8 Things You Need to Know When Picking a Search Firm

published 02 22 2019

4 minute read time

Congratulations! You have made the wise decision to engage an executive search firm. Now what? Whether you are seeking a CEO or a senior executive for your nonprofit organization, the first step in selecting a search firm is finding a partner you want to work with over the next 4-6 months. The search firm will be representing your organization and will become an extension of your organizational culture for the duration of the search. Making sure the search firm understands the nonprofit sector and is committed to and passionate about the work you do is extremely important. To help in your process of selecting a firm, here are eight questions you need to ask before making a decision.

1. What is your search process?

Every firm has a process but not every process is alike! Before partnering with an executive search firm, it’s important to understand if your style and needs align with the way they approach the search process. Are they hands-on and collaborative or do they prefer to work more autonomously? Do they see the process through to final negotiations or do they consider their job complete once they’ve presented candidates and leave the rest to you?

At Morris & Berger, we have a very hands-on process which starts with us getting to know your organization before actively recruiting candidates. We then work with you to select and vet candidates for interviews, and we also help you prepare for and conduct those interviews. For us, the process is not complete until we have done reference checks, helped with final negotiations and your new hire has accepted the position. We then check in periodically with you and our successful placement, especially during the first year, to see how things are going.

2. What similar searches have you done in this particular space?

Not only is it important to be sure of a firm’s experience in nonprofit search, but also to understand the variety of areas within the nonprofit space in which they have worked. For example, do they specialize in higher education? Development? The arts? Or are they generalists with a broad knowledge base across the sector? Do they work on mostly senior level searches or are they more comfortable with mid-level searches? It is important to consider what you prefer and what will best suit the needs of your organization.

Ask for a list of recent searches the firm has conducted as well as a list of past and current clients. It is important to understand the breadth of experience in your specific area and beyond before you sign on the dotted line.

3. How do you recruit candidates and ensure a strong candidate pool?

Recruitment should be a living, breathing animal with an ever-evolving pool of new candidates. A top candidate for one position is not necessarily the right choice for another. It is crucial to understand a firm’s process and resources for recruiting new candidates – not just reconnecting with people they already know.

Ask the search firm if and how they actively recruit new candidates for every search. Having two researchers on our staff allows us to both mine our database of over 200,000 people while also conducting brand new research tailored to your needs, resulting in hundreds of new potential candidates we contact for each search. We seek out individuals via email, LinkedIn and phone with the goal of attracting a large, qualified and diverse candidate pool.

4. Who will be working on this assignment?

While all of these questions are important, we think that this one might edge out the others as the frontrunner, and here is why: it is all too easy for a firm to tout the experience of the partners to win over your business and then when it comes time to start your search, they are nowhere to be found.

Be sure to ask who your primary contact will be and who will actually recruit and interview the candidates.

5. How often will we hear from you?

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” ~ James Humes

Clear and consistent communication is absolutely essential to the success of finding the right candidate. While it takes effort from both the firm and the client, the burden of responsibility for setting the cadence and parameters falls on the firm. Regular check-in meetings as well as general ongoing communication with proactive updates are key indicators of a favorable outcome. You should expect to hear from your search firm and stay connected throughout the process, not only when candidates are presented.

6. Do you conduct national or regional searches?

It may be important to your organization that candidates have local knowledge or perhaps you don’t have a preference. In either case, we have found it is better for outreach to be as broad as possible at the beginning of a search. You never know where the perfect candidate will come from or what local knowledge they might possess, and you may miss people by narrowing your criteria to only one geographic region. A search firm that only focuses its work in one region may be limited in its ability to recruit new, highly qualified candidates.

7. How much will this search cost and when do we pay you?

Some search firms or individual search consultants are contingency recruiters, meaning there are no upfront costs and they are only paid after one of the candidates they present is hired. While that might sound attractive, since there is no guarantee they will be paid anything, contingency recruiters cannot afford to spend time getting to know your organization, proactively recruiting or interviewing candidates. On the other hand, a retained search firm is typically paid a deposit at the beginning of the process and is engaged on an exclusive basis, making it much more likely to result in a positive outcome.

Depending on the firm, payment can be approached either with a flat fee or as a percentage of compensation. Charging a flat fee and billing in installments tied to critical milestones in the search process, rather than the calendar, can help ensure a firm’s dedication to performance. A flat fee can also help ensure unbiased, objective recommendations of candidates and objectivity in candidate salary negotiations.

8. What is your guarantee, and do you have an “off-limits” policy?

What if we come to the end of the process and a candidate is not hired? Or what if things don’t work out with the person we hire? These worst-case scenarios are ones everyone hopes to avoid, but they do happen on occasion and it is important your organization is protected. A public display of the firm’s guarantee and a clearly stated “off-limits” policy are two boxes that should not go unchecked. You should be able to rest assured that your search firm is committed to seeing the search process through to completion and that your new hire won’t be recruited away by them in the future.

We hope you find these questions and answers helpful as you venture in pursuit of the right search firm to partner with. You can learn more about Morris & Berger and our approach to nonprofit executive search here. Happy searching!

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