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Hiring Strong Nonprofit Leaders: Lessons from the Pandemic


This has been an interesting year for hiring. Hiring freezes followed by hiring blitzes, shifting job responsibilities, Zoom interviews (not to mention, Zoom onboarding!).

While COVID numbers are improving, and vaccines give us reason to hope for a gradual return to normalcy, organizations must be prudent and assume that more surprises could be on the way. The good news: leaders who are interviewing for new roles now have tangible examples of how they have weathered challenges in their careers.

Below, I shared three characteristics our Executive Search team has found to be the most important in a COVID and (one day) post-COVID world. Keep reading for insights from our team, plus sample interview questions to help you evaluate candidates in each area.


Nonprofit leaders in the time of COVID have had to demonstrate a high tolerance for risk and the ability to pivot like never before. Someone can possess all the foundational skills in the world, but they also need to be willing to go off-roading and build something completely new.

A digital conference? A virtual season? Bring it on! This past year, ambiguity and the possibility of failure lingered around every corner. Those who have survived and thrived have had to demonstrate resilience and confidence that they and their teams would prevail.

Ask these questions to gauge a candidate’s resilience:

  • Tell us about a project that didn’t go the way you expected it to. Why? What did you do to resolve that?
  • How have you responded to changing funding environments, and how have you partnered with senior leadership or boards of directors to respond to those changes?
  • How has the pandemic changed your approach to leadership?

Individual Giving Experience

For development directors and executive directors (who are often the chief fundraisers for their organizations), the pandemic has hastened a trend that was already in the works—the ongoing shift away from events-based fundraising and toward individual major giving.

While we are all itching to return to in-person events sometime in the next year or two, galas may never return to their full glory. In the wake of total or partial shutdowns, programmatic revenue is down, and fundraising teams are being asked to make up for the loss. Combine these realizations with the fact that individuals give 80% of all philanthropic dollars, and it’s only logical that organizations would prioritize major gift experience when considering nonprofit leaders.

Try the following questions to understand a candidate’s background in individual giving:

  • What has been your most successful effort to attract and solicit new donors and prospects to an organization?
  • What are the key tools and tactics that have worked for you to generate significant gifts? What has been your largest individual gift?
  • Please describe your experience devising, leading, and closing a successful campaign.

Emotional Intelligence

Nonprofits are built on relationships, both internal and external, which is one of the reasons our sector has been hit so hard by the pandemic. Donors who previously would have been engaged in-person are now being solicited in a virtual format, requiring even more finesse. Staffs are more stressed than ever before, so good communication is key to strong team leadership.

The silver lining? Since we’ve been confined to our homes for a year, we can start to see who does a good job keeping up with their teammates, partners, and donors in a productive way, reading their cues and responding effectively. Keeping people in the loop isn’t as automatic as it used to be in our open offices. But that also means that strong relationship management is more easily assessed than it ever was before.

Use these questions to get a sense of a candidate’s emotional intelligence:

  • Tell us about a relationship you were handed that was broken, and how you turned it around. How did your organization benefit?
  • How have you continued to foster a team culture with everyone working remotely?
  • Are there ways that the pandemic has helped you build relationships? How can you continue to use that to your advantage?

These skills have always been important, but the pandemic has pushed us to prioritize them. Armed with the knowledge of what makes the most effective nonprofit leaders—and how to find them—we can rebuild our sector better and stronger than before.

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Emily Miller
About Emily Miller As a Senior Consultant, Executive Search, Emily contributes to targeted research, networking, and sourcing to equip the nonprofit sector with capable, outstanding leaders. Emily is also a...
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