When the “Right” Candidate Is All Wrong: How to Make Sure a New Hire Aligns with Your Nonprofit’s Values and Organizational Culture

How to Make Sure a New Hire Aligns with Your Nonprofit’s Values and Organizational Culture“We just can’t understand it. [X] was an absolutely outstanding candidate — the right skills, the right experience, the right background. Looked great on paper, interviewed well, had impeccable references. But now we’re three months in, and things just aren’t working out. Where did we go wrong?”

In my 25-plus years as an executive recruiter, for nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike, I’ve heard these words — or words very much like them — more times than I care to remember. All too often, the “perfect” candidate turns out to be a far-from-perfect employee, and sometimes even a perfect nightmare. When that happens, the organization is likely to be faced with the extremely unpleasant task of terminating the employee, and then going through the difficult, disruptive — and expensive — recruitment process all over again. And while all that’s going on, the organization’s mission is certain to suffer.

There are plenty of reasons why the “perfect” candidate doesn’t work out. But in my experience, it’s usually because one absolutely critical factor was overlooked in the hiring process: how well the candidate’s values align with those of the hiring organization. And this is especially true of the nonprofit sector, where, let’s face it, values are everything. In the private sector, the pursuit of profit can be seen as the only organizational value that matters. (I have my doubts about that, but that’s a subject for another time.) But things are inevitably more complicated in the nonprofit world, where people come together not simply to make money, but to make the world a better place. And they have very strong ideas about how to do that. That’s why a candidate who doesn’t share your organization’s values — recognizing the importance of its unique mission, and understanding and accepting its established organizational culture — will never turn into the high-value employee the organization needs. And that’s true at every level, from the executive director and senior managers to operational personnel working in the field.

So how can you make sure that “perfect” candidate not only has the right qualifications, but also the right set of values? It isn’t easy, because every nonprofit has its own unique mission and organizational culture and its own associated values, but it can be done. And it will really pay off, in terms of increased efficiency, reduced employee turnover, and better execution against your organization’s vision.

Here are a few places to start:

Work to understand your own organizational culture.

If you take a moment to think about it, you’ll realize that most of us are just too busy performing our day-to-day functions to give much thought to how we do them, and why, and why it matters. But it’s crucial that we figure it out. It obviously isn’t just about money — most people who work for nonprofits could make a lot more in the private sector — but it also isn’t just about the mission. Another central element is how we go about performing the mission. Most people in nonprofit organizations care about people, for example, and that means they tend to place a high value on face-to-face, human-to-human collaboration. If that’s true of your nonprofit, you obviously need to look for candidates who feel the same way — people who are willing to come into the office every day, develop meaningful professional and personal relationships, and work with many different kinds of people. Someone who’s used to working remotely from home, and expects to communicate mostly through email or instant messaging or Skype — and perhaps not collaborate at all, in any meaningful sense — simply isn’t going to be the right fit for your organization. So take some time to figure out how your own organization works, and what its unique cultural values are. That effort, which should involve a broad range of people across the organization, not just a human resources person and the hiring manager, will give you a much better idea of the sort of candidate you should be looking for.

Make sure any candidates on your shortlist understand your organization’s culture and values.

It’s obviously in your organization’s best interest to offer any serious candidate a clear understanding of the sort of environment he or she will be expected to work in — and it’s in the candidate’s best interest, too. That’s why, when you’ve narrowed down a list of viable candidates, you should give each one an opportunity to meet with someone who can answer questions honestly and openly, helping the candidate to understand what the culture is like, what the organization’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how he or she can benefit — or not — from taking on the role. Sometimes the best person for this part of the recruitment process isn’t the hiring manager. Anyone who’s ever bought a house knows, for example, that allowing buyer and seller to communicate directly can cause misunderstandings and tension, and the same thing can happen when a candidate and the hiring manager discuss touchy subjects. Look for someone who’s recognized within the organization as having the ability to build relationships with people, in a genuine and open way, and give that person the freedom to answer any questions the candidate has, openly and honestly. This will ensure that the candidate you end up hiring fully understands the organization, its mission and its values. It may also mean that some qualified but not-quite-right candidates will choose to walk away — and that’s just fine.

Recognize that the “best” candidate isn’t necessarily the “right” candidate.

