The Staff Didn’t Want To Hire Me

by Joan Garry

When should staff be involved in the search for a new leader at a nonprofit? To what degree? Here’s a process to consider.

When I was first hired as the new Executive Director of GLAAD back in 1997, many of the existing staff was pretty upset. TheDevelopment Director was especially upset; she wanted the board the hire a proven fundraiser.

Fundraiser? I had never even asked my mother for money.

While I like to think I eventually proved the naysayers wrong, maybe they never should have hired me. Certainly, I was hired against many staff wishes. That sure made my job a whole lot tougher, at least at first.

This brings up a couple questions. First, was the staff correct? Should they not have hired me?

And second, how much influence and input should the staff have in executive level hiring decisions anyway?

Let’s start with the second question.


Ok, imagine the following. You’re sitting on a board (for many of you, this doesn’t take much imagination.) Your nonprofit has begun to search for a new leader. You’re on the search committee.

The staff wants to be involved in the search.

I mean, sure, you get it. Kind of. But it’s also annoying. It’s going to complicate things and make the entire process take longer. And frankly, in your day job, it’s not like anybody asked you for input when they hired your new boss.

Pop quiz. What do you do?

a) Engage the staff as late as possible in the process, after you pretty much already know whom you want to hire. Make it seem like they had input so they’ll feel good about things.

b) Put together a staff committee but be as non-committal as possible about how much authority they have. Only give them “authority” if they sign off on whom you wanted to hire anyway.

c) Put together a real staff committee that has real input and is taken seriously throughout the process.

I’ll give you a moment.


The right answer is “c.” You have to include them. This isn’t corporate America. It’s nonprofit America, a special place in which staff works more for passion than to make the big bucks. They’re probably not expecting a big year-end bonus.

But they do expect their voices to be heard.

Now, there’s a right way to do this and a wrong way. Ah, the wrong way. I speak from experience on that one.

Luckily, the brilliant Rachel Tiven, Executive Director at Immigration Equality (and, full disclosure, my client,) came up with a great way to handle staff involvement.


Rachel will soon be leaving Immigration Equality and I worked with her and the board during her transition process. I impressed upon them the importance of including the staff in the discussion.

During a retreat, the staff expressed its concerns about Rachel’s departure and their hopes for a new E.D. After the retreat, Rachel and I discussed ways we might communicate the staff’s hopes and suggestions to the search committee before the formal search began.

Rachel came up with a great approach, with three simple steps.

1) She used an extremely easy-to-use online survey website, Survey Monkey, to anonymously survey the staff, asking three questions:

  • What are the most important qualities in our next permanent ED? If you discussed many qualifications, how would you rank them?
  • Finish this sentence: “In order to be able to do my best work, what I need from our new boss is…”
  • Is there anything else you would like the search committee to know or hear?

2) She compiled the responses into a Word document without name attribution. And she kept responses in the staff members’ own words, leaving little room for interpretation.

3) She had the search committee attend a staff meeting where the document was distributed and discussed.

The result? Staff members had a voice. And before the search committee began its work. They provided invaluable input to the committee at just the right moment.

And now the search committee will be successful in meeting all the staff’s hopes and expectations… Right?

OK, maybe not. After all, I’m pretty sure the staff said they hope the board will be able to recruit Mother Teresa and wondered if she had a law degree or previous Executive Director experience.

We can’t have it all! But at least the staff had real input. And that makes all the difference.

Note: This is an excellent exercise for the board search committee to do with the full board as well. Then the search committee can pray that that there is SOME overlap between what the board and staff are looking for in that next leader.


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5 thoughts on “The Staff Didn’t Want To Hire Me”

  1. I disagree. The ED works for the Board, not for the staff. Staff should not be selecting its boss (even an egalitarian, hands-off boss). Introducing the Board’s choice to the staff before the decision is final gives everybody a chance to ensure the chemistry is not horrible.
    But staff may oppose an outside choice, someone they don’t know, or someone they think will make changes. The ED should not be boxed in by staff opinions.

  2. David. Thanks for your comment and I appreciate your point of view. It has just been my experience that the boards typically do engage staff in the search process. And so it happens. And it happens quite a lot. And it often happens badly and in fact backfires. So the post offered ideas on how to avoid it doing a lot more harm than good.

  3. It’s important to get some staff input, certainly…staff should be participate in developing a mission and vision of the organization, and in the discussions with the Board about what kind of Director is necessary to lead the organization on a path to that mission and vision. But as far as the final step in the process–the hiring decision–that belongs to the Board and that Board needs to support it’s own decision and demand the loyalty of the staff in doing so as well.

  4. Gertie. Thanks for your comments. I totally agree with you – from start to finish of your comment. The idea of soliciting ideas UP FRONT for what the organization needs from its new E.D. is exactly the point of this piece. And of course the final decision belongs to the board. But you would be surprised how many organizations engage some subset of staff in the interview process when down to final candidates. I don’t think it is the worst idea but because so little thought is put into the process, the goals, the level of authority, it usually winds up being a very bad idea.

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