Hiring the Executive Director: Keystone of board responsibility

January 15, 2020


Embracing new leadership models: Free Press and Free Press Action recently announced Craig Aaron and Jessica J. González will lead the organization together as co-CEOs, saying in an email announcement, “We see clear benefits in sharing responsibility for the organization’s health and success and in having a strategic thought partner on executive decisions. We will walk the talk on our race-equity values, starting at the top, modeling real power sharing and collaboration in line with our values.” Photo courtesy of Free Press


One of the tasks you’re not likely to find on board members’ lists of favorite things to do is “hiring a new executive director.” But, like it or not, there’s a good chance it will be on their must-do lists in the next three-to-five years.

In 2006, a Bridgespan study announced that the nonprofit sector was going to lose 640,000 executive directors in the next 10 years. Fortunately for those on boards back then, that threat didn’t come to fruition, largely because the Great Recession of 2008 delayed a lot of Baby Boomers’ retirement plans.

Fast forward 12 years, and those previously shelved plans are being dusted off now as executive directors of a certain age are beginning to retire, and will continue to do so over the next several years. Add to this trend the employment patterns of Millennials, who, along with Generation Xers, tend to stay at organizations a handful of years and make up the replacement pool for executive directors, and the odds are very good that many nonprofit boards are going to be looking to hire their next executive director from this pool.


High-performing boards already have a succession plan (see this white paper on succession planning) in their bank and are regularly reviewing it and updating as necessary. They are prepared and ready once their executive director announces their intent to resign. (Really well prepared boards have a succession plan for both a planned and an unplanned departure).

Boards that have not yet created a succession plan should get started, but only if they have at least a year’s lead on the ED’s departure. It will save a lot of headaches and angst when a resignation is announced. Boards with less than a year before their executive director is likely to leave shouldn’t bother with a succession plan for this leader – it’s too late. But once they’ve hired their next ED, they should create that succession plan.

Regardless of whether or not you will be hiring with a succession plan as your guide, there are some considerations that boards either should, or could, be addressing now.

First, and definitely necessitating forethought, is the fact that there is a very good chance that the leadership model you are now accustomed to — a solo leader — will not be the model you will have going forward.

Millennials as Leaders

Millennials like co-leadership, and there is much to be said for that model, at least for nonprofits. Many performing arts organizations have had a shared leadership model for decades, with a managing director and artistic director sharing the responsibility for leading the organization. More often than not, both positions report directly to the board and have equal authority over different aspects of the organization.

The beauty (but don’t get too excited, as there is a beast in this scenario) of co-leading allows an organization to hire two experts: one with mission expertise and the other with business expertise. They need someone who gets the mission inside and they also need someone to run the business side of things — the money, the HR, the systems, the development. In the past, this business savvy was not normally found in the person who knew the mission content; today, however, with the growing number of graduate programs in nonprofits, that is no longer the case.

Despite the fact that today we could find everything we want in one person, millennials prefer to share the responsibilities of the job, or to have a partner in the work. That addresses one of the common complaints that so many executive directors find in their jobs – that they have no peers. In addition to wanting to work with others, rather than going it alone, millennials like competition, something that can only come from working with others. And, millennials are demanding a work-life balance. It is far easier to achieve work-life balance in a job that can suck the life out of you when you have a partner who can pick up half the load.

Embracing New Leadership Models

Smart boards will think proactively about the pros and cons of having a co-leadership model for their organization. They will think about the strategic priorities and the leadership needs of the organization for that point in time.

Another model of co-leadership parallels the model of co-leadership for a board: an internal ED and an external ED. In this model, one ED position focuses inside the organization, paying attention to things like programs, human resources, certain strategic priorities, while the co-ED focuses externally, paying attention to things like building relationships with the community, partners, and collaborators and focusing development and other strategic priorities.

Both would work with the board and collaboratively work “on” the organization.  (The tension for every ED is finding the right balance of working in the organization and on the organization, with too many focusing on the former over the latter.  A co-leadership model encourages more working on the organization).