Not all candidates are equal, of course. Some come with very specific skill sets that you may be looking for, some have stellar backgrounds in related but not identical fields, and some seem to have it all. That means you’re sometimes in the paradoxical position of having to choose from a set of candidates who could all potentially be great for the position you need to fill. So how do you decide? Well, it helps to remember that some qualities can be learned, or taught, but others simply can’t. It’s great, for example, to hire someone who already has operational skills that make up the day-to-day functions of the job. But in most cases, those skills can be learned on the job — especially if the candidate has parallel or comparable experience or competencies — but that’s not true of many of the less-tangible qualities I’ve been talking about, like interpersonal communication and collaboration skills and the willingness to adapt to your organizational culture. So when you’re evaluating candidates, it’s crucial that you heavily weight the qualities we’ve been talking about — and above all, the candidate’s alignment with your organization’s values. In the end, they may actually turn out to be far more important than the specific skills and experience the candidate brings to the role.


About Trilogy Search Non+Profit:
Trilogy Search Non+Profit is a retained executive recruitment firm headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trilogy specializes in placing executives who are multi-dimensional, integrated, and equipped to effectively lead for-profit and nonprofit institutions. The company conducts C-level searches and builds executive management teams for high technology, clean technology, life sciences, non-profit, and philanthropy clients. www.trilogysearch.com.




The Five Talent Acquisition Mistakes Your Nonprofit Can’t Afford to Make

Nonprofit Organization - Tips & Advice Nonprofits today seem to be competing for everything: public and private funding, “mindshare” and, crucially, talent. Identifying and attracting great talent — people with the skills, experience and passion to make your mission the success it deserves to be — may be the most competitive area of all. There are great people out there who’d be a great fit for your organization, but they’re not always easy to find. And there are a lot of other organizations — and not just nonprofits, either — that would be more than pleased to have them. That’s why it’s so important that you avoid a set of hiring mistakes that I’ve seen far too many times in my years in the field.

Mistake #1: Taking things too fast. Hiring takes time, at least if you want to get it right. The truth is, nobody consistently hires great talent fast. It simply can’t be done. If you’re pushing your talent acquisition people too hard for speed you risk missing out on the right people — or, even worse, hiring the wrong people. Great organizations are diligent when it comes to finding remarkable people, and they’re always plugged into the hiring process.

Mistake #2: Focusing on technology, not people. In our Google-and-iPhone-and-Twitter age, it’s easy to lose touch with the basic principle that people, not technology, are what sets your organization apart. You’re hiring because you need people, and people should be the most important component of your recruiting process. LinkedIn profiles, GuideStar listings and social media postings will definitely help you identify broadly capable candidates and learn about their backgrounds and qualifications. But personal recommendations, human interactions and, most significantly, informed judgments are — or at least should be — far more meaningful criteria in your talent acquisition decisions.

Mistake #3: Limiting your search to a too-narrow talent pool. If you’re only looking in the nonprofit sector for potential talent, you’re probably missing out on some highly qualified candidates. Many successful private-sector professionals, for example, are at a point in their careers where they want to do something more meaningful than just making money, and they can bring valuable skills and experience to your organization. Understanding who can effectively make the transition to nonprofit work — and who can’t — is critical. Of course, comparable or complementary core competencies are important. A business executive who’s raised money for start-ups might be a good fit for a development position. Typically, people coming from the private sector are best-suited — at least at first — to “on the ground” nonprofits, the ones that execute or “prove” policy. These professionals tend to excel at operations, finance, technology and development, and they often make great board members, executive directors or presidents. People coming from government agencies or from the academic world, on the other hand, are far more likely to successfully transition into policy roles, where they’ll be responsible for determining how resources can best be allocated to advance the nonprofit’s mission. And no matter where the candidate is coming from, it’s essential that he or she be passionate about that mission. These are ambitious, hard-driving people, and once they’ve achieved success in the nonprofit sector, they may be more comfortable moving on to another organization — and leaving yours behind. So make sure you’re recruiting people who care as much about what you’re doing as you do.

Mistake #4: Limiting your search to too narrow a set of search methods. It’s easy to think that simply posting a position on your organization’s website, or on Monster.com, will bring you a great crop of candidates. But it’s important to remember that not everybody is actually looking for a job — and that’s especially true of the great talent you’re trying to attract. You need to be both creative and proactive in your search, and that means using all the tools available to you, including professional associations, personal connections both inside and outside the nonprofit world, and, of course, word of mouth. And don’t overlook the reality that your internal hiring managers may need some outside help from recruiters with specialized expertise. Many nonprofits today, faced with highly constrained resources, are under pressure to build capacity by themselves. But many of them are finding that without experienced people to help guide them through the art of hiring, they end up making the wrong decisions, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Hiring an outside recruiters carries costs, of course — but making the wrong hiring decision can cost a lot more.

