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Adapting Recruitment Strategies to COVID-19 (Part I)

Good Insight helps nonprofits recruit talented senior leaders and strengthen their boards. Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve continued to support clients to navigate subtle and significant changes to the nonprofit executive search field.  

This is the first in a two-part blog series to share some of the trends we’ve observed this year. This post will focus on recruiting senior leaders during this very uncertain moment in time, while Part II will  feature guidance nonprofit boards and leaders can use as they make new hires during and after the pandemic.

Contextual challenges present new opportunities

Our country’s expanding public health crisis and its resulting economic impact have disproportionately affected communities of color often served by nonprofits, which has forced them to quickly adapt, rapidly scale services, and re-envisioned programs to serve in a digital environment. Other nonprofits have faced excruciating decisions to downsize staff, cut essential services, or wind down operations. 

This moment has been circumscribed by a public reckoning of anti-Black racism and demands for racial justice. With a largely white workforce —some studies indicate 80% at the senior ranks — nonprofits are eager to hire new leaders of color to reflect their stated commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). At Good Insight, we’ve seen this eagerness translate to unintentional tokenism and challenges for hires entering work environments that haven’t addressed  institutional racism.

Demand for senior leaders remains despite major employment losses 

In the last few months, Good Insight’s search practice has experienced clients delaying hiring decisions due to programmatic restructures, enacting temporary hiring freezes during the process, and experiencing challenging recruiting environments as candidates struggle to maintain job searches through the new realities of working from home. A recent Independent Sector study reports over 1 million nonprofit employees have been laid off during the pandemic. So it’s also no surprise that we have also seen record application numbers of newly unemployed and furloughed workers. Our clients have needed extra assistance evaluating these applications, many of which are promising but lack alignment or specific experience indicated in the job description. 

We have surprised that demand for senior nonprofit leaders has sustained over the last eight months. The sector continues to navigate Baby Boomer retirements, and the effects of women dropping out of the workforce. In addition, board leaders are reaching out at new frequencies to confidentially discuss the new set of leadership skills, perspectives, and approaches essential to their organization making a recovery.

Chilling effects on senior-level searches

Nonprofit CEO, COO, and senior development roles are a niche market, which is why many organizations hire executive search firms like ours. Many of our best placements are referred to as “passive candidates,”referred to us by our large networks, whereas active candidates respond to job postings.

At the start of the pandemic, our recruiter colleagues quietly discussed an expected influx of passive senior talent, and while we’re receiving record numbers of applications for many of our searches, we’re now trading notes about challenges recruiting talent for somewhat niche roles.

SBA support reduced turnover 

The rollout of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) had a strange effect. Payback terms required employers to maintain staffing levels for the duration of the loan and loyal people were reluctant to leave their employer in a lurch. PPP was an essential lifeline for almost all of our clients and our team totally understood this challenge. As Congress debates its next round of stimulus support, those in the early stages of a search should stay aware of this trend.

Laser focus on year-end giving

Governmental and philanthropic emergency aid programs appear to be winding down, which increases pressure on year-end fundraising. In a normal year, the last quarter is typically the most difficult recruitment time – senior leaders are focused on major donors, appeals, and year-end projections. Stakes are higher this year and we predict fewer candidates will have time to entertain a call from a recruiter. We’re hearing from folks in our network that entering a search process feels so overwhelming right now with all the other demands of work and life.  

Demands for diverse talent meets candidates’ concerns of tokenism

The heightened awareness of racial injustice has resulted in greater demand for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) leaders. Nonprofits are adding Chief Diversity Officers at a fast pace. Boards are asking for guaranteed percentages of executives of color to consider. We applaud this new focus and recognize that recruiting BIPOC leaders requires authentic networks and respectful relationships. In fact, we’ve been alarmed by conversations with our Black colleagues about the increasing tokenism they’ve experienced from search firms. BIPOC candidates are receiving an unprecedented amount of interest — great! — but some interview processes with recruiters, leaders, and boards appear to lack authenticity.

As our clients’ representatives, executive search firms must be intentional about our recruitment of BIPOC leaders and candid with applicants about the challenges for the next leader. This requires truthful exchanges with our clients about concerns we have. What is the racial composition of the staff they’ll be leading? Of the search committee doing the hiring? An entirely white search committee may signal more internal equity work is needed to minimize harm and oppression that result from being the first, only, or among the few people of color within the organization. More from us to come on this important topic.

New expectations about economic incentives

We work to secure the best senior-level talent for nonprofit clients — and they have sophisticated questions! Passive candidates require reassurance about an organization’s stability. Discerning candidates want to make sure this process is worth their time and conduct significant due diligence. They’ll often ask about financial status, revenue diversification, board culture, new staff hires, and marketing budgets in our first call.

Salary transparency continues to be crucial to the success of these conversations —not to mention an imperative for our fellow allies of women of color (see Our Commitment to Anti-Racism). Passive candidates know their worth and not disclosing salaries signals to them that an employer expects to bargain. In addition, we’ve seen passive candidates begin to discuss flexible work schedules, employment contracts, pre-negotiate severance packages, and/or signing bonuses in early interview stages. We’ve seen that they are seriously evaluating the risks of leaving a stable job and good employer for a potentially uncertain opportunity.

 

Does this post resonate with what you’ve experienced? Or is there a nuance or new perspective you’d like to share, particularly as an active candidate in the market for a new role? Drop us a line in the comments below or reach out to us at hello@good-insight.org. We’d love to hear more from you.

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