Seeking Passionate, Consensus-Building Talent

December 13, 2016 –

Jim Zaniello is president and founder of Vetted Solutions, a Washington, D.C.- based executive search firm specializing in serving the leadership needs of associations, non-profit organizations, hospitality and destination marketing industries.

The firm focuses on recruiting board directors, CEOs and senior staff positions, providing personalized solutions tailored to each client’s needs and employer brand. In the following interview, Mr. Zaniello discusses the evolving nature of recruiting for the non-profit sector, the nuances for finding talent for his unique client base and what led him to a career in executive recruiting.


How many years ago did the non-profit sector begin to utilize search firms to fill key management positions?

The association and non-profit sectors have utilized executive search for years but really embraced us about 10 years ago. When I first got into this business, I was spending as much time explaining what search was as I was talking about the benefit of utilizing our firm. Today, top tier organizations view search as a true partner in ensuring the strongest leadership teams possible in order to achieve their mission and vision. I also think this has led the hospitality industry to embrace executive search more than ever which is why we recently moved into that space as well.

What types of positions are typical searches for Vetted Solutions?

We’re a little bit different — we’re as excited about a senior staff search as we are about a CEO assignment. At the moment, we’re leading the CEO search for the Lighthouse for the Blind, an organization which provides jobs, training and vocational services to the blind, deaf-blind and multi-disabled blind while also working with the National Association of Public Health Statistics and Information Systems on its CEO search. Having recently completed the vice president, meetings positions for the Heart Rhythm Society and the American Chemical Society, we have a strong understanding of the talent in this area. Other typical searches for us are heads of government affairs, communications, membership or finance in these sectors.

Describe how foundations are structured and how much time do you spend with a foundation client in attempting to understand their culture? How do their cultures differ from those of traditional companies?

Like any organization, foundations are structured in many different ways and what they seek in terms of experience and credentials can vary significantly. When we conducted the CEO search for the El-Hibri Foundation, a stand-alone family foundation, we were seeking candidates with strong subject matter expertise in order to expand their work and their reach. As for the executive director search we are conducting for the School Nutrition Foundation, a foundation affiliated with the School Nutrition Association, we are seeking individuals who have a strong track record in developing strategic partnerships and raising revenue.

What makes searching for top talent in the non-profit sector different from that of a for-profit C-level assignment?

In this sector, we need to find individuals who are not only incredible leaders with a track record of ensuring success on the revenue generation/business side but who are also excited by the mission of the organization. Boards of directors want to see and hear a candidate’s passion for the work they will be engaged in – whether that is advancing the industry or having an impact on the lives of those served by the organization. We are also incredibly focused on the personality and behavioral traits that enhance success in the non-profit sector. Non-profits, as you can imagine, seek consensus builders who enjoy motivating others and who take greater pride in organizational success than their own.

To what extent do you go to the corporate sector to identify talent for a non-profit client?

Often when we are conducting a search to replace a long-serving association CEO, the board wants us to look at both association executives as well as executives from their own industry. We also see a request for corporate talent when conducting communications and marketing searches as well as business development searches. Interestingly, though, I think the greatest misunderstanding when approaching corporate executives is compensation. Today, large associations and non-profits have compensation structures more commensurate with the corporate sector than many realize.

Let’s stay on the compensation theme. When did this change (meaning larger comp packages) and how has this enabled you to attract candidates because the compensation is commensurate with the corporate sector?

While it’s been building steadily for the past 10 years, it’s certainly been happening in earnest in the past five. Some of this is a result of the fact that as associations and non-profits have become more complex businesses, a different skill set is required. We’re also seeing an increase in non-profits merging to ensure an increased amount of service delivery but also efficiencies of scale in terms of internal operations. Thus individuals in the non-profit sector with these experiences are in high demand and yet also pave the wave for individuals from the corporate sector to be considered as well. When it comes to compensation and benefits for the CEO, we are seeing employment agreements as tight as those in the corporate sector and we are seeing an increased emphasis on additional and/or more sophisticated retirement benefits. Beyond that, non-profits are putting more of the CEO’s compensation at risk – meaning that bonus potential is growing larger but with significantly increased performance measures. Boards are engaging in more meaningful conversations about metrics of success and savvy CEOs appreciate this.

Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher, Hunt Scanlon Media

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