Mistake #5: Burning your bridges. Whatever position you’re recruiting for, it almost certainly isn’t the last one you’ll be trying to fill. That’s why you need to treat everyone you deal with in the talent acquisition process with the courtesy and respect they deserve. That includes the candidates you decide not to hire — many of whom might turn out to be great for future positions — and the recruiters, references and other outside contacts you’ve looked to for guidance in the recruiting process. Take the time to reach out to them, thanking them for their participation and inviting them to keep in touch with you in the future. Your organization’s reputation will benefit from it — and so will your future talent acquisition efforts.

Now that you know the most important mistakes to avoid in talent acquisition, I’d like to offer one very positive recommendation: Bring to the recruiting process the same creativity and passion that got you into the nonprofit sector in the first place. Today’s information-saturated age makes it easy to find lots of potentially suitable candidates, but, paradoxically, it makes it even more difficult to sort through them all to find exactly the right candidate. That’s why it’s critical to be creative — “thinking outside the box,” to use an overused but still relevant expression — so that you can find someone with the right skills, the right experience and the right commitment to your organization’s valuable mission.

About Trilogy Search Non+Profit: Trilogy Search Non+Profit is a retained executive recruitment firm headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trilogy specializes in placing executives who are multi-dimensional, integrated, and equipped to effectively lead for-profit and nonprofit institutions. The company conducts C-level searches and builds executive management teams for high technology, clean technology, life sciences, non-profit, and philanthropy clients. www.trilogysearch.com.

Six Straightforward Rules for Finding the Right Members for a Nonprofit’s Board of Directors

Six Straightforward Rules for Finding the Right Members for a Nonprofit’s Board of DirectorsFew tasks facing a nonprofit organization are more important — or more difficult — than identifying and recruiting the right members for the board of directors. A strong, capable board can provide the sound governance and public credibility that a nonprofit needs to survive and thrive. But as many nonprofits have discovered, a board-member search can be the most difficult type of search to conduct effectively.

One key problem is that for various reasons, most nonprofit organizations can’t use the money they’ve raised for board development. Historically, donors — who are, after all, critical to any nonprofit’s success — haven’t seen the value of using their funds in this way. In fact, many major donors and donor organizations have explicit policies that prohibit the use of raised money for any type of organizational advancement. For years, nonprofit executive directors had no choice but to rely on board candidates who were friends, family members or business associates of other board members.

Fortunately, this attitude is changing, slowly, as donors remember the truth of the old adage “You get what you pay for.” And nonprofits’ executive directors are becoming increasing vocal about the need for board members with different — and better — skills.

Today’s nonprofit organizations need much more from their board members, and that means they need to take board recruitment much more seriously. That’s why I’ve put together a set of straightforward recommendations, based on my years of recruiting experience in the private, public and nonprofit sectors, for nonprofit organizations that are looking for the very best candidates for their boards of directors.

1. Decide What the Board Should Look Like

There may have been a time when it was enough to have board members who were socially or professionally prominent in their communities and could simply lend their names to the organization, but those days are long past. A nonprofit needs to begin its search efforts by identifying what capabilities it needs on its board. These may be specific professional skills — for example, financial management or human resources expertise. It may be knowledge of the community or constituency the nonprofit has been set up to serve. And it may, for example, be particularly important that the board reflect the social and cultural diversity of the organization itself — literally, looking like the organization and the people it serves. These are all decisions that need to be made before any search effort begins.

2. Determine How Well the Board Currently Measures Up

The nonprofit’s executive director, the current board of directors and the nominating committee — more on that in a moment — should have open, honest and ongoing discussions about the makeup of the board, to determine how well it meets the defined needs of the organization. And those discussions may well result in some members leaving the board. If the nonprofit doesn’t already have bylaws establishing how long each board member should serve, creating them should be a first step. Then, every year, each member of the board needs to be evaluated as to whether he or she has performed to expectations. Sometimes board members have life-changing events that make it more difficult for them to continue to serve effectively, but worry that they’ll be letting the organization down if they leave. I’ve spoken with many board members who actually welcomed the opportunity to step down because their personal or professional circumstances had changed.

