Three Nonprofit Hiring Mistakes to Avoid

Friends who are playing golf will sometimes allow each other to “take a mulligan.” For the non-golfers out there, this means that when a player makes an especially horrible shot, they can try again and not suffer the consequences on the scorecard.

When I am helping nonprofits with strategic planning, I sometimes ask the executive director what past decision made them wish they could take a mulligan. The answer in the vast majority of cases is a bad hiring decision.

You wouldn’t expect this answer if what you knew about nonprofit leadership was gleaned solely from the sector’s journals, blogs, and conferences, where the secret of success seems to be about determining the best theory of change, scaling and funding models, vision, or other, sexier topics.

But for one client of ours—the country’s leading advocacy organization for its issue area—four successive poor hires for one mid-level position had profound consequences on its scorecard: The pattern derailed a key part of the agency’s strategy, drained staff morale, and undermined the agency’s reputation in its community. And when it comes to fixing a bad hire, several executive directors have described to us how draining it is to have to manage a termination process.

Venture capitalists have long known the preeminent importance of having the right personnel. “Bet on the jockey, not the horse” is the phrase they use. The right people can fix wrong theories, models, and visions. But the best theories, models, and visions can’t fix the wrong people.

Hiring the right people is never an easy practice for any organization. But I suspect many sectors are prone to some industry-specific blind spots and bad habits. Think: a sales organization that is easily seduced by smooth talkers, or an academic institution that believes an advanced degree equals leadership ability. 

In that vein, here are three costly hiring mistakes nonprofits tend to make, plus some suggestions for how to avoid them, since in real life, you don’t get to take a mulligan.

1. The Multi-Headed Full Time Employee (FTE)

Mistake: Nonprofits generally have a multitude of needs and a scarcity of affordable FTEs. A common form of coping, especially among smaller nonprofits, is to carve out positions that break down something like this: 1/2 grant writing and donor development; 1/4 website and social media; 1/4 administrative support. The results are invariably disappointing. Few people have a strong set of such disparate skills or enjoy such a dispersed focus. And management easily loses track of what this multi-headed employee is supposed to be doing.

Solution: Discover the joys of outsourcing. Spend money on experts who are actually good at and focused on the competency you need. Yes, it might seem more expensive at first, even when factoring in taxes and benefits. But don’t forget the value of higher-quality work, more flexibility, and not having to manage in-house staff.

2. The Aspirational Hire

Mistake: An executive director probably doesn’t get into the nonprofit game unless they have great expectations for people face great obstacles to success.  They believe a low-income kid can go to college, a homeless man can find a home, and a terminally sick population can get better. They have to be willing to grab hold of even small signs of hope and ignore any number of predictors of failure.

This aspirational thinking is a crucial ingredient for any leader of social change. It also is the recipe for making bad hires. In my experience, the post-mortem on some bad hire often involves the phrase, “She can grow into this role” from the hiring process. While some level of aspirational thinking is good in hiring, the tolerances have to be much, much lower: A 50 percent success rate with your mission population is probably fantastic; a 50 percent success rate in hiring is definitely fatal.

Solution: Get professional HR help. The human resources field has evolved best practices for gauging the tolerances for any role and potential hire, in a sober and clear-eyed manner. Ask your board or other people in your network—it’s very likely they know someone who might be willing to volunteer on a specific hiring project.

3. The Thin Pool Hire

Mistake: It’s axiomatic that the quality of your hires will be only as good as your hiring pool. And for too many nonprofits, that pool is just too thin. 

Most for-profit companies have recognized that for many key positions, the pool needs to include people outside their specific industry. These companies recognize that some skill sets transfer across boundaries: management, marketing, HR, finance, etc.

Nonprofits generally haven’t recognized this truth. Look at the staff bios on most nonprofits, and you’ll see that corporate pedigrees are rare. But while nonprofits don’t have the pay to drive recruiting, they usually offer a better cause and more flexible lifestyle—both significant (and under-leveraged) assets in attracting talent. But the bigger point is that nonprofits just aren’t trying. They’re not looking beyond their own industry, and so their talent pool is always going to be thin.

Solution: While a search firm such as Common Good Careers can be helpful if you can afford it, the reality is that even search firms are most helpful if you already have an established network. And the larger point here is that nonprofits need to broaden their network beyond the nonprofit world.

Building your talent pool can be integrated into the work of building your donor pool. As an executive director, you should be looking for ways to build relationships with people in the corporate world that don’t involve immediately asking for money. Asking for help on talent scouting is a natural way—that happens all the time in the corporate world—to engage people with your cause.

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