Does Your Candidate Need the Skills You Think?

by Traci L. McClellan-Sorell
Senior Consultant
The Moran Company “We Find Great Nonprofit Executives”

When your organization launches the search for its next executive leader, the Board, staff and key stakeholders often have definite skills in mind that person should possess. Many times, all three have similar items on their lists. But where does that list come from?

Often, the list of skills are derived from what the previous executive did or did not do in the position. However, that does not necessarily equate to what your organization needs in its next chapter.

Let’s explore and examine a couple of the most common assumptions:

  1. Some think the candidate must have a thorough knowledge of the focus of our organization (i.e. cancer research, school programs, housing, aging services, etc.)

The Executive Director (CEO) serves as the primary spokesperson for the organization and effectively articulates the vision, mission and outcomes. In today’s nonprofit world, someone with a passion for nonprofit mission-driven work and strategic planning is most important. Candidates can become content experts on the job if the organization already has well trained staff who know the subject. But if the candidate does not understand the current nonprofit world, how it operates and what it is required to grow the organization, then there could be more challenges for the organization regardless of whether the person is a content expert in the subject matter.

More important than hiring a content expert is getting a person who has nonprofit leadership competencies. These skills include:

  • Experience and skill in working with a Board of Directors.
  • Ability to envision and convey the organization’s strategic future to the staff, board, volunteers and donors.
  • Strong organizational abilities, including planning, delegating, program development, and task facilitation.
  • The ability to identify sustainable, funding streams, including an understanding of fundraising strategies and the importance of donor relations.
  • Ability to motivate, lead and manage staff. Personnel management experience.
  • Ability to successfully manage conflict and adversity.
  • Ability to partner with other agencies and identify strategic opportunities.
  • Advocacy skills on behalf of the organization.

Prior work experience and substantive visits with references about the candidate’s skills may be good indicators as to whether the candidate can jump in and learn the necessary content on the job. The successful candidates may have closely related, but not directly similar content knowledge for the position.

  1. Some think the candidate must have prior experience directing a nonprofit organization.
  • This is most often the case but not always. The person should have prior managerial experience, but directly running a nonprofit organization does not necessarily dictate their ability to be successful in running your organization.
  • Serving as a manager or senior staff person at a nonprofit often exposes the candidate as to how a nonprofit board works and usually involves making reports to or answering questions from the Board, so the person isn’t completely disadvantaged if s/he has not actually worked directly for a Board previously.
  • Someone from the for-profit world can be successful. However, they must show the leadership competencies listed above, particularly the critical abilities to work with a volunteer Board of Directors and do fundraising (skills not developed in for-profit positions).

There are some non-negotiable attributes a candidate must possess. For example, one of the skills on the list that the candidate will not be able to gain on the job is integrity. The person needs to come through the door with this quality – demonstrating strong principles and practicing honesty, transparency, and trustworthiness. This can be evaluated through extensive conversations with references, responses to interview questions designed to probe this area, and through interactions with staff and others onsite. Candidates must make evident their ethical principles to partners, donors, those served by the organization, staff, and the Board because they will be the most public face of the organization, both inside and outside of it.

Because of our experience as former nonprofit executive leaders, The Moran Company works exclusively with nonprofit organizations. We employ a variety of methods to assist our clients in determining what qualities must be on their list and which ones could be preferred or desirable. We know from our previous professional experience that having ethical leadership at the top remains one of the single most important qualities in helping nonprofit organizations succeed.

For a list of additional criteria we typically seek in ideal candidates, view our list of “12 Attributes of Great Nonprofit Leaders” ( We customize our recruitment efforts to match each organization’s current and future goals to ensure the best long-term employment matches. To learn more about how we can assist your nonprofit with an upcoming executive search, simply contact us for a free 30-minute consultation for your organization.

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© 2017 The Moran Company, “We find great nonprofit executives.” We specialize in searches for nonprofit executive directors, directors of development/fundraising staff, and other top nonprofit leadership.