3. Establish A Nominating Committee That Reflects the Board’s Strengths

The nominating committee — which is integral to any search, and is often where the search process breaks down — should be made up of the most committed individuals on the board. The members of the nominating committee should be willing and able to attend weekly progress calls, and participate actively in the search and interview process. Each committee member doesn’t necessarily have to conduct an initial interview with every candidate — that’s especially difficult if the committee is large or geographically distributed — but the committee’s leadership definitely should. And the committee should work closely with the executive director, every step of the way. This doesn’t mean the executive director needs to be, or even should be, a member of the nominating committee itself. But someone needs to keep the committee on track and aligned with the board’s priorities, especially because a nonprofit’s boards of directors tends to have significantly more influence than a for-profit’s board. And the person best equipped to keep everything on track is the executive director.

4. When Choosing a Search Firm, Look for One That Aligns with Your Organization’s Priorities and Values

Nonprofit organizations increasingly recognize that finding the right board members requires the use of an experienced, dedicated search firm. The challenge is to identify a firm that aligns fully with the values of the organization. Another challenge is to find a firm that embraces the “art of the search;” one that employs creativity in sourcing and recruiting candidates. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. One approach is to generate a list of questions that the nominating committee can ask the search firms that are under consideration. Here are a few:

  • “What is your firm’s capacity, and how many searches are you working on at present?” A board-member search for a nonprofit is every bit as complex and demanding as the search for a private-sector CEO, and it can — no, it will — take a significant amount of the firm’s time and resources.
  • “What experience do you have working with organizations like ours?” “Do you have any past or present clients we could speak with?” Questions about past experience are particularly important when dealing with boutique search firms, because they tend to be more specialized than larger firms.
  • “How have you demonstrated creativity in your search work?” In light of increased accessibility – including social networks and other online search tools – it’s relatively easy to find names of potentially suitable candidates. So it’s critical to assess a firm’s passion for the “art of the search.” Can he or she choose a candidate that matches and illuminates your canvas of an idea for the Board?
  • “Who in your firm will actually be conducting this search?” Board member searches for nonprofit organizations are more often than not completed by someone who is known by the board through personal or professional connections. While that individual may take the early meetings and engage initially with the board, the actual search may be conducted by a junior member of the contact’s firm – this is particularly true of larger search organizations. It is important to know and connect with the individual who will be performing on the project. This is particularly critical for a board-level search.
  • “Do you have any ‘hands off’ agreements that would keep you from contacting certain organizations?” Many of the most attractive board candidates will likely already be affiliated with other organizations. If the search firm has any conflicts of interest that will stand in the way of an effective search, you need to know it up front.

5. Make Sure Prospective Board Members Understand Any Fundraising Expectations the Organization Has

In the past, board members of nonprofit organizations were seldom asked to help with fundraising. Now, however, it’s often a critical requirement, and more and more nonprofits are asking for “give” or “get” amounts from each of their directors. One reason is that grant makers want to make sure the organizations they choose to fund have boards that are aligned with their missions before they commit to funding them. It’s also important for a nonprofit’s executive director to be able to demonstrate 100% commitment from the board, as evidenced by the number of directors who have made direct or indirect financial contributions. It is important to be direct with prospective board members regarding fundraising expectations.

6. Don’t Compromise on the Quality of the Board

An increasing number of nonprofits, and especially their executive directors, are working to build a new kind of board of directors. Above all, that means directors who share a passion for, and a commitment to, the nonprofit’s mission. They reflect the communities they’ve set out to serve, and they have strong ties to those communities. They’re diverse in all the ways that matter: age, gender, race, religion, occupation, skills, professions and backgrounds. And above all, they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and work. And these exceptional directors are out there. They’re not easy to find, and they’re likely to be much sought-after, but they’re well worth the time, effort and cost of the search.

About Trilogy Search Non+Profit: Trilogy Search Non+Profit is a retained executive recruitment firm headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trilogy specializes in placing executives who are multi- dimensional, integrated, and equipped to effectively lead for-profit and nonprofit institutions. The company conducts C-level searches and builds executive management teams for high technology, clean technology, life sciences, non-profit, and philanthropy clients. www.trilogysearch.com.

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