Using an Executive Search Firm: A Guide for Non-Profits | Non-Profit Executive Recruiters | Cowen Partners

      Using an Executive Search Firm: A Guide for Non-Profits

      Although they are less concerned with profit runs and shareholder satisfaction, non-profits still need capable, effective senior leadership. Success, for organizations, is often defined by the caliber of leadership talent they boast in executive positions – and the same holds true for non-profits.

      When looking to fill these positions, non-profits may rely on internal resources (such as personal networks) or look outward to the expertise of an executive search firm.

      This guide explains how top executive recruiting firms can support non-profit board members and executive directors during the recruitment process while providing actionable information on how to hire a top non-profit executive search firm.

      What Role Does an Executive Search Firm Play?

      Search firms bring professional expertise to the executive search process. They consist of experienced professionals who are able to provide a variety of services to find and attract the right senior management hire for non-profits.

      The services they provide include:

      1. Critically assessing an organization’s hiring needs
      2. Identifying the core skills and qualifications that meet these needs
      3. Writing an accurate and attractive job description, finding and qualifying candidates
      4. Presenting a shortlist of senior talent

      Search firms may also go further to whittle down shortlists, conduct final interviews alongside non-profit clients, and provide post-hiring guarantees up to one year after the process.

      How Does a Search Firm Work?

      The executive search process is largely relationship-driven. What organizations get out of the process depends on their specific needs and core objectives for the process. Search firms vary in size, the scope of their services, and how they offer these services. All of these factors will determine the work they do and how much value they provide.

      Executive search firms may be retained or contingency firms, or they may provide managed search services.

      • Retained executive search firms typically offer full search services, from formulating the job description to conducting reference checks. They are well-suited for complex searches and often specialize in finding senior leadership hires. For searches of this level, non-profit clients can expect to pay a fee up to 35% of the position’s first-year salary plus expenses. The client will also commit to hiring only one firm for the search and will usually pay the fee, regardless of whether the search is successful or not.
      • Contingency search firms provide less exclusive services than retained firms. They specialize mostly in generating candidates for a position and do not often provide consulting services. Recruiters at these firms are compensated when a candidate is hired by a client, and will often be competing against other contingency firms looking to fill the same role. These firms will often have ready databases of likely candidates, making them a good fit for less complex searches in junior to mid-level roles.

      Retained or contingency firms may offer managed search services for a flexible hiring process. This fits well for clients with unique needs that might not require the full services of a retained firm but more than what is included in contingency search services.

      Benefits of Engaging an Executive Search Firm

      Executive search services are often beneficial for organizations facing novel challenges or situations, or those that simply want the input of professional recruiters as they fill key leadership positions. Working with a search firm can bring several advantages, including the following:

      • Wider talent reach: Search firms often have longer reach and more extensive contacts than their non-profit clients. They can provide access to talent pools that would have been otherwise inaccessible, such as highly-skilled candidates who may not have been looking for a move.
      • Niche expertise: Many search firms possess expert-level knowledge about talent pools in specific sectors. They may also be able to offer functional expertise focused on a specific budget size or a particular function, such as CFO, COO, etc.
      • Objectivity: As an objective third-party, an executive search firm brings an unbiased view to the search process. Organizations may sometimes fall into the trap of hiring candidates that fit the same profile as previous hires without considering how a candidate with fresh skills and perspectives can help them evolve and grow.
      • Confidentiality: Finally, in circumstances where the nature of a search must be kept discrete, for example, to avoid publicity over a senior departure, search firms can conduct a search with the required discretion.

      Preliminary Steps to Hiring a Search Firm

      Search firms can considerably simplify and standardize the executive recruitment process for non-profits. But success also depends on taking certain preliminary steps prior to facilitate the search process:

      • Create position description: What position level do you intend to recruit for? Are you hiring a senior management replacement or a direct report for a current C-suite member? This helps clarify the type of firm that can deliver on your recruitment needs.
      • Outline ideal candidate: It helps to completely visualize the qualities that the right candidate will have. For instance, will the ideal candidate require an international or local search? The search firm you select should be able to find candidates on this level.
      • Appoint a search committee: The search committee will be responsible for interfacing with the search firm across multiple touchpoints during the recruitment process. The board should include the relevant stakeholders. For example, in a COO search, the committee should include the board and executive director.
      • Appoint a selection committee: The selection committee will be responsible for researching, interviewing, evaluating, and selecting a search firm to work with. Members of the search committee can also constitute the selection committee.

      How to Select an Executive Search Firm

      The goal of the selection process is to identify an executive search partner that will work to deeply understand your organization and the needs of the role you are looking to fill.

      A good executive search firm acts as your strategic partner during the recruitment process, which is why it pays to bring a deliberate approach to picking one.

      The major steps to finding a reliable search firm are as follows:

      • Build out a shortlist: It often pays to begin the process by curating a shortlist of potential partners. The shortlist might be populated by speaking with colleagues in other organizations to identify the firms they have worked with previously. Questions you might ask include what position they were looking to fill and if the search firm brought success? What were they most impressed with about the search firm? Whether the firm surfaced outstanding candidates that might have been otherwise unreachable? etc.
      • Request proposals and conduct interviews: Working with the initial shortlist, send requests for proposals and then narrow down the options based on their responses. With a much smaller list, you can then move on to interviews with the firms. Consider clarifying how the firm populates its candidate pool, if it has experience with the kind of candidate you are looking for, and whether it can bring access to a unique client pool. Also clarify who will take point on the search process. Since the firm will be working as an extension of your organization, you want to ensure that the consultant(s) adequately represents who you are as an organization during the process.
      • Check references: With the interview concluded, you likely have a good idea of what search firms can meet your executive recruitment needs. To tie up the selection process, collect references from past corporate clients of the firm. You might also go further to speak with previously placed candidates to determine the impression they had of the search firm and whether this was satisfactory.


      Executive recruitment is often a complex and time-involved process, which is why many organizations choose to call on expert help. With the professional approach and experience that executive search firms can bring, organizations can potentially obtain better outcomes and a hire that adds value to them over the long-term.

      Non-Profit Executive Search Firm | Cowen Partners

      If you want to learn more about our 5-star non-profit executive search services, check out some of our industry-leading resources, put together by the nation’s best executive recruiters:

      Cowen Partners is a top non-profit executive search firm serving clients in New York City, Boise, Anchorage, Miami, Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, Dallas, Los Angeles, and beyond.

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