Spotlight: Non-Profit Recruiting and How its Changed Over the Years

July 26, 2022 – Sam Pettway, a 30-year search veteran, launched BoardWalk Consulting in 2002. Over his career in executive search, he has worked with hundreds of board members and leadership teams with entities ranging from start-ups to mature multinationals in both the corporate and non-profit sectors. Mr. Pettway has served clients as varied as international relief agencies, national foundations, regional trade associations and local agencies in dozens of markets.

BoardWalk Consulting, based in Atlanta, is a national executive search firm that recruits CEOs and senior leadership for mission-driven non-profit organizations. The firm leads executive searches for clients from across the non-profit sector with global, national, regional, and local missions.

Mr. Pettway recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss what is happening today at non-profits and how the sector as evolved over the years.

Sam, how has the non-profit sector changed since you first started recruiting for the sector?
Broadly speaking, everything has become more professionalized as the sector has matured. Early on, we often had to sell the very concept of executive search. Today, even start-up organizations respect the added value of a comprehensive search, and smaller organizations are finding more donors willing to help offset the cost. More importantly, the value of leadership itself has grown in the eyes of boards of directors. As expectations for impact have grown, so too has the willingness to invest in leadership. No one joins a non-profit for the money, but the “sacrificial compensation” that some organizations actually bragged about is pretty much a thing of the past. Lastly, while the need for safety nets will always be with us, more and more organizations are addressing the upstream causes, which by definition requires an actionable strategy.

Can you provide an overview of the state of recruiting senior leaders for the non-profit sector?
These are robust times for non-profit executive search, and demand for superior leadership has never been greater. This will be BoardWalk’s third record year in a row, a reality reported by a number of our fellow practitioners, and the pace of inquiries from clients continues to grow. First-rate leadership is always in demand, but the pandemic highlighted the value of authentic leadership in extraordinary ways. Expectations of non-profit leaders have also grown, as yesterday’s ceiling becomes today’s floor. As we emerge from the pandemic, everyone is exhausted, and yet boards’ expectations of leaders continue to grow. Our non-profit and foundation clients address the most intractable issues of the day, and real progress can be elusive and difficult to measure. This is especially true for organizations tackling issues at the interface.

Climate change and environmental justice, health access and economic mobility, food insecurity and academic achievement – none of these exist in isolation, and all are impacted by diverging views on fairness, equity and opportunity. Add in the changing demographics of an organization’s workforce and the evolving protocols around work itself, and the demands on today’s non-profit executives can feel overwhelming and add further challenges at a time when civil discourse can feel like a lost art.

What types of non-profits are thriving?
We see a bit of a bifurcation. Large, well-established organizations have the constituencies and assets to weather various storms, and yet many leaders (and funders) are attracted to more entrepreneurial initiatives. Organizations that resist mission creep do well, as do those that do not shy away from complexity. Those who embrace diversity and equity in their work and their workforce are doing quite well, as are those addressing publicly perceived challenges (food, housing, climate, veterans, democracy). In our view, ideas and organizations rarely fail for lack of capital, but they frequently fall short for lack of leadership.

Where have you been finding talent for the non-profit sector? Are you looking at corporate executives?
Sometimes, the most innovative and impactful leadership solutions come from outside the client’s immediate sector. For clients receptive to corporate backgrounds, and for corporate executives able to work effectively within the very different culture of non-profits, the match can be beautiful indeed. The beta is definitely higher – Type-A corporate leaders are often flummoxed by the pace and collaborative nature of decision-making in a non-profit – but the rewards can be greater, too. Whether a candidate is from a comparable organization or one far removed from the client’s mission, we’re always looking for adaptive expertise that can be harnessed in compelling ways.

Why is the non-profit sector appealing to senior executives?
The move “from success to significance,” in Bob Burford’s words, holds great appeal to many executives, and the pandemic in particular prompted many to take stock of the alignments of their life goals with their current work. We are in an epic moment of change relative to new generations and new consciousness about the satisfactions and requirements of new career choices. At BoardWalk, we believe in hybrid careers, in which people may engage in different work at different life intervals. While the demands of the non-profit sector can be daunting indeed, the opportunities for impact, for leveraging expertise, wisdom, and passion in new contexts can be thrilling.

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