Why Working for a Non-Profit Might Be Your Next Career Move

March 17, 2016 – In the not-too-distant past, few executive search firms built their businesses around serving non-profit organizations. These days, as the sector expands, well outpacing for-profit enterprise growth over the last decade, non-profits have become one of headhunting’s hottest markets.

Working in the sector is finding greater appeal among business leaders and employment opportunities at non-profits are coming just in time for recruiters who have been challenged by dwindling talent pools. In response, recruiters have had to double down in their efforts to better address the needs of their non-profit clients, says Katie Bouton, founder and chief executive officer of Koya Leadership Partners.

Tapping Both Worlds

Twelve years ago, when she started her Newburyport, Massachusetts-based search firm, recruiters who handled philanthropic work tended to regard it as a nice extra but rarely as a mainstay, remembers Katie. But as the sector evolved, so did the search industry’s role.

“Now non-profits are seen as viable career paths for top industry leaders,” Katie says. “Today, 80 percent of the candidates we see are at the executive level. As a result, candidates and clients are demanding personalized attention and sector-specific expertise from search professionals. In order to make a successful placement and be credible with candidates and clients, recruiters in this field really need to be embedded in the non-profit sector throughout their careers. Top recruiters need to leverage and tap both worlds.”

Koya works with organizations across the not-for-profit spectrum. Among its clients are organizations like Room to Read, Carnegie Mellon University, the Obama Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Amnesty International, California State University, Glazer Children’s Museum, the Sierra Club, and Teach for America. The firm also has offices in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Portland, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Like everyone in the search industry, Katie has seen the business forever changed by technology. Tools like LinkedIn have had the biggest impact. But what remains the same, and may be more critical than ever, is the need to foster strong ties with candidates.

“Recruiters can now spend less time generating target lists of prospects and instead invest more time in building deep relationships with top talent,” says Katie. “At the end of the day, the executive recruiting that we do is about people and relationships. So even though technology helps us do our jobs better and more efficiently, our work will always require personal connections with candidates and the ability to cultivate those relationships over time.”

Personal Connections

Before starting Koya, Katie worked in human resources for both non-profit and for-profit organizations. She remembers being struck by the differences in how each approached hiring and talent strategies. For non-profits to achieve their missions, she realized, they needed and deserved the hiring expertise and talent management consultation that a good search firm could provide.

“What initially piqued my interest were certain dynamics that you don’t see in other areas of what we might term ‘traditional search,’” Katie says. “For example, the non-profit sector is very ‘industry specific’ where a focus on mission and culture fit are paramount, and that’s a challenge I enjoyed.”

What particularly excited Katie was helping individuals who had successful careers in the corporate world bring their skills and experience to bear in the non-profit arena, whether it was running a foundation or a cultural institution or holding a key role at an academic institution. In fact, that was one of the driving forces in her career, and ultimately for her firm.

“As a recruiter, when you make that fit happen it’s very rewarding, and those were the aspects that were among the prime motivators for my career shift to recruiting for the non-profit sector with Koya,” she says. “Koya’s tagline is ‘the right person in the right place can change the world.’ It’s really why I do the work; our placements help change the world we live in. I genuinely believe this and it’s truly what motivates us at Koya.”

Katie, who holds a master’s degree in human resources development, says that her background in HR and organizational development serves as the foundation for how she and her colleagues approach their work. In short, Koya brings a wider perspective of the client organization to its search and follow-up efforts.

“I know how transformational an exceptional hire can be for a team and for an organization, and I’m deeply attentive to how each of the hires we are engaged in can and should be a part of a broader organizational strategy for our clients,” Katie says. “The experience that I have in this area, coupled with some of the other HR expertise on my team, has allowed us to develop a strategic and nuanced approach to how we assess a client’s needs at the start of a hire and how we help them make strategic hiring and talent development decisions both during and after a hire.”

Motivated by Mission

In identifying candidates for non-profits, Koya looks for more than just the requisite skill sets and experience. It’s essential that prospects also have the ability to contribute to a cause bigger than themselves and their immediate job. It’s about being “mission-based,” which as Katie describes, “means a candidate is truly motivated by and aligned with a mission – and understands how both small decisions and strategic visions dovetail with and advance that mission.”

Being mission-based doesn’t have to mean that a candidate has devoted his or her entire career to the same mission. “Nor does it even mean that a candidate has worked in the non-profit sector,” says Katie. “But it does mean that mission drives the individual’s personal motivators and that she or he understands what it means to advance a broader social cause. These can come from a range of experiences, including volunteer work or serving on a board.”

The firm today tailors its strategy and engagement to a client’s unique needs and circumstances. That said, different types of organizations will often have certain general requirements and needs. “In the case of foundations, where we are often working in close partnership with a living donor, and in higher education, which requires extensive group facilitation and decision-making, we draw upon our previous experiences to ensure that the approach we take meets our clients’ needs,” says Katie.

“Foundations, particularly those with living donors, often require emphasis on interpersonal dynamics and chemistry, as the candidate will be working directly with the foundation’s benefactors and potentially serving as the family’s public spokesperson, a role that requires exceptional communication skills and an understanding of how to navigate complex relationships.”

Searches for higher education candidates, meanwhile, are increasingly focused on finding individuals who have a more strategic and visionary outlook. Greater competition and other challenges like enrollment and limited resources in higher education make it important for leaders to have a big-picture, long-term perspective that will serve the institution in the years ahead.

“They want proven professionals with track records of success in evolving their institutions to address important and pressing contemporary issues in the sector today and into the future,” says Katie.

Transformational Leaders

For a university or college to find such individuals on its own can be a challenge. A search firm like Koya can make a big difference. “Many of these leaders are charged with transforming their institutions and are not looking for opportunities elsewhere,” says Katie. “They are very comfortable in their present roles. They are well compensated and taken care of at the institution in which they are committed to presently.” The only time they put themselves into contention, she says, is when a search consultant comes calling — that is when it can get very interesting.

“This is the reason why higher education institutions are turning to search firms to aggressively recruit new and strategic leadership. Most of these institutions don’t have the internal resources to do an expansive search and they don’t have the talent internally to approach and recruit passive candidates. This is why search firms have played and will continue to play an increasingly important role.”

But Koya Leadership Partners goes beyond recruitment alone. The firm also makes sure that new hires have every opportunity to succeed in their jobs. A key differentiator is the firm’s focus on onboarding and coaching of new hires. “We make certain that as part of our process both the new executive and the organization are set up for the new leader to be successful,” says Katie. “The new leader and the organization work with our team of executive coaches to identify common goals for their first year and map out a detailed plan for integrating the new leader into the non-profit’s culture.”

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

Share This Article


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments