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In a pandemic-driven war for talent, nonprofit organizations must change their thinking to attract and retain the best leaders—or risk impact to organizational wellbeing.

Authors: Rachel Bender,   Andy Davidson


Over the years of conducting executive searches for nonprofit organizations, we've encountered a common mindset among some leaders. This thinking served nonprofits fabulously during the establishment and growth of the organizations. But in today's pandemic-fueled war for leadership talent and seismic workplace changes, such thinking can sabotage the attraction and retention of visionary leaders. Without the best leaders, nonprofits may risk falling behind in needed growth to serve their missions and their overall organizational wellbeing.

You may have heard the term "Founder's Syndrome," particularly in the for-profit start-up world. The company founder nurtures such passion for the idea into which he or she poured blood, sweat and tears, that founder can't let the company grow into new perspectives and experience in the C-Suite. Investors and board members often must shepherd founding CEOs into new roles and bring in seasoned executives who can take a good company to greater heights.

A similar phenomenon exists in the not-for-profit world: the love and dedication a founder brings to spark the creation of an organization to make the world better. A visionary's laser focus on the needs of those served is essential in inspiring a new nonprofit entity.

However, that inspirational focus risks becoming "tunnel vision" when it does not translate into the strategy and operational skills needed to sustain and grow organizational wellbeing. When nonprofit organizations fail to implement operational and cultural innovations, or make decisions too slowly, the mission—and the entire workforce—can suffer.

Challenge and Opportunity for Nonprofit Organizations

With the current record high turnover of top-notch talent, professionals are rethinking what drives them personally and professionally. Similarly, not-for-profit organizations and their boards must re-examine their needs for the future and attract the best talent available. In other words, turnover across the workforce can reignite forward thinking not-for-profit organizations, because the talent pool is rich with skills, experience and newfound passion.

Gallagher's nonprofit search clients now face the following market conditions:

  • As a result of COVID-19, many organizations that furloughed or laid people off now are hiring intensely as pent-up turnover rolls across many industries. According to the Q3 2021 Gallagher Better Works SM Insights Report, 43% of nearly 3,000 responding organizations reported moderate or extreme concern about voluntary turnover in an improved job market.
  • Like employees at every level across many industries, executives in nonprofits are retiring or leaving for work or compensation that is a better fit. Significantly, some private sector executives are choosing this time to jump to a nonprofit role to follow their hearts. Nonprofits need to be ready to attract such leaders.
  • The remote work environment is challenging leaders to keep teams engaged and cultures strong across both home offices and on-site workplaces. Increasingly, executives—like their staff—prefer the flexibility to work from home—possibly in another state. On the flip side, clients often want their executive teams to live in town. Gallagher's Q4 2021 Gallagher Better Works Insights Report reveals that 22% of nearly 3,000 responding organizations indicate that their employees see remote work as an expectation, instead of a perk. Another 30% of organizations responding stated that employees saw remote work as an increasingly common option, but an appreciated perk.

Additionally, many employees and executives are challenged with dependent care and mental health stresses associated with the pandemic.

Search Success Demands Speed, Flexibility

Organizations hoping to recruit executive talent in today's environment must remain flexible during the search and onboarding processes, as well as across the employment life cycle. During search, speed and agility will win the day. Nonprofit search committees must act quickly when making an offer to their-first choice candidate, knowing that candidate may be in high demand. We on Gallagher's executive search team have reshaped our search processes and timelines to support quick action in this environment.

Executive Search is a Family Affair

The savvy search committee will be ready to woo the candidate's spouse and family, as well as the candidate. What connections can the board make for an out-of-town candidate's spouse? For high school students faced with leaving friends, it may be worth bringing the kids in for an area tour. The need for flexibility may also extend to allowing a new leader to work remotely while the children finish the school year.

Not only is talent in high demand, so too is housing in many markets. Relocation can be a huge challenge. While a new leader is house hunting, flexible search committees should be prepared to support apartment rental for the leader, with space sized to accommodate visits from family members. Taking this concept to the next level, one client we worked with recruited a new leader who faced moving horses from another state.

Develop a Strategy to Retain as well as Attract Executive Talent

Nonprofits not only need a nimble strategy to attract top talent in a candidate-driven market, but organizations also need robust retention strategies.

What pain points does the new leader face? Is the board clear on the organization's philosophy around remote working environments? Are they open to allowing their new executives to work remotely from outside the area? If working with a remote team, is the board prepared to offer leadership education or coaching for the new executive and their staff around the best ways to stay connected in this "new normal?"

Looking at orientation, is there a plan in place to help a new executive connect with staff and the leadership team in a remote or hybrid office situation? How do teams get to know one another and establish genuine rapport? Today's boards must be clear about the organization's philosophies and be ready to support new leaders in ways they have not had to consider in the past.

Now is the time for nonprofit boards and leaders to expand their thinking. The market for great executive leaders is moving at lightning speed, requiring a savvy and nimble approach. Organizations must think in new ways not just to attract leaders, but to orient and retain them, as well.

Gallagher's Nonprofit Executive Search team brings deep experience in guiding organizations through the new landscape. Remote office situations bring new challenges for leadership recruitment now and retention tomorrow. Gallagher can work with your board to help you find new executive talent, and our leadership advisors can help your nonprofit organization to face the future with confidence.

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Consulting and insurance brokerage services to be provided by Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. and/or its affiliate Gallagher Benefit Services (Canada) Group Inc. Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. is a licensed insurance agency that does business in California as "Gallagher Benefit Services of California Insurance Services" and in Massachusetts as "Gallagher Benefit Insurance Services." Neither Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., nor its affiliates provide accounting, legal or tax advice.

This material was created to provide accurate and reliable information on the subjects covered but should not be regarded as a complete analysis of these subjects. It is not intended to provide specific legal, tax or other professional advice. The services of an appropriate professional should be sought regarding your individual situation.

© 2021 Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.