Is Your Board Ready to Manage an Executive Search?

The selection and hiring of an organizational leader is the most important decision any nonprofit board is likely to make. So much depends on getting it right. Donors, funders, clients and the community are all watching to see how you do, and the staff is depending upon the board to get it right. So, before you run an ad and hope for the best, take a moment to pause and ask: “Can we do the search on our own, or do we need help?” Answering this question demands a realistic assessment of the expertise within your board and an appreciation for the amount of work required to lead a successful search.

Consider assessing the capacity of your board to lead a successful search by asking your board leadership these questions:

Is the board ready to lead?

Keep in mind that if you are searching for a new CEO, President, or Executive Director, you cannot hand this responsibility to your departing leader or expect staff to take care of it for you. Sure, a capable VP, HR director, or administrator can handle some of the logistical details, but most of the other responsibilities rest with board leadership. Conducting the search for the CEO is one of those moments when the board can’t hand off the responsibility to someone else.

Are you confident you can attract the very best candidates?

There are plenty of individuals out there looking for work and who will be attracted to your ads, but are they the very best candidates? The leaders you really hope to attract are unlikely to be scanning the want ads. These emerging leaders, and those leaders who are ready for the next challenge, may be ready to consider an opportunity like yours, but how will you find them? Do you and your board have the essential networks and the ability to reach out and attract promising candidates?

Are you prepared to manage a search and handle the administrative details?

An executive search should reflect well on your organization. A search process that drags on and on or fails to communicate with candidates in a timely manner turns off qualified applicants and sends the wrong message at a time when you can least afford it. Keeping a search process on track, on time, and with appropriate attention to detail takes real focus. Do you have board members ready and able to develop the essential materials, place ads, handle inquiries, follow-up with candidates, schedule interviews and meetings, and give your search the attention it deserves?

Does your board have expertise in leading a high-level search?

You are seeking a leader. Beyond the résumé review of previous experience, do you have board members who are prepared to interview for, and assess, leadership ability? Do you have board members who can conduct a thorough screening and evaluation process and have a full understanding of what can and can’t be asked in an interview process? Is the board leadership prepared to negotiate a salary and benefits package with your finalist?


Effectively managing a search process takes time and a level of expertise that may or may not exist within your board. Make it your first step to ask board leadership the questions posed here and to conduct a realistic assessment of the board’s ability to lead and administer a search. If you are lucky, you have the expertise you need, but then you need to ask whether those who have that expertise also have the time and energy to lead a search? If you are short on expertise, or on time and energy, it is likely that you and your organization could benefit from the help of a qualified search consultant.

About the Author

Jeff WahlstromJeff Wahlstrom is managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting and a MANP-endorsed provider of executive search services. He has more than 30 years of hands-on experience as a nonprofit leader, board member, and consultant to an extensive list of clients, large and small, throughout Maine. He regularly provides counsel to boards on governance best practices, leadership succession and transition planning, and strategic planning. Jeff has developed an online board self-assessment tool and strategic board recruitment toolkit for Maine nonprofits, and he is a frequent speaker on a wide range of board governance and nonprofit management topics.