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How to Spot Cultural Fit in Nonprofit Leadership Candidates

Blackboard with organization chart drawn on itCompany culture is defined by strongly held and widely shared beliefs that organizations support through their strategy and structure. As any executive search consultant will tell you, cultural fit is a critical factor in hiring.

While this is true for every organization, despite its tax code, it is incredibly important for not-for-profit organizations. This is because the executive must be able to passionately speak about the mission internally, to keep everyone working toward the common goal, but also to represent the organization externally, creating strong, committed relationships within the community.

While every not-for-profit is driven by a mission, unique cultures exist. For example, despite being a not-for-profit, an organization may possess a more business-driven environment, requiring executives with strong financial acumen. Others may feel more like start-ups, requiring the executive to be agile, innovative and collaborative.

Therefore, a first step to assessing cultural fit in leadership candidates is to define what an organization’s culture is. If this is not defined or known, the following questions can be asked:

  • What truly defines your organization?

  • What are your core values and/or mission statement? Do you follow them? Maybe some more than others?

  • What is your level of hierarchy?

  • What is the level of urgency within the organization?

  • What is the atmosphere within the office?

  • What do you (or don’t you) invest in that defines and drives culture?

When considering these questions it is important to seek feedback from all levels of the organization, as the management team may believe one thing while employees experience another. When hiring an executive over a particular department or region, the organization should take extra consideration of those within that group, as subcultures can often exist.

Once culture is defined and before recruiting for a new role, the organization must create a leadership profile or position specification that reflects which criteria will be used to gauge candidates and their “fit.” As the recruitment begins, there are other considerations:

The Résumé: What signs on a candidate’s résumé may suggest cultural fit? For starters, look for individuals who have worked for similarly sized organizations, other not-for-profits, or in your industry in the past. This will indicate a willingness and readiness to work in an organization like your own. Someone with longevity in the not-for-profit space or who has successfully made the transition from the for-profit sector is also someone to keep an eye on.

While you will undoubtedly come across candidates with a deep tie to the mission, or volunteer experience in similar organizations, do not forgot about the job at hand and be sure to confirm they have the right functional experience. Just because someone has worked weekends for a similar organization does not mean they are ready to be your next CEO.

The Interview: This is probably the most important part when assessing cultural fit, as the candidate is now moving “off the page,” and it gives you an opportunity to ask more personalized questions. When interviewing candidates, search committees can gauge cultural fit through a series of questions, such as:

  • What do you do in your free time, including volunteer and board work? If their interests align with your mission, that is a good sign.

  • What about our organization makes you want to fully devote yourself to it?

  • What aspects of our core values and/or mission statement do you align with?

  • What types of organizations do you like to work in? What is the best place and/or worst place you have ever worked? In this scenario, listen for cues that indicate whether they would fit in your organization

  • In the case where a candidate is coming from a larger, or even for-profit organization, with significant resources ask, When is a time you have had to do more with less? Or, Why are you considering a not-for-profit at this time?

It is also important to explain your environment and ask if the executive is comfortable working in that kind of atmosphere. Again, get multiple stakeholders involved in this process, especially supervisors, peers, and direct reports who will interact with this executive often.

One important thing to note is that, every so often, people target not-for-profit work as a way to “slowdown.” Don’t be afraid to explain the time commitment and effort necessary for the job at hand and ask if they are comfortable with that. If the executive has a more relaxed schedule in mind, it may be better to talk to them about volunteer opportunities.

The Follow-up: During the interviewing process, does the candidate check in regularly to reiterate their passion about the opportunity? Is there a near obsession with learning about the organization, imagining a vision for the future, and reiterating interest in the role? If so, this is a good sign.

After the Hire: Congratulations! You have identified the candidate with the right skillset and cultural fit, and they are ready to join your organization. However your work is not yet done. Ensure that HR has the right orientation and onboarding that supports the organization’s values and outlines how the executive will be expected to work within the established culture. In addition, ensure you have a performance management program that rewards and recognizes the employees that exhibit a commitment to the company’s values, as this will help continue to strengthen your culture.

Following these guidelines, you should be able to identify the successful candidate by the end of the executive search process—one who has an enthusiasm for your mission, is comfortable working in your environment, and possesses the skillset necessary to tackle the job at hand.

Andrew R. TrechselAndrew R. Trechsel is a senior associate in Witt/Kieffer’s Healthcare Practice, based in the firm’s Emeryville, California, office. Andrew identifies leaders on behalf of hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers, and related organizations across the country.

Topics: Nonprofit management Nonprofit leadership Nonprofit Culture