Now for the “beast” of this model. First: no question, this model costs more money. This is not job sharing in the sense that there is one job being shared by two people, each of whom is paid a half-salary. This model demands two full-time positions, with two full-time salaries, that when worked collaboratively fill one mega job.

The next generation of leaders will not follow the path of Baby Boomers who were too willing to take on a mega job for a miniscule pay, which wasn’t healthy for either the organization or the people in those jobs. Thus, boards that take this on intentionally will be preparing ahead of time by identifying the sources of the additional dollars needed to cover the cost of pending co-leadership.

The second “beast” in this model is that the success of co-leadership is ultimately dependent upon the ability of the two individuals to work well together. That requires mutual trust and respect, something that more often than not develops over time and experience, rather than right out of the gate. While hiring is so often a roll of the dice, despite our best efforts, the roll of the dice with this model is even more fraught.

Proactive Hiring

Here again, forethought is needed, to hire proactively rather than reactively. When boards hire without a strategic plan, they are far more likely to hire reactively. If they liked what they are losing, they hire that. If they didn’t like what they are losing, they hire the opposite. Hiring reactively may seem smart, but it is hiring for the past and not for the future. As great as what you had may have been, it still might not be what will be needed for the future, even if that future is just three years away.

Boards must think about what they will need going into the future, what they will need to increase the likelihood of successfully achieving their strategic priorities. A good public speaker may have been important in the age of oral communication, but going forward, the written word — even if it is 280 characters or less, may take precedence.

Boards always want their executive directors to be strong fundraisers, but depending upon where an organization’s current development capacity and focus are, it may be important that the next executive director be strong in A rather than B.

Hiring the next executive director is one (of many) areas where resorting to the comfort of what has always been done can lead to great harm. Thinking about the possibilities of this important position in the organization is a key opportunity for the board to stretch its generative thinking muscles, think outside the boxes of the past and really imagine that leader for their future. There may be nothing more important that a board does that year.

Embracing Inclusivity

Lastly, give thought to how you will include staff in the hiring process. Those on the board who come from the corporate world may not understand or appreciate the important role that inclusivity plays in the nonprofit sector and, thus, may not see a need for bringing staff into the process.

The downside of that, however, ranges from lacking staff perspective in the hiring process, to a disgruntled staff feeling disempowered, to the extreme of a staff taking out its resentments on the new hire. Given how easy it is to avoid any of these kinds of outcomes, there is no reason to allow any of it to happen.

Moreover, just as there is an array of staff responses to being cut out of the hiring process, there are multiple ways to include them, and none is mutually exclusive.  In fact, the more of these options used the better.


  1. Boards should absolutely seek staff input — be it through a focus group or a survey — on what it sees as essential for the next executive director to bring to the table.
  2. At least two staff members may be on the search committee as equal members of the group. These staff members must understand that they are there as representatives of the whole staff, and not just themselves. In addition, these staff members must have a clear understanding of what they may and may not share with the rest of staff about the process, candidates, etc.
  3. The finalists should meet with staff in some forum. Here again, these options are not mutually exclusive. Candidates could have an all-staff meeting, make brief opening comments and then engage in Q&A. Candidates could meet with a subset of staff, having that subset pull from all tiers of the org chart. Candidates could meet with senior staff only, or just with those staff who would be direct reports. Regardless of the method(s) selected, the board must have a means for getting participants’ feedback on the candidates.

Regardless of which of these options are used, boards must make two things crystal clear:

  • First, it must be clear that while it wants everyone’s input, that does not mean that everyone’s ideas will show up in the final job description or the final candidate.
  • And, second, it must be clear that, ultimately, it will be the board, not staff, that will decide on who is hired.

There is no more important decision that a board member can make during her/his tenure on a nonprofit board than the hiring of an executive director (artistic director, if a performing arts organization).

To not give this duty the care and attention it merits, and that the mission and clients deserve, is the ultimate act of irresponsibility.

laura-head-shot-500Laura Otten, a Dodge Technical Assistance faculty member, is Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University.