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?


Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Dani Robbins

    Hi Joan,

    I’d add “understanding the role” to your list. Most board members, including those on the search committee, are hiring for a job they’ve never done, and unless they’ve served as chair, never directly supervised. When they don’t understand all the pieces of the role, they only hire for the ones they’ve seen. Because leadership done well looks like nothing, that’s rarely enough.

    Thanks for the opportunity,


    • You are absolutely right Dani. Even when not in the midst of a hire, the lack of role clarity between board and ED can be a huge problem. Thanks for writing

  • Craig Coogan

    Having been the wrong ED hire at an organization, I delighted in reading this post. I’d echo what Dani says about ‘understanding the role’ and offer this experience from one of my searches: the board took the job description plus the top 3 resumes/letters/references to a handful of other nonprofits in the community – some in the same sector, some not – and asked those ED’s which they thought was a fit. Seemed like a great way to suss out who might work from another ED’s perspective while building community relationships at the same time. Not the be all and end all of ways to hire, but I thought an interesting perspective to get.

    Vis-a-vis references – LinkedIN is a search committees best friend. In my current position the hiring committee looked at my LinkedIN and found 1 or 2-degree people and contacted them directly, outside of whom I had listed as my official references.

    Thanks, as always, for a great post!


    • Craig. Terrific advice! (have you considered writing a blog? 🙂 And you are so so right about Linked In. New EDs are only a few degrees of separation from someone who is close to the organization.

  • Museumgrl

    Hello Joan,
    I am fairly new to your site. It is wonderful! I wish I had discovered it sooner in my career. I would be interested in some advice on how to work for a bad ED without going crazy. Especially if the previous ED was wonderful. The transition can be very difficult for staff. I understand it it not always easy to inherit staff as well. Thank you!

    • Museumgrl. Thanks for finding me! And for your kind words. Your challenge is a common one (sadly). The relationship between the ED and the staff can become quite familial. Two pieces of quick advice (and then I will file this away for a future post): 1) If you really loved the previous ED, you absolutely have to understand that you walk into this new relationship with bias. Do everything you can to view this new person objectively. 2) The mission of your organization is everything. If the new ED is compromising or jeopardizing the important work you do, build allies among the staff and attempt to get the message to the board. I am well aware that this can be difficult (even a bit dangerous), but just keep your eye on the mission. Good luck.

      • Museumgrl

        Thank you!!

        • June

          Have you talked with the ED about your concerns? Being new s/he might need your help with the lay of the land and organizational culture. There are so many unknowns or unspokens that can be dangerous. Why not show yourself as an asset?

          I would caution you to only go straight to the board with very serious concerns- embezzling or sexual harassment or serious things that you have made the ED aware of and tried to work out through the chain of command. I would see it as
          insubordination if you went over my head

          • June – sorry I missed this one. Going directly to your boss first with your concerns is absolutely the place to start. I think you may an excellent point. I’m sure many readers are saying “I did that, no luck. now what?’ And I don’t know that I have the secret sauce on this. I’ve been noodling about a blog post on this but i need a solution 🙂

          • Museumgrl

            Thank you, June. I feel that I have been supportive and helpful. I am between a rock and a hard place as many are. You cannot just come out and tell your boss that they are terrible. I have tried to be creative in the approach. I agree that going to the board would be insubordinate depending on the circumstances.

  • Roger

    how about, Hire a board officer’s best friend – who’ll always provide cover for her ??

    • That’s a good one Roger. I generally find the CEO recruitment process to have more integrity than this but I suppose it happens more than I would like to think.

  • Piper

    The dialogue with MuseumGirl is right on. This is a needed follow up post. Even talking amongst the staff can be risky, but there are ways to do it.

    • Working for a bad boss. What DO you do. It’s a universal problem – nonprofit and for profit. I’ve been thinking a lot about a post but i can’t write one until I have a pretty clear sense of advice that won’t get anyone fired. That’s kinda funny and kinda sad and quite true, eh?

  • June

    Don’t forget to have the hiring committee interview half of the town for the E.D. position so that everyone feels they or someone they know would’ve done a better job. Then make it even better by not personally telling any of the candidates they didn’t get the job. Let them read about it in the newspaper.

    Amazing that many of the things Joan mentioned come to laziness and a board thinking that they know it all. There are so many resources available, such as this site, that it isn’t necessary to go it alone.

    • So sorry I did not respond to this sooner. Great points all!

  • June – May I respectfully push back gently? I do think that most people who join a board are not typically lazy nor arrogant. They are not recruited well, the expectations of the role are not made clear and/or the board chair does not manage them well. That said, some of them are lazy and arrogant 🙂 Thanks for commenting June!

  • Susan

    Soon after I accepted my position as E.D. I started wondering if I was hired simply because I was the only one who said “yes”. I’ll add to your list “be dishonest about the challenges the organization faces”. While I have confidence in my abilities I was ill prepared to address several issues and have had to learn via trial by fire.

    • Susan. Good addition. Although I have often found (it was true in my own case when I was hired as an E.D.) that the board actually is not nearly as aware as it should be about the challenges the organization faces. Sometimes the previous E.D. has kept the board at such a distance and/or deceived them. Sometimes the board has been asleep at the switch. Thanks for your comment and for reading!

  • Ann Persand

    Thank you for your post and all the comments. My ED was not responsive to my concerns, and other members of leadership started talking freely to me about their concerns, too, which was uncomfortable. I went to HR who advised that talking to the Board was the only solution, but it would be risky. A Board member heard rumors in the community and approached me and I shared my concerns. The good news is that the Executive Committee intiated a 360 review on him, but the bad news is that two months after I spoke with the board member, I lost my job. I still feel I did the right thing in helping the agency, but it hurt to not be a part of the agency’s good work anymore. At least now the Board is aware of the ED’s shortcomings and can provide greater support and oversight.

    • How difficult to know you did the right thing and then lose your job for it. You are likely to be one of many dedicated stakeholders who will be casualties. But you tried and your actions were motivated by what you felt was right for your org. And I admire you for that. And some org will see your dedication and value and be grateful in an ongoing way that they found you. Keep your head up!

  • Adam

    Hire a close family friend of a relatively new board member, so that she will consistently provide “cover” for the new ED and resist any hard questions or monitoring as “improper micromanagement”. That board member’s mantra becomes “She’s doing a fabulous job!” regardless of failures.

  • gladgirl

    Knowing what the previous 3 ED’s had experienced before I took a job, I broke my own first rule and looked past the red flags. But, I was kind to myself, offering up a “contracted” period rather than take on being “hired”. It was fortunate that I had the foresight because the red flags became full blown reality. Still, I thought I was the “one” that could make it work. The option of an ended contract helped me leave gracefully and maintain my professional reputation. (In a small city)