- Cole’s career journey, including work with Coca-Cola, the US Government, NATO, and the Maclellan Foundation (2:11)
- What the nonprofit talent landscape looks like (09:58)
- The top qualities of effective fundraisers (14:45)
- Why DB&A provides a two-year guarantee for every executive placement (20:30)
- Advice to organizations beginning an executive search (27:20)
- Why fundraising is crucial to the long-term flourishing of your nonprofit (33:35)
You have a strong background in the areas of strategy and talent. Tell us about your career path and how it led to where you are today.
In 2006, I left international government service to embark on what I thought would be a career in vocational ministry. Prior to that, I had worked overseas in the private sector and went to graduate school in France. I was living in Washington DC working for the government at the time, and I thought the Lord would direct me into one of the larger international faith-based non-profits. Instead, I ended up a grant-maker and Strategy Director at the Maclellan Foundation, where I had primary portfolio responsibility for Africa and the Middle East along with some granting into Eurasia. It was great work and I loved coming alongside indigenous ministry leaders around the world as well as partnering with great leaders and boards here in the US.
Since 2015, I have been in leadership with the DickersonBakker family of firms where we serve nonprofit organizations in fund development, strategy, and executive search consulting. I currently lead our executive search practice as CEO and still get to work alongside great leaders and boards. It’s a privilege.
At DB&A, you get to work alongside organizations who are looking for Executive Directors and Chief Development Officers, among other positions. We hear a lot about staffing issues in the news. What’s the landscape like right now in the nonprofit world when it comes to finding and retaining talent?
As could be expected, we have seen fluctuations in our niche of the job market over the last decade or so. After the recession in the late 2000’s, there was a profusion of good non-profit professionals actively looking for work. By 2018-2019, the labor market got much tighter. The stock market was good, giving was strong, and good leaders were mostly well-employed. We were seeing far fewer active job seekers and thus fewer overall applicants. Our success relied more on the sourcing passive job seekers and our personal reach within our thankfully large existing professional networks.
During COVID, we saw a slightly delayed but nonetheless dramatic 6-to-12-month cutback in clients engaging in professional retained executive searches. The searches we did have were yielding more active applicants as vulnerable nonprofits were making staff reductions. Now however, as 2020 end-of-year giving turned out strong for many of our clients—something anticipated by donor research our sister firm conducted last year—we are seeing a resurgence in retained searches. We’re thankful that the research was so accurate and our clients are again able to manage from a more confident place, many even displaying an abundance mentality, which is fantastic!
In terms of the corresponding talent landscape, we are in the tightest, most passive job market we have ever seen.* Most important to note is that even at the highest levels, many have grown accustomed to working from home and so we see a reticence to relocate esp. as COVID potentially sees a resurgence. That can be a challenge for executive level positions where boards and CEOs still want to see their top leaders in the office.
There’s both an art and a science to fundraising. And the two are not the same thing. Depending on the role, the skill sets and personalities required can vary greatly. At the highest levels of fundraising leadership, we want to see leaders who are adept at both, but even then they will almost always naturally gravitate toward one side or the other. This is part of why our consulting role with the client in the discovery process is so important before we begin recruiting and matchmaking.
For donor facing fundraisers, we want to see people who love people, who understand the art of the ask, and who view their work as a ministry to the givers they serve. They need to derive energy from being on the road and relating to people.
Within our practice, we use personality assessments that can provide data-points and be helpful indicators, but these can only go so far. There is no substitute for a deep dive into the person and the professional. As we get to know our clients and our candidates, we develop profiles and identify matches along what we call the Three Elements of Fit: Professional Acumen, Mission Match, and Cultural Alignment. We want to recruit leaders who last, and for any leader to thrive, there needs to be a strong fit in all three areas over the long-term.
That said, for the best donor-facing fundraisers—from CEO or CDO on down to a major gifts rep—we like to see an amiable, relationships-driven professional who understands the felt needs and values of their donors and who cares about them as people and stewards. The best in this space also understand and place a value on the systems and processes necessary to support and undergird a long-term and sustainable multi-channel fundraising strategy. If we’re recruiting a leader whose primary responsibilities center on development operations or internal team management, the profile is different.
We exist to serve those who serve. I love this work because I love the leaders and organizations with whom we partner, and I love the people out there whom they serve, whether locally or globally. So for me, if they are not winning, we are not winning. And frankly, I love our candidates. I get to meet amazing candidates and learn from them in every search I do. We offer our two-year placement guarantee because we believe in our work and how we run our process, and we offer it because we stand by what we do.
There is a degree of inherent risk of course, especially because some of our most popular searches—for fundraising leadership and CEOs—are also typically the most vulnerable positions in nonprofits. We could probably do an entire interview on that subject alone.
But we do a deep dive to facilitate a process of mutual discernment. We walk both clients and candidates through a discovery process where they can understand and hopefully each come to greater clarity regarding both fit and calling. If we do our work in those areas I mentioned before—The Three elements of Fit—then we have reason to be confident our process will result in great leaders being placed with great organizations. Leaders who will last and thrive. And then we don’t have to worry about our guarantee!
What would be your advice to a board that is about to embark on a search for a new chief executive?
CEO searches are unique for several reasons. Most specifically, there is not just one hiring manager or decision maker and none of them work inside the organization on a daily basis. Instead, you have a group of people trying to decide—all of whom have a vote and some of whom differ in their understandings of where the organization is and what leadership qualities it most needs to prioritize in order to move forward.
That’s completely understandable: first, they are not working in the organization on a daily basis like staff are, so they are probably never seeing things from the inside. Second, they are not focused 100% on the organization as their primary professional responsibility. And finally, they often come from diverse professional backgrounds and bring different things to their board service, so it is natural they might prioritize different things or even have different values for their next key leader.
So my number one recommendation for boards embarking on a new Chief Executive search is this: make sure you work with a search professional who has worked inside nonprofits or ministries, who has worked closely with boards, and who will do a deep, comprehensive dive during the discovery phase and then expect that person to be both your consultant and your search leader.
Expect them to be knowledgeable and informed on your specific organization and your realities and needs. And expect a good consultant to come back to you with insights and recommendations to help you frame your leadership profile and guide your search. Ask them questions and allow them to help you understand the talent landscape and needs within the organization before finalizing the candidate profile. And then lean into them for learning and insights throughout the process. They should be the guide at your side, not just your matchmaker.
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Next Donor is a production of Roundtree, a marketing agency that helps nonprofit organizations clarify and amplify their marketing to grow their donor base.
*Since the recording of this podcast in September 2021, the job market has changed significantly. The above transcript has been altered to reflect the change, while the podcast reflects the market at the time of recording. Today’s hiring market is rapidly changing and is, at times, hard to navigate. With DickersonBakker Executive Search, you get expert knowledge and timely advice throughout the search process.