Spotlight: A Fresh Perspective on Recruiting for Non-profit Organizations and Associations

August 9, 2023 – Vetted Solutions specializes in helping purpose-driven organizations in all aspects of leadership – from defining their leadership needs and requirements, to developing entire teams of loyal, dedicated high-performers, and everything in between. Jim Zaniello is president and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based firm which focuses on serving the leadership needs of associations, non-profit organizations, hospitality and destination marketing industries nationwide.

Mr. Zaniello recently joined Hunt Scanlon Media to share his firsthand perspective on the current state of recruiting for non-profit organizations and what trends his firm is seeing in this active sector.

Jim, how active is non-profit and association senior staff recruitment today?
Non-profit organizations and associations have always been able to attract talented executives. But activity in this sector has never been stronger than it is right now. Purpose-driven executives are realizing that non-profit or association leadership positions will allow them to make a difference in a different way than before. This now focus will naturally lead to greater results and a stronger societal impact. Whatever the leader’s passion, there is an association or non-profit to match. Charitable foundations that meet basic human needs. Trade associations that advance industrial safety standards and protect the environment. Professional societies that encourage transparency and excellence in financial services and healthcare. All are possible landing sites for values-driven executives. From the organization’s perspective, these visionary executives have much to offer. Leadership skills, financial expertise, marketing know-how, and process improvement expertise gained in the marketplace are just as valuable – and maybe even more needed – in the non-profit or association world.

Is there much demand for interim leaders to fill talent gaps in the non-profit sector?
Yes, a growing demand for interim leadership is fueling non-profit and association recruitment. In fact, interim positions represent roughly 20 percent of Vetted Solutions’ current work in this sector. Today’s interim executives do more than bridge the gap between the departure of one CEO and the hiring of the next. Their special expertise can make a lasting and positive contribution in a multitude of ways. For example, an interim CEO could be hired to rework an organization’s business model or facilitate a complex merger in advance of the next CEO’s arrival. Completing this work in advance builds a strong foundation from which the new hire can shape the organization’s future.

Is there anything about non-profits and associations that works against long-term retention of executive hires?
I see it in exactly the opposite way. Sure, some new executive hires won’t work out. But non-profits and associations have distinct advantages that increase the likelihood of long-term leadership retention. As mentioned above, successful non-profit and association executives embrace their organizations’ mission. This deep dedication increases their institutional loyalty and strengthens their desire to overcome frustrations and obstacles that drive away executives in other contexts. Even when times are tough, non-profit and association executives are so invested in the cause that their instinct is to fight, not to flee. Search committees and boards also have an important role to play in executive retention. A recruit’s acceptance of an offer does not represent the end of the committee’s work. Rather, it signals the beginning of what should be a carefully planned onboarding program. The goal here is two-fold. First, to educate the new leader on the organization’s programs, people and processes. Second, to integrate the executive into the organization’s mission, values and culture. Executive onboarding is a highly interactive exercise with regular check-ins, honest give-and-take and 360-degree communication over a period of months, if not a full year. When done right, rigorous onboarding will dramatically increase the odds of long-term retention.

How important is it for non-profits and associations to have a formal recruitment strategy? And how important is organizational branding in the recruitment process?
Both are essential. Careful non-profit and association recruiting never has been – and certainly is not now – simply a matter of posting jobs and interviewing applicants. The organization must present and promote each opportunity in a way that will attract and appeal to its preferred candidate pool. An effective non-profit and association recruiting strategy flows from core organizational values. Those values should include DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility) initiatives that will produce the broadest and best possible pool of talent. Successful organizations go beyond race, gender, sexuality and identity by embracing diversity in all its forms – from blind and low-vision employees to military veterans to workers with different backgrounds and abilities. Not because they have to, but because they know that uniqueness in all its forms improves organizational performance. Many executive candidates use diversity as a core criterion for evaluating an organization’s attractiveness. These leaders know that an inclusive environment fosters organizational success. Diverse recruits take an even closer look at the organization’s culture. Is it welcoming? Will they be expected to serve as a change agent or have other champions already paved the way?

Can you discuss the branding side?
As for branding, the idea is simply to tell your story as powerfully as possible through as many channels as possible. Does your website clearly present not only what you do but who you are? Are you differentiating yourself from other organizations? Do you engage
employee alumni to help spread the word? Are the organization’s executives recognized thought leaders in your sphere of influence? Are you a generous organization? And finally, have you prepared your interview team to tell your story? Interviewers are, after all, your frontline brand ambassadors.

With today’s surge in remote hiring, are non-profits and associations hiring more international executives?
In our experience, remote hiring remains a work-in-progress in most organizations. There are so many different schools of thought about the wisdom of remote hiring, especially for senior leadership positions. When does it make sense? Should you transition from an onsite workforce model to remote-first hiring? How can you effectively integrate remote workers into the operation? With time, I expect we’ll gain greater helpful knowledge on all those questions. Maybe proven models that increase the likelihood of remote-first success will emerge. But we aren’t there yet. Nor has remote hiring produced a surge in international executive recruitment. A Helsinki-based executive who will live and work in Helsinki – rather than Houston – creates a host of new legal, financial, and operational challenges. What compensation and benefit structures will the other country require? What new taxing authorities does the organization now have to satisfy? Which country’s law will apply in the event of a dispute? Will the international executive ever really be accepted as part of the domestic team?

Can you share a few of Vetted Solutions’ recent non-profit or association placements that illustrate some of the principles you’ve discussed here?
Vetted Solutions recently conducted a CEO search for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), an organization that honors America’s fallen fire heroes, assists their families, and works to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries. The retiring CEO was an icon in the NFFF community – and clearly a difficult person to “replace.” At the same time, the organization’s programmatic growth made the opportunity quite appealing to many qualified candidates. We focused on telling NFFF’s inspiring story and tapped the organization’s board members and staff as brand ambassadors. The NFFF search committee ultimately selected an exceptional candidate who embraced their mission, could lead change and was not afraid to follow an icon.

An assignment with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) presented a very different situation. In response to the unexpected departure of its highly respected CEO, we helped NAPFA quickly identify a qualified interim executive, while simultaneously launching the search for a permanent replacement. Our talent pool included both association professionals and corporate executives with deep financial and investment experience. Ultimately, the search committee settled on an experienced association executive who had personally benefitted from fee-only financial planning – a perfect combination.

Last, we have just begun a search for the Institute for Technology in Health Care, an organization that provides grants to support innovative technologies designed to address major health care problems. Rather than new staff leadership, the institute is seeking an executive board member who can serve as a brand ambassador, boost the organization’s visibility and contribute to board governance.

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