Spotlight: What Types of Leaders Do Non-Profits Seek

July 26, 2022 – 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.

In this interview, Mr. Zaniello provides his first-hand perspective on the current state of recruiting for non-profit organizations and his expectations for the future.

Jim, how has your past experience at non-profits helped you in your executive search career?
Because I have worked within the association and non-profit sector, I have deep appreciation for the impact of organizations that help advance industries, professions, causes, and communities. It was exciting, rewarding work then and why I feel so strongly about recruiting talented leaders for the industry now. I have sat in the CEO seat, run communications and other departments, and serve on non-profit boards even today, which gives me a unique perspective I bring to our clients. I have real-world understanding of what it’s like to be in their shoes and feel a true connectedness to their success.

What are some challenges facing non-profits today?
Possibly the No.1 challenge faced by non-profits today is how to adapt their business models to succeed tomorrow, especially in a world that has changed so dramatically over the past few years. These adaptations span from how they handle finance, IT, and marketing – in some instances moving to a shared services approach with other related organizations. Second, donors, who in some respects have more money to give, are even more selective when it comes to where they invest in organizations. The workforce pipeline also has been a challenge for some time now. When it comes to DEIA, some organizations are very advanced in their journeys, yet many still struggle with how to effectively engage their publics in a more meaningfully inclusive way. Lastly, as we start to see more organizations serving the same space, conversations are underway about potential mergers.

When searching for senior executives for clients in this sector, where do you look for candidates?
The short answer is that we look everywhere that a qualified candidate might be found. We do a lot of CEO search work, as well as hiring for communications and government relations executives. For each of these three areas, we start within the association and non-profit sectors; yet, we also search intensely into the professional verticals. For example, we look to communications and public relations firms, government affairs shops, on Capitol Hill, and within the corporate sector. We are finding that making a move to the non-profit industry is appealing for corporate executives, particularly for those who are interested in aligning their work with their passions. This is happening more than ever before.

Compared to other industries how does the non-profit sector fare in terms of diversity and inclusion?
Because the non-profit sector is mission-driven and community based, we find that the sector tends to be more diverse than others in terms of personnel. Similarly at the board of directors level. That said, I think we would all agree there is so much more work to do to ensure a truly inclusive world.

How has your search process changed with the pandemic behind us, are you traveling as much as before the pandemic? Do you think these changes are here to stay?
We’re still using technology as much as we did during the height of the pandemic. Technology allows us to move more people quickly through the interview process and certainly helps clients as well. Yes, I am back to traveling as much as pre-pandemic, largely to be with clients at the meetings our clients attend. I absolutely think the technological and other changes are here to stay and also think the executive search community has a responsibility to champion what comes next to advance the hiring and retention of top talent. We shouldn’t simply go back to business as usual but continue to find new ways to help clients review and assess talent to take them into the future.

What is the pace of recruiting senior leaders for non-profits?
The pace of recruiting of senior leaders within the non-profit sector is strong. Boards are looking for innovative and entrepreneurial CEOs to lead their organizations through and beyond the times we’re living and operating in today. CEOs are seeking talented leadership teams, including experienced and forward-thinking communications executives to help shape and tell their stories to the audiences that matter most to them. They’re also looking to add well-connected and strategic government relations executives who can lead the advancement of their industries’ interests on Capitol Hill and state legislatures. Prolific fundraisers who are able to identify and convert donors are also highly sought after so that organizations can deliver the services their missions dictate. The business, cultural, and political climates we are all experiencing right now make these positions more critical than ever.

Are non-profits thriving?
So many different types of non-profits are thriving right now because their missions are extremely relevant to help identifying and providing solutions to the nation’s many challenges. The first type that comes to mind are trade associations, membership organizations that work on behalf of industries, their partners, and supporters. Among many other things, trade associations advance their members’ ability to conduct business, ensure the public and other stakeholders understand why the industry is important, and encourage their professionals to use share their skills to benefit others. Second, professional societies are thriving, particularly in the scientific and health and medical communities, but really they are succeeding across the board. This type of non-profit brings members of a profession together to share knowledge and develop tools and resources to share that knowledge all over the world. For example, when a new medical breakthrough is discovered, the society would find qualified individuals to share the information with members of the profession globally. Third, we have seen an increased need for direct support organizations, ones that help people in their communities every day solve a particular problem. While there has always been a need for these types of organizations, today, for many reasons, they are even more crucial to our society’s well-being.

Why are mission-driven organizations appealing for candidates?
Mission-driven organizations have become even more attractive places to work today due to having a purpose-driven focus, a meaningful and enduring reason for being that aligns with long-term needs of communities. Non-profits have always been attractive places to work and provide senior executives with the ability to do work that matters to them and people they serve. Working for a non-profit provides people with the chance to work with other talented, educated professionals who have come together through a common bond and mindset to make a direct impact on a particular population in need of service. Mid- and senior-level corporate executives see the value of their skills help others in many ways – from growing visibility for a profession, to more direct service to a population of people don’t have access to what they need to thrive.

Can you share some searches you have recently completed or are currently conducting?
We are proud to be helping the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired replace an iconic leader who is retiring. The organization provides education, training, advocacy, and community for blind individuals in California and around the world. The LightHouse is one of the largest and most established comprehensive blindness organizations in North America, with a wide variety of programs to suit a wide variety of needs, as well as a rich network of blindness advocates and professionals. We are helping National Institute of Building Sciences replace their CEO and vice president of operations. NIBS serves as an interface between government and the private sector – one that serves as a resource to those who plan, design, procure, construct, use, operate, maintain, renovate, and retire physical facilities. They bring together experts from throughout the building industry, design, architecture, construction, and government and lead conversations to ensure buildings and communities remain safe and seek consensus solutions to mutual problems of concern. We are conducting a search to find the head of HR for the American Geophysical Union which aims to advance discovery and solution science that accelerate knowledge and create solutions that are ethical, unbiased, and respectful of communities and their values.

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