As an interim executive director, I’ve enjoyed supporting several E.D. search committees.
Of course, the primary role of the search committee is to vet candidates for the long-term executive director position and make a hiring recommendation to the organization’s board.
But as important as that is, it need not be the committee’s only function. Over time, I’ve learned that the search committee has the potential to play a transformational role in additional ways that may not be as obvious.
Although hiring an E.D. is a key function of a nonprofit’s board of directors and requires a vote of the full board, there’s no requirement that the search committee be composed solely of board members. Because the new E.D. will be the staff leader, it’s actually critical that the committee contain both board and staff representatives. This is an important first step in developing the trust of the staff in its next leader.
By putting board and staff representatives together to work on a mission-critical task over an extended period, the search committee gives its members a chance to get to know each other better and see each other differently. Besides creating important bonds among board members, the committee's work may also engender greater respect between board and staff. As committee members come to see each other as unique individuals, this can have the trickle-down effect of improving trust between board and staff across the organization as a whole.
As the committee creates a job announcement, reads resumes, and interviews candidates, its members will find that they have repeated opportunities to speak about the organization’s key values, strengths, and weaknesses. Optimally, this process starts with reflection and ends with cohesion, as the group shares its perceptions with its top candidates. Furthermore, this work should pay off by establishing a foundation of support for the incoming E.D. – and preparing a core group to enthusiastically undergird strategic planning work that will need to take place once the new leader is up to speed.
In the best case, the search committee will become a tight-knit, high-functioning group. By the conclusion of the process, they will have spent many hours together on a complex and satisfying task with a meaningful result. Repeatedly, in order to move the process forward, they will have either reached consensus, or figured out how to separate key points of agreement from less essential disagreements. This is how healthy nonprofits function, and in this way, the search committee can serve as a model of how well the entire organization can potentially operate in the future. That they achieve this result while facilitating the arrival of the organization’s next leader is no small part of this magic.
Service on an E.D. search committee takes a big chunk of time. Dedicated board and staff members agree to serve because selecting the right leader is so important. But it’s worth acknowledging that this time-consuming work can be immensely satisfying and profoundly impactful in other ways, as well.