Written by Smart Group Executive Search Principal Jessica Smart, this article first appeared as a guest blog on the Maine Association of Nonprofits (MANP) website. The Smart Group Executive Search is a MANP endorsed provider of executive search services, as part of its ongoing Mission Driven Leadershift initiative, which offers resources, services and programs to help Maine nonprofits successfully prepare for and manage leadership transition.

Your organization has grown to that critical size when you need a full time executive director.  As a board, what do you do? Following is a list of issues that arose during a recently-completed search with a foundation board hiring their first ever director and suggestions on how you can get ahead of them.

1. Review the strategic priorities and mission/vision for the organization.

If your board has never created a list of strategic priorities or created a strategic plan, now is the time to get clarity. While it’s likely too much to try to complete an entire strategic planning process before making a hire it’s important for the board to at least have consensus on the direction of the organization before launching a search. It will be very hard to hire someone to lead an organization if they don’t know what’s expected or the organization’s strategic priorities. Make sure you have at least an outline of a plan to present to any candidates.

2. Review your budget.

Be sure to have an understanding of your budget and expenses.  Check in with your accountant or bookkeeper to review the most recent P/L if this isn’t something you have done before. Serious candidates will want to review the budget to ensure financial viability before taking on the role. And you want to make sure you can afford to make payroll before hiring someone new.

3. Consider compensation and benefits.

: How much can you pay? After you review your budget, this answer should reveal itself. Take into consideration the role and requirements. Review MANP’s Report on Nonprofit Wages + Benefits to ensure you are in alignment with salaries of organizations of comparable size and scope. Also consider whether this will be a local or national search. Keep in mind that national searches can be more expensive and generally candidates expect moving expenses to be covered.

Then, review your benefits plan if you have one and make adjustments as necessary. If your organization doesn’t have a plan, try to create one. It will be near impossible to recruit a full-time leader without some sort of benefit plan. Part-time EDs require less in the way of benefits but your position will be more attractive if you offer benefits even on a pro-rated basis. Typical benefit packages include: health, medical, dental, retirement and paid time off (PTO).  Others include long term disability coverage, short term disability coverage and life insurance. Yes, benefits are expensive, but most candidates can’t change jobs without them. There are cost sharing options and other resources available to smaller organizations. Call an insurance broker to find out–reach out to MANP if you need help.

4. Review the job description and qualifications.

After making sure your board is in agreement on the future goals and priorities of the organization, it’s important to think about what skills the new leader needs to possess and that you have a strong position description that describes those skills and experiences. If you don’t already have a job description, now is the time to create one. Things to consider: do you need a fundraiser or an operations person? Do you need an ambassador or a behind the scenes leader?

5. Put together a strong search committee.

What constitutes a strong committee? That’s up to your organization and your board chair, but more often it’s made up of a subset of board members and other stakeholders (donors, consultants etc.). You also need a strong leader to be the chair of this committee. Preferably one with both the respect of the other board members and the time to manage the process. Note: See tip number 8!

6. Create a hiring plan/timeline.

Create an outline of your hiring process including posting dates, application deadline and target interview dates. Be sure to consider the date you wish to have the new ED in the seat and back up 90 days. A well-orchestrated search can take at least three months to complete from time of posting to offer, particularly when you are hiring at this level.

7. Determine how to handle internal candidates.

If the organization has a board member who might apply, the search committee will need to decide how to handle internal candidate applicants. Deciding if and how you consider internal candidates can be tricky and these conversations can be very uncomfortable, but be sure to have them with your search committee before you launch the search. Deciding on the fly or on a case-by-case basis can backfire, negatively impacting staff morale and derailing even the most well-organized and well-intentioned search process.

Things to consider: Does every internal candidate get an interview with the search committee regardless of qualifications? Will all qualified internal candidates automatically become finalists? Be respectful and be sure to honor the tenure of the candidates, but also be realistic. If the internal candidate isn’t qualified (see your job description), is it better or worse to waste their time and the time of the committee if it’s not likely he or she will be hired? Consider your culture when answering these questions.

8. Do not include internal candidates on the search committee.

In a well-intentioned effort to be inclusive and get buy in, organizations sometimes allow internal candidates to participate in the interviews with the external candidates. Not only is this unfair to the external candidates, it also gives your internal candidate an advantage. Even the most objective candidates can’t assess the competition fairly.

9. Set clear ground rules for the board and search committee on communication about the search.

Nothing derails a good process more quickly than search committee members sharing information with candidates outside the process. I once led a search for an organization that had several internal candidates apply for the CEO role. Many search committee members had relationships with the candidates. One search committee member unwittingly told his friend (who was a candidate) that she was no longer being considered for the top job before she had been notified by the search committee chair. Obviously, the internal candidate was devastated and embarrassed. Make sure your search committee understands why they need to commit to not sharing information outside the process.

10. Treat every candidate the same way.

Aside from keeping things legal, this also keeps your organization from being accused of favoritism or impropriety. Once you decide which candidates you will interview and why, make sure you treat all candidates the same way. Ask all candidates the same questions.

Hiring a first ever executive director can be challenging even for the most experienced board members, but these 10 tips will help ensure you get the best, most qualified person to take your organization into the future.