The story is mine but it’s oh so common. When I was hired to be an Executive Director of a nonprofit organization, I had no idea what I was getting into. The board had even less of an idea. We had a budget on paper. Paper, it turns out, we couldn’t afford. From tip to toe, there was a lot of work to be done, starting with raising enough money for payroll.
I often wonder. If I had asked the search committee the right kinds of questions, would I have understood the depth of the challenges? And here’s an even better question. Would I have walked away from the opportunity that turned out to be one of the most professionally rewarding roles in my career?
That’s the thing about applying for Executive Director jobs. I don’t think I asked particularly good or smart questions of the search committee. Funny, right? I pride myself on asking good, smart questions.
And why didn’t I? Perhaps I wanted the Executive Director job so much I did not want to be dissuaded. Or maybe I thought the board really wouldn’t know the answers.
So what should we ask search committees when we’re interviewing for Executive Director jobs?
WHAT NOT TO ASK THE SEARCH COMMITTEE
First, three pieces of advice you’ll want to consider.
1) Don’t ask a question if you don’t want to know the answer.
Here’s the deal. If you have your heart set on the job and nothing will dissuade you, keep your questions to a minimum. If you don’t want to know if things are bad because you have already decided that you want to change the world through your work at the organization, avoid asking when the organization last sweated payroll. You will find out soon enough. Trust me.
2) Don’t ask any question too vague to provide helpful information.
The more specific the question, the more revealing the response. Vague questions allow for “wiggling” (a kind way of saying “stretching the truth”) and selling. If the Search Committee is sold on you, every question presents an opportunity to persuade you that this is your dream gig.
So for example, here’s vague: How active is the board?
Vague answer: “Oh. VERY!” That answer could mean could mean (a) they aren’t really that active, or (b) they are active in a way that is not helpful – perhaps the last Executive Director left crying, “Shoot me now!”
3) Avoid questions that should only appear as thought balloons.
So let’s say this is not your first time on the rodeo and you are looking for Executive Director jobs with organizations that are solid and where the board chairs are enthusiastic champions and leaders. The biggest reason you want this is because your last rodeo was a bit of a nightmare. I can’t take credit for this example. A shout out to a wise-cracking member of my education and community platform for board and staff leaders of small but mighty nonprofits, the Nonprofit Leadership Lab.
I’m actually laughing as my fingers hit the keys: “On a scale of 1 to 10 with ‘10’ being ‘Shoot me now’ and ‘1’ being ‘We all thought “oversight” meant we were supposed to neglect paying attention to the organization’, how would you characterize the board’s level of involvement with the day to day operations of the organization?
OK, so on to some questions you might find helpful…
WHAT TO ASK THE SEARCH COMMITTEE
1) What do you love about being on the board of this organization?
Listen closely. Not just for what they say but how they say it. You need these folks to be enthusiastic ambassadors who can be vocal and visible champions for the mission. If you feel a lot of heart in the response, be heartened.
2) What is your avatar for the ideal next Executive Director for this organization?
You’ll have already read a job description and if a search firm is involved, you’ve gotten the 411 from the recruiter. But it is always valuable to ask the search committee directly. It can be highly revealing and give you a better sense about whether you are their pick.
3) Is every board member a donor to the organization and how would you characterize the board’s involvement in fundraising?
Try not to let one person speak for the group. “Thanks Bob. Mary, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the culture of philanthropy on the board.” And as for the ‘donation’ part of the question, what you’re listening for is either “Absolutely!” or “We are close and understand that it’s important.” What you really don’t want to hear? “No, we don’t all give. Most of us don’t want to fundraise so we are looking for an Executive Director who will take all that stuff on.”
4) Can you talk about the organization’s strategic plan? Do you have a current strategic plan? What was the last process like? How involved was the board? What is it about the strategic plan that most excites you?
This question gives you a sense of the involvement the board sees itself having in strategy. You will get a feel for whether the board enjoys / has an appetite for strategy work. And you get a sense of vision and aspiration (or lack of both).
5) What role do you see the Executive Director having in board recruitment?
I’ve been dealing with E.D. clients recently whose boards are shutting them out of recruitment and interviewing. Don’t ask me why. On the flip side, I have seen Executive Directors “pack” the board, which causes a very different kind of problem. You want to hear that they see you as a primary ‘feeder’ of prospects and integral to the process. That while you will not have a vote, your point of view is critical. (See step 9 in my post, “The ‘Recruit New Board Members Fast’ Checklist“).
6) Can I have a look at the organization’s budget and the year-to-date actuals against that budget? I’m aware that some organizations struggle financially and so I’d like to go into this role with my eyes wide open. Some basic information would be helpful (i.e. is Accounts Payable current? When did you last struggle to make payroll? Do you have a cash reserve?) Any one of these will help to know.
If they are reluctant to provide this data, perhaps there is a nuanced way to discern if it is a confidentiality issue or if they actually don’t have the data. Any answer you get will be instructive.
7) What do you think success will look like for the new Executive Director after the first six months or year?
Pick the timetable that feels right for you and if their initial reaction is about how much money the new E.D. will raise, that’s a warning sign. They should be talking about the work’s scope and impact, visibility, engagement of new folks – that’s what you want to hear.
8) In order to be successful, what do you think the new E.D. will need that the organization does not currently have?
This could open up doors to answers like, “There has been a lot of attrition – you will need to fill a number of important positions quickly.” Or one about staff: “We feel you need more staff resources and are committed to partnering with the E.D. to build the resources to add staff.”
9) Tell me about your last great board meeting and why it went so well.
This one could stump them as we know that many nonprofits believe that the phrase “great board meeting” is an oxymoron. But you’ll learn a bit about how they view board meetings and how productive they are (or aren’t).
10) Can you tell me a little about the annual performance review process the board has developed for the E.D.?
If the search committee outlines a carefully crafted, comprehensive and thoughtful process, you have just learned something SO important about the integrity of the board and about the kind of relationship they want to build with you. I saved this one for last because while it seems like such a specific question, it will tell you so much.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR JOBS: WHAT’S ON YOUR LIST?
So there is my top 10. I’m guessing you have some questions you’d like to add. I’d love for you to add them in the comments below. Don’t hesitate to include questions NOT to ask when interviewing for Executive Director jobs, especially if you think they may amuse me. 🙂