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May 17, 2021
Hiring Leaders from Outside the Nonprofit Sector
By Janet Albert

As the nonprofit sector has grown and matured, demand has risen dramatically for people with the skills and experience necessary to build and manage larger and more sophisticated organizations.

To meet the demand, organizations may need to seek talent from outside the sector. While this presents some hiring challenges, we have identified ways to avoid some common pitfalls and find the right candidates.

Based on our work with a wide range of nonprofit organizations, we have developed the following guidelines that will help nonprofits identify and evaluate strong candidates who have developed leadership skills outside the nonprofit sector, people we call bridgers.

  • Determine what specific skills and experience you need, and look first for candidates who have them, without regard to where those skills were acquired.

    Try to separate the skills and experience from the work environment. You may find that someone who has never worked in an organization like yours has all the necessary transferable skills to fill a role in your organization. By the same token, if you’re looking for skills that you think are more commonly found in the for-profit sector, don’t assume that all bridgers have them.
  • If you decide to hire a bridger, consider how to mesh that person’s transferable skills with those of existing staff who know your field.

    Seek people who have skills in certain business processes and integrate them with people who have either domain knowledge or specific knowledge of aspects of your field, like advocacy. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the bridger is not intimately familiar with your specific field if s/he can complement, strengthen, and support the experts who are already working at your organization.
  • In determining cultural fit, look for real experience with and knowledge of a comparable organization—and resulting realistic expectations of what it will be like to work in your organization.

    However, don’t assume that such experience is enough or that another nonprofit has a similar culture to yours. Ask questions about candidates’ experience in the sector and expectations for working in the sector, and show and tell them as much as you can about your organizational culture (managerial and communication style, decision-making processes, workload, hours, etc.).
  • Look for experience in an organization of similar size and stage, regardless of sector.

    For example, people working in small businesses experience some of the same resource constraints and the need to perform a wide variety of functions that are common in small nonprofits. Similarly, when the nonprofit is a startup, sector experience is less of a factor in defining fit than whether the candidates can demonstrate the ability to handle ambiguity and risk.
  • Look for humility, self-awareness, and adaptability.

    Humility tends to be a defining characteristic among those who are able to successfully learn the ropes in a new sector when they are already somewhat advanced in their careers. Look for people who understand themselves and what they need to be successful because the candidates themselves can play an important role in determining whether the organization and the role are a fit for them.
  • Look for evidence of the candidate’s understanding of and passion for your organization’s mission, even if it’s not in the job history.

    Most—if not all—of the nonprofit leaders with whom we have had experience feel that deep commitment to the organization’s mission is an essential criterion for hiring, particularly at the executive level. In the ideal case, the candidate can point to experience on his or her resume that demonstrates that commitment, although lack of such a history should not automatically rule out a candidate.
  • Have frank conversations with candidates.

    Ask as many questions as you can to get a sense of whether candidates truly understand the nature of the transition and that their expectations are aligned with yours. Be as clear as possible with bridgers about expectations on both sides and make sure that candidates have thoroughly thought through their own motivations and professional choices. Openly probe qualified candidates’ expectations around compensation, workload, and other sensitive issues.
  • Run a thorough and transparent hiring process.

    Because they come from outside the sector, some bridgers face more credibility questions than an in-sector hire might. Running a good hiring process is critical to the eventual hire’s credibility with co-workers, board members, key partners, and other constituencies.
Best practices in hiring bridgers differ little from the practices that make for a good process in considering any candidate. In any search it’s important to understand each candidate’s skills, experience, work style, and passions, and how they match up with the position and your organization.

Janet Albert is regional director of talent and recruiting at Bridgestar, a nonprofit initiative of the Bridgespan Group dedicated to attracting, connecting, and supporting executive leaders for the sector
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