Nonprofit Executive Search: How to Work with Internal Candidates

by William J. Moran, J.D., M.S.Ed. 
The Moran Company  “We Find Great Nonprofit Executives”


So you are beginning a search for a new nonprofit Executive Director. That is the most important role that a Board can undertake. New leadership always has weighty implications for any organization.

Individuals from within the nonprofit (internal candidates) may be interested in applying for the position. Sometimes an individual has been groomed over a number of years by the departing Executive Director and has Board support. If this is the case, there may no need for a search as the next “Executive Director” is already present in the organization.

On the other hand, the internal candidate may not be the best candidate out there. Hopefully the Board will not be dissuaded from conducting a full search because it is easier to simply accept the candidate in front of them. A nonprofit search firm can help with this by reviewing the internal candidate’s qualifications impartially. A full search will also provide other candidates with which to compare to the internal candidate.

However, if the Board decides to do a full search these individuals usually do not have full board support. They decide to throw “their hat into the ring.”  They are often valuable employees in their present position. They may be serving in a #2 position such as Program Director, Chief Operating Officer, or another important role. The nonprofit values their talents and does not does not want to lose them.

The danger is that if they are not chosen for the Executive Director position, they may be disillusioned to the point that they leave the organization. Or they may have resentments about the search process that undermine the organization and new executive director.

Here are some suggestions to the Board on how to work with internal candidates:

 1.  If they are not viewed as viable candidates by the Board, a decision needs to be made how to manage the situation. Alternatives are:

a.  Nothing is done and s/he is treated as other candidates in the search process. It is certainly important that all candidates (internal and external) see the search process as fair without hidden agendas. The problem is this candidate does not have a true chance at the job and so is wasting his or her time making application. Furthermore, the further s/he goes in the interview process, the greater the disappointment in not getting the position.

b.  An alternative is for the departing Executive Director or a Board Leader to meet with him or her early in the process to discuss the situation. S/he should be told how important he or she is to the organization. However, the Board is looking for someone with certain attributes s/he does not possess. S/he should be given the option to apply or not move forward.  If this is done appropriately, the internal candidate’s disillusionment and resentment will be less than if they proceeded through the entire interview process. There is a greater chance s/he will adjust and stay under the new CEO. (If an nonprofit executive recruiter is working with the board, this discussion may be assigned to the search recruiter.)

2.  If a viable internal candidate applies, then s/he should be treated like the other candidates and go through the full interview process. Often, external candidates will want to know if there is an internal candidate. They will want assurance that the internal candidate is not receiving preferential treatment. If the internal candidate is not chosen for the position, then again he or she should also be given special attention by the Board. A board leader should inform him or her how valuable s/he is in his or her present role. Discussion should include feedback from the internal candidate about the search process and the ability to work with the new Executive Director. When the new Executive Director arrives, s/he should make the same effort in meeting with the internal candidate to express hope that they will form a great team.

The important thing is to pay attention to the presence of internal candidates. The board should consciously decide how to work with them for their best interests and that of the nonprofit.

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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.