Not-For-Profit Executive Search. What Boards Look For

According to Benefacts' Nonprofit Sector Analysis 2020, Ireland's nonprofit sector has at least 32,841 Organisations, 165,075 Employees, 86,481 Directors/Trustees, €14.2bn Turnover and receives €5.9bn in State Funding. Nonprofit organisations which include NGOs, Social Enterprises, Clubs, Societies, Associations and Religious Bodies play a crucial role in society. Such entities are to be found in every part of the country, transcending major sectors such as Health, Education, Housing, Social Services, the Environment, Religion, the Arts and Politics, to name but a small number.

In partnering with such organisations in the recruitment of Senior Management and CEO’s, our dedicated not-for-profit executive search practice at Principal Connections frequently observes organisations prioritising the following as essential skills, competencies and qualities when hiring:


Passion for the organisations mission is a crucial quality sought out by most nonprofit recruitment committees and boards. Nonprofit leaders are frequently motivated by their desire to make a difference to a mission that they truly believe in. Such passion fuels the demanding time, energy and resilience required, often in lieu of reflective financial reward, and can also inspire longevity of tenure.


To be an impactful nonprofit leader demands an appropriate balance of strategic and ‘hands on’ leadership which is most likely to be defined by the size, scale and the challenges before the organisation. Spending money wisely and using sound data to demonstrate impact are also key attributes boards and recruitment committees underscore. Nonprofit leaders must listen, be inclusive and in some instances be at ease when navigating political pathways. Holding staff, volunteers and of course each other accountable, and yet maintaining high morale and inspiring all stakeholders to be motivated in achieving a shared vision is no easy feat.


Grappling with the best way to develop, expand or do more for an increasing number of clients with less, requires entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and innovation in today’s environment. Standing out from the crowd is the intention of most organisations, but doing what is best for clients must always be the prerogative. This may mean leveraging and forging strategic partnerships with other nonprofits or corporate entities, and even sometimes accepting that they may be better positioned to serve in the first instance.


Raising income is no longer an activity that can be solely assigned to a fundraising, membership or development department, but one which the CEO and Senior Management must play an active role in. Shrinking government funding, high-levels of competition for public and private funds, together with rising costs, regularly culminate in unrealistic fundraising targets for under-resourced departments tasked with income generation. Therefore, nonprofit leaders who have the skills to help identify and secure new sources of income or perhaps scale revenues through existing methods are in high demand.


The concept of building positive brand identity is of the utmost importance for most if not all nonprofit bodies. Therefore, boards and recruitment committees presiding over talent acquisition processes frequently look for leaders who know how to build a brand and possess the public relations skills to engender ties for the future. Engaging supporters and other stakeholders requires compelling presentation and communication, and delivering information and content in new and more creative ways. Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all, but today's nonprofit leader certainly must know how to appeal to a target audience in a way in which they will positively respond and share the organisation's story with others.


With today's increased competition for private, public and state funding, knowledge of the sector is on most organisation's priority lists. A commitment to best practice in all aspects of corporate governance is a direct driver of funding and investment into the sector. Boards and recruitment committees are searching for leaders who understand the nuances of the sector as well as know the key stakeholders. In certain circumstances, organisations may see benefit in transitioning individuals from the corporate world. Like all such transitions, this in itself may come with a heightened sense of risk; and transferability of skills, and lead in times, must to be carefully considered.


Non-profit organisations search for new leaders who will take the time to learn and understand the history and culture of the entity. Nonetheless, a new leader must promptly ascertain what can and should be done, and be considered but decisive in action. Procrastination can conceive doubt among staff and the board. Adopting a bulldozer approach is certainly by no means the appropriate pathway, but subtle early changes during a new leader's initial tenure can corroborate that the right appointment was made and instill confidence.


Pat O’Donnell is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Principal Connections, the Irish office of top global executive search group, Agilium Worldwide. Mr O’Donnell is known as a leading authority and trusted advisor to domestic and international organisations in all phases of development and change and is also noted for his exceptional understanding of board room dynamics. A graduate of the National University of Ireland Galway, Mr O’Donnell holds a Master’s Degree in Commercial Law from University College Dublin’s School of Law.

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The above information does not purport to be professional advice. Readers are advised to seek independent professional advice before acting on anything contained in these materials.

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Principal Connections is the leading executive search and board advisory firm serving Ireland and the United Kingdom, and is part of Agilium Worldwide LLC.




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