Spotlight: Veteran Search Consultant Shares Views on Non-Profit Sector

August 9, 2023 – 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.

Throughout his career, Mr. Pettway has been an active trustee of numerous non-profits, associations and foundations, both public and private. He was on the founding board for 12 years each with two particularly impactful start-ups, Atlanta Police Foundation and Atlanta International School, now widely regarded as models for the power of public-private partnerships (APF) and diversity in action (AIS).

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 some challenges they are facing when finding senior-level talent.

Sam, how active is executive search for non-profits right now?
For the most part, the record-setting pace of the past three years continues across the non-profit sector. A number of retirements that had been postponed during the pandemic, whether by the individual or the organization, have now been activated. The number of request for proposals in the market may not be at an all-time high, but there are days it feels that way. At heart of it all is a renewed appreciation for the value of first-rate leadership.

Why is the non-profit sector attractive to senior executives perhaps looking to steer away from the for-profit sector?
A consistent theme throughout BoardWalk Consulting’s 20-plus years serving the sector: the move from success to significance. Purpose-driven work has enormous appeal to executives whose lives may have been governed primarily by economic metrics – greater market share, stronger earnings per share reports, higher PE multiples and the like – that feed egos and bank accounts but not the soul. The pandemic has taught all of us new ways to work; for many, it also taught us new whys to work.

What are some current challenges facing non-profits today?
Scarcity is always the challenge: Non-profits are accustomed dealing with scarcity – of people, money, bandwidth, time – but the exploding demand for many non-profits’ services have been especially taxing in recent years. Other challenges include adapting to the needs and expectations of a younger and more diverse workforce. The trend itself is not new, but its impact on boardroom discussions is increasingly evident. And while most non-profits know how important diverse funding streams are to long-term financial health, many are challenged in their adjustment to younger donors or donors beyond their organizations’ traditional constituencies of supporters.

How about compensation?
The realities of competitive compensation can be perplexing. Organizations that may have been proud of their lean compensation plans may experience sticker shock in the search for a successor to a long-serving CEO, especially when that CEO has been, in effect, a major donor. It’s one thing for a CEO (or board) to forego market compensation, but the compression effects down the line can have lasting implications. Again, the trend is not new, but its implication in individual cases can be dramatic.

Is it easier or more difficult for non-profits to attract diverse candidates?
Generally speaking, the non-profit sector has long been more open to “diverse” candidates, given that so many missions exist to serve the underserved and the under-represented. Additionally, women and people of color had more opportunities for growth and responsibility in the non-profit sector than may have been routine in the for-profit sector.

How has BoardWalk Consulting fared in placing diverse candidates?
CEO searches are 80 percent of our work at BoardWalk Consulting. For many years, fully half our CEO placements have been leaders of color and over half have been women – not because clients specified such in their searches but because we worked hard to expose boards and candidates to opportunities each group may have overlooked otherwise. With the post-George Floyd corporate push for diversity officers, for example, the competition may be skewed for a time by the richer compensation on offer, but at the end of the day more opportunities for all have benefits that should outweigh momentary glitches in the leadership market. That said, we are confident that the non-profit sector will continue to be compelling for those inclined to community- and life-enhancing roles.

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