Search CommitteeFor nonprofits, organizing a committee of stakeholders to be involved in an executive search process can be one of the most challenging, yet critical, aspects of a successful search. Creating and running a search committee requires a higher level of effort depending on the availability of board members to work on the search committee, the size of the board, and the time constraints of the search.

While you should expect your retained executive search firm to help lead and provide counsel through this process, it is helpful to have some guidelines that will ensure a successful outcome.

Consider these five tips for organizing a successful search committee:

1.    Selecting your Search Committee.

For a nonprofit organization, a two-to-three member search committee will not typically represent the voice and opinion of the full board. If one member of a small search committee is making unrealistic requests of candidates, prime candidates may potentially be dropped due to the impact of that person’s “voice.” Select your search committee to represent the board and its broad range of experiences, expertise, and tenure.

We suggest that the ideal size for a search committee is five to seven members, which is enough to evaluate the candidates thoroughly and provide the appropriate amount of input. We are often asked if it is appropriate to have senior staff serve as part of the search committee and we don’t recommend it. Likewise, if you are replacing the CEO, unless there are extenuating circumstances, we do not recommend including the outgoing CEO as part of this group.

In some instances, the structure of a nonprofit (affiliate or chapter based) results in a larger search committee. In this instance, we recommend that you identify a core group to do much of the heavy lifting and that you bring the larger group together for the key milestone meetings.

2.   Create an efficient search process, from start to finish.

Constructing a proper search committee process requires balancing the urgency of the search with careful long term planning. Even if the structure of a nonprofit necessitates the inclusion of many stakeholders, it is critical to establish and communicate a deliberate cadence from the outset. The search committee should begin to establish each step in the hiring process by considering these questions, which will help keep the process focused and on track:

  • Are we united in our vision and expectations for a new executive?
  • Are we realistic about what we are looking for and the type of candidate we can attract?
  • Is the salary we are prepared to offer competitive?
  • How many meetings or interviews will the candidate have? When and with whom will they meet?
  • Will senior management be involved? If so, at what stage of the process?
  • Do we anticipate having internal candidates?
  • Will the process include a presentation stage? If so, how long will it take?
  • What meetings will require search committee members to be physically present?
  • Ideally, when would we like the candidate to start in the role, and how does that timeline affect our evaluation process?
  • What kind of work will we, as a search committee and board, then need to do to successfully plan for a transition and on-boarding?

3.   Set expectations and define tasks with all stakeholder groups.

The search committee should create an overview of the process, while setting clear goals and expectations and clarifying its own role and that of the search firm, the full board, the leadership team, and the broader organization. The board should expect that the search firm will be engaged in the committee process, providing them with expert advice at every step, a proven process, and continuous guidance to keep everything on track. The search firm should also be expected to reduce the committee workload, doing much of the legwork while facilitating the search steps and managing the activity and coordination of the candidates.

Ideally, the search committee chair will delegate roles, ensuring that everyone on the committee understands what will be required of them. The chair and the search firm will work together to set meeting agendas, carry them through, determine subsequent meeting dates, lead the selection process, and facilitate communication throughout the final selection process. Establishing these guidelines and expectations up front will ensure a better result.

4.   Plan the search logistics before the search begins.

Search committees should work closely with the search firm to establish a timeline with key meetings planned in advance. For example, many search committees include members who will need to travel for the in-person interviews and planning is key to having full participation in the interview phase of the process.

The search firm should be able to provide an overview of the search process in order to set expectations. To get the most out of the partnership, we recommend the following:

  • Design a schedule for regular updates as the active recruitment phase of the process begins.
  • Maintain open communication lines with your search firm.
  • Use check in’s, both formal and informal, to get a sense of market feedback. If changes to the job specification or other parts of the process need to be tweaked to attract stronger candidates, keep an open mind.
  • Consult with your search firm on how to format and structure first, second, and third round interviews and discuss who will have access to confidential candidate information.
  • Plan on regular communication to the full board and organization to keep everyone apprised of updates and the process along the way.
  • Trust in the process as a joint effort.

5.   Remember: the search committee is also selling.

In a competitive market, “selling” a candidate on the opportunity is as important as evaluating their fit for the position. Committees that embrace the “we think we’re wonderful and so should they” mentality may lose candidates by failing to recognize the importance of engaging them. Understanding and articulating the true value of the position can help committee members relate that value to candidates.

Selecting a new executive leader is one of a Board’s most important responsibilities.  Understanding and embracing these guidelines will help you and your organization run a more effective search process and achieve a better outcome.