Getting from Vacancy to Hire

By Laura Gassner Otting

Bad hires are expensive. They weaken morale, devastate momentum, and cost already cash-strapped nonprofits badly needed funds. Studies have shown that a bad hire can end up costing a nonprofit more in the end than paying for professional help at the beginning of a search.

Some nonprofits wouldn't dream of doing a search without professional help; however, some nonprofits can't afford it or don't need it.

Determining whether an organization ought to do a search in-house, or hire a search firm for assistance, however, is a matter of understanding the entire search process and evaluating capacity to absorb the hours and energy involved. A search may take up to 200 hours over the course of three to five months depending on the seniority, complexity, and situation of the position and nonprofit. Here are the steps involved:

Evaluating the New Terrain: A search is an ideal opportunity to redirect projects, refocus stakeholders, and reevaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a staff.

Writing a Job Description: From a determination of direction, focus, and staff strength comes a position description that can be a marketing tool for the organization, job seekers, and even funders.

Effective Advertising: The announcement should be distributed far and wide, but in a manner that casts the net in a strategic and cost-effective way.

Receiving and Sorting through Resumes: Expect that you may receive 100-200 applications. Be prepared to sort through them and acknowledge their receipt.

Looking Beyond the Active Job Seeker: Push, prod, cajole, and harangue your board, staff, funders, community members, competition, colleagues in like organizations, and other stakeholders into producing names of potential candidates.

Determining a Pool of Candidates: Once you've whittled the applications to 15-20 reasonably qualified, interested candidates, expect to spend upward of a week or two interviewing potential candidates by telephone. From there, you will conduct another series of face-to-face interviews with a search committee or hiring manager.

Running a Successful Interview Session: Spend extra time ensuring that search committee members or hiring managers are prepped with questions and are ready to present a uniform and attractive impression. If you appear to be fumbling, disorganized, or out of step with each other, star candidates will lose interest.

Reference Checks: Reference checks are among the most important work of a search. Thorough referencing — done in the middle or at the end of a search — is the only way to ensure you are hiring a track record and not an interviewee.

Negotiation: Many a search is restarted because of a negotiation gone sour. Be prepared with two finalists, and make sure that no one is surprised when talk turns to salary.

Considerations for Hiring a Search Firm

Search consultants can benefit nonprofits without the energy, time, or expertise to handle a search internally. Some firms have minimum fees, while others will perform a la carte search firm services on an hourly basis. Benefits include:

Fresh Eyes: Throughout a search, a search consultant can provide an outsider’s view of your organization, adding perspective to your job description, while providing applicants with a fresh outlook on your organization.

An Expanded Candidate Pool: A search firm will use advertising and their database and networking abilities to increase the quality and quantity of your applicant pool.

Specialization: Headhunters who specialize in a specific function or geographic region can provide additional benefits, such as a knowledge of the best prospects who are ready to make a move.

Providing a Buffer: Dealing with candidates recommended by board members, funders, and other stakeholders can be tricky. So, too, are negotiations. Headhunters can take much of the sting out of an offer or a rejection.

Deeper Knowledge about Candidates: Good headhunters have interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. They have gathered through experience or instinct a sense of people that allows search committees to save enormous amounts of time.

Laura Gassner Otting is founder and president of Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group , a consulting firm specializing in helping nonprofit organizations nationwide with their hiring processes. Call her at 617-527-9661 or email