public and private donors come to expect this from not-for-profits.
Fundraising, Fundraising and More Fundraising
Raising money is no longer an activity that can be delegated to a development director, but one in which the CEO or executive director must play an active lead. Many nonprofits are feeling anxious as federal or state funding is cut, competition for donations is at an all-time high and legacy donations shrink. Boards see the uncertain financial forecasts and many organizations are demanding their new leader be exceptional at finding sources of revenue and setting fundraising strategy.
While a nonprofit may want the next ice bucket challenge to grab attention and raise large sums of money quickly, in reality it is the collection of strategic activities and carefully planned and executed fundraising strategies that build financial support. Development officers are consistently replenishing the pipeline, so CEO and executive director candidates must demonstrate that they can continually seek new sources of revenue, whether donations, grants, corporate alliances or programmatic partnerships. I have recently encountered several successful CEO candidates, in fact, who were able to point to for-profit entities they had launched that in turn supported their parent organization.
Social Media/Brand Building
Organizations want leaders who know how to build brands and establish bonds for the future. Engaging a new generation of supporters requires communicating with and providing information in new and creative ways. There is no single media or social media tool that is a must-have, but today's nonprofit leaders must know how to appeal to a target audience in a manner in which they will respond and share the organization's story with others.
Subject Matter Knowledge
Knowing the industry has always been on any organization's wish list for ED/CEO candidates, but with today's increased competition for funds, grants and donors, the bar is even higher. Organizations and search committees are looking for candidates who truly know the landscape and the key players (returning somewhat to earlier times in the nonprofit industry). Organizations want to know of candidates: "What does she/he know about our space?" or "How transferable are their skills and how long is the learning curve?" This refers in particular to candidates who come from the for-profit sector and may have impressive resumes but still must show familiarity with the organization and its environment.
Ability to Demonstrate Credibility, Quickly
Nonprofits look for new executives who will take time to learn the history and culture of an organization. Nevertheless, a new leader must quickly identify what can and should be done, and display calculated decisiveness. Waiting too long to act can be frustrating and create doubt in the eyes of the staff and board. "Slash and burn" is by no means the right course, but early changes in a new leader's tenure will confirm that the right hire was made.
On a final note, as nonprofits look to scale, replicate in new regions or seek a national platform, search committees often shift the title of the leader they seek from executive director to CEO. Whatever the title, however, today's nonprofit leaders must show a varied and comprehensive skill set that supports the organization's mission and ensures sustainability.
With 25 years of executive search experience, John Fazekas works with colleagues in Witt/Kieffer’s not-for-profit and health care practices to identify outstanding leaders for clients' specific cultures and strategic needs. He has led and supported a range of engagements for CEOs/presidents, executive directors, COOs, CFOs and other key senior roles. Based in the firm’s Boston office, John's clients include foundations and trusts, major civic and cultural organizations, hospitals, health systems, community health centers, disease-based associations and research institutes, and many other mission-driven organizations.