Recruiters Seeking Experience, Connections

September 15, 2011       Samuel Fanburg      

 When Lynn Croneberger, the soon-to-be vice president of development for the Wilderness Society, was selected by the organization it wasn’t her Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) designation that propelled her to the top. She believes it came down to her “well-rounded” experience.

“I thought it had more to do with my breadth of experience,” she said. “I’ve been fundraising for more than 15 years. I have had experience with capital campaigns, direct mail and cause marketing. I have also become president of my local Washington D.C. Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) chapter.”

According to a study published by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation called Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership, two-thirds of nonprofit executives recently indicated they are looking to leave their organizations within the next five years.

And with this increase in available positions, a new criterion for executive search has emerged, heralding experience and staying power as the main determinants for the hiring process. For Croneberger, the application process has been immensely positive. As noticed sector-wide, the number of available positions has dramatically increased since the dampening of the recession early this spring. Organizations are still looking for those basic skills of relationship building, cultivation of major donors with major donor experience, but are now asking for knowledge in social media, said Croneberger.

“2011 has been gangbusters,” said Jay Berger, a partner at Morris & Berger, an executive search firm in Glendale, Calif. “I think during the economic recession you saw a lot of pre-Baby Boomers who planned to retire, but once they saw their 401(k) shrinking, didn’t go through with it. Now that retirement packages are back to where we saw them two-three years ago, we’ve been seeing more organizations looking for new leadership.”

Although Berger takes cues from clients on qualifications they wish to see in applicants, the firm has developed its own criteria, specifically focusing on experience rather than certificates and degrees as one of the top indicators of future success.

Typically, search firms like to see someone who has stayed in the same organization, in the same capacity for more than two to three years said Berger. “If we see someone with less, it says they were probably not successful or aggressively opportunistic by not staying with the organization,” said Berger. “Ideally we are looking for someone with four- to five year stints. Of course, earlier in someone’s career you can see short tenures. But clients are looking for these people to stay five to seven years in senior positions.”

In addition, many times Berger has clients asking him for applicants who can speak Spanish, as his West Coast clients deal with Spanish speakers on a frequent basis.

Whereas Berger has seen organizations looking for a continuation of past leadership, Jennifer Dunlap, president and CEO of Development Resources in Arlington, Va., has seen client organizations go in the complete opposite direction when searching for new leadership.

“What a lot of organizations are looking for is someone who can think about things differently and view the hiring process as a way to rethink their fundraising strategy,” she said. “We think of this concept as ‘new business development,’ by really looking into what the resources and assets the organization has to be itself. We are rally think for folks who can come up with an integrated resource strategy and have the ability to look holistically.”

Specializing in hiring executive directors and directors of development, the Dunlap places a very high premium on experience, looking at applicants with five to six years in one place. Dunlap said that high turnover has been long symptom of nonprofit work, with organizations intent on changing the status quo. “I think one of the biggest things nonprofits are looking for is people with staying power and who can bring people together for a team,” Dunlap said. “Nonprofits have been hurt by constant turnover. I also think these organization need to go back to a time where they hired from within, because passion, commitment and strategic thinking, can’t be taught, these types of folks have to be nurtured from within.”

As for degrees and/or credentials, Dunlap said she has seen organizations gravitating towards applicants with business credentials. An MBA is particularly attractive, with some nonprofits wanting to see applicants who have been exposed to boards. As for the certified fundraising executive (CFRE) certificate, Dunlap said while some organizations do request applicants with the credential, an applicant has never been disqualified for not having the credential.

From the experience of Larry Raff, CEO of Copley Raff, the subject of a CFRE rarely comes up and from his research, what it takes to get this credential doesn’t necessarily translate into an applicant’s accomplishments and experiences. Instead, the Newton, Mass., group focuses intently on the interview process and reference checking asking applicants to tell them stories about their prior work experience.

“We ask our applicants to tell us stories in their own words so we can see the continuum of how a few ideas can lead to a distinguishable result,” he said. “How they choose their words and their thought process can be very important on how they act on the job.”

Similar to the other executive search firms, Copley Raff likes to see applicants with two to three years of experiences. As for other determiners, Raff likes to see if the types of organization they worked with closely align with the position for which they are applying. Copley Raff critiques the applicant’s cover letter, interview, which is done through Skype or in-person meeting and social media.

“We’re more interested in LinkedIn,” said Rebekah Kaufman, director of counseling services. “We liked to see how many people their connected with, but don’t have a specific threshold we like to see reached. In today’s world, it is just important to have a presence. We don’t see Facebook as this important.”

One executive Copley Raff recently placed, Shelley Cornish, chief advancement officer, for The Learning Center for the Deaf (TLCD), believes that her experience centering around “niche populations” led to her eventual hire at the Framingham, Mass., organization.

“I started my career in higher education and from there I was able to go sorts of educational institutions,” she said. “I went from Babson College, to the Sage School and then to the Lexington Christian Academy. TLCD talked to me because of my experience with these niche populations. Two schools I worked for in particular worked with gifted students and was with religious students.”

TLCD wanted some restructuring of her position and did want someone who would maintain the status quo. And for Cornish’s own professional development, she indicated that a CFRE or any other designation was not so important to her.

“That (CFRE) never came up at all during the application process,” she said. “I thought it was because they did not have the sophistication and the credential was not even on their radar. I have considered it at times, but that my own experience has shown people that I have the ability.”

According to David Edell, president and co-founder of search firm DRG in New York City, there has been a definite increase in organizations searching for new leadership with some looking towards the for-profit world. Edell said he has seen nonprofits many times look at lawyers for applicants, as they are familiar with planned giving and endowments. Berger at Morris & Berger said he has seen the same thing. “We get asked about 15 to 20 percent of the time to present candidates from the for-profit world,” said Berger. “I think the biggest problem comes with the transition these people have to make, though. The nonprofit world is much more inclusive, based in consensus, whereas it is more top down in the for profit world.”

For organizations and executive search firms, it is infinitely important to be on the same page of this process to get all that one can out of the relationship and by also selecting the right candidate.

“It’s all about transparency,” said Kaufman. “In the end, the search firm is an extension of the company. We see potential in candidates who not only ask about the programs of an organization, but the “warts” of one as well. The smartest candidates are the ones asking those questions.” NPT

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