Hiring a Bad Executive Director

It's easier to make a bad hire than a good one.

No caption necessary

Not sure I even need to write this piece. Many boards seem to be able to do this in their sleep.

Go figure. It’s the most important job that a nonprofit board has to do. But let’s face it. It is also the hardest.

So here’s my take on how organizations set themselves up to make bad hires. Do the exact opposite and you stand a great chance of finding just the right leader for the organization you believe in so deeply.


1) Think skills, not attributes

We simply cannot hire someone without fundraising experience.”

Sure you can. Do not limit yourselves that way. Before I joined GLAAD, I had absolutely no nonprofit experience. I mean it.  None. But my board looked beyond skills and focused on attributes.

2) Hire a politician

I may get nasty emails here. But here goes. If you have a great candidate who is a politician by trade, please read my piece on this topic. It can work.  That said, a politician presents big fat red flags. Two big ones: a) Politicians are accustomed to managing flat organizations and b) They work tirelessly to secure votes, to get say yes to as many stakeholder groups as possible. In a nonprofit, you are a slave to your mission. End of story.

3) Hire based on charisma

An E.D. candidate can make a board search committee weep at that final interview. “She gets it. She can raise money. She can captivate a room.” Don’t be blinded by this.

4) Check only the references they give you

Here’s a really stupid one. There is a pretty good likelihood that you are 1 or 2 degrees of separation from someone who really knows them; who can really speak not only to skills, but attributes, integrity, collegiality, compassion. Why do so many people forget that a reference list is a self selected focus group?

5) Don’t take them to lunch

Your new E.D. will eat many lunches. She needs to be a fantastic lunch date. Interesting and interested. The kind of lunch date you have in which you say to yourself “I’m learning and enjoying this. I can be 15 minutes late for my 2pm meeting…”

6) Get no input from the staff

Or if you do, make sure a select group interviews the final two candidates. Hopefully they will pick the one the board doesn’t like. Those not included in the interview will be snubbed and all staff members will start off their relationship with the new E.D. with an unattractive chip on their shoulders.

7) Get no formal input from the full board

And under no circumstances, have an executive session at a board meeting in which the group brainstorms about what the organization needs in its next leader.

8) Leave the search firm to its own devices

Just assume they will call all the right people and cast the widest possible net. Don’t check in with them. Don’t be a thought partner up front with them about where they might go fishing.

9) Build a search committee with no experience in nonprofit hiring

Everyone is so busy that a few select people volunteer or are volunteered for the search committee. They might be the right people but if you don’t create the group with intention, it will just be a group. And don’t even think about adding someone to the committee with nonprofit experience on the committee (like a highly respected former E.D. of another organization for example who has actually done the job). What would be the point of that?

10)  Hire the best of a mediocre lot

This is where boards excel and it is the single best key to hiring a bad executive director. Get through the process quickly, shrug your shoulders at the final three candidates and compare your selection to the other two mediocre finalists and not to what your organization demands and deserves in its new leader.


Flip these ten steps around and you have a recipe for making a first rate hire.

Follow them as written and you’ll be lucky to find the mediocre candidate of your dreams.

Don’t be shy.  Share your tips for hiring a first rate executive director.

If you found this post helpful, please share it.  With over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S., there are an awful lot of E.D. searches going on right this very minute.

NEXT: Your New Boss Stinks: Now What?