HR Toolkit

Getting the Right People

Hiring an Executive Director

The board is responsible for hiring an executive director to ensure there is a skilled manager at the helm to implement the organization's mission and vision. In this section, you will find information geared specifically for board members to address the unique considerations of hiring an executive director.



While the term executive director is used throughout this discussion it is understood it is only one of many terms (such as president & CEO, senior manager and general manager) used by organizations in the sector to refer to their most senior staff person. The same is true of terms used for other positions so that an accountant in one organization may be a finance manager or CFO in another. The important consideration is not the title but the work-related responsibilities and their value within the organization.


Planning considerations for hiring an executive director

There are several discussions and action items that the board of directors needs to do prior to advertising the vacancy. These include:


Deciding on a process

The board of directors needs to discuss and agree on a process as well as who is responsible for doing what during the search, hiring and transitioning. Determine how you will handle conflict of interest in the case that a colleague, friend or relative of a board member wants to apply for the position and decide the extent of your search for suitable candidates: local or beyond.


Setting up a search committee

Set up a small search committee that includes someone with HR expertise (this does not necessarily have to be a board member).


Reviewing the organization's needs

You have the opportunity now to review the skills and experience you require in an executive director. Perhaps what you need going into the future is a different skill set than what you required in the executive director that is leaving your organization. Get input from board members plus staff and other stakeholders and review your strategic plan to determine the job profile for the new executive director and based on the job profile, determine the minimum requirements for the position. This could also be an ideal time to review the salary scale for the position.





Depending on the size of the organization's budget, the cost of advertising in the newspaper or professional journals may not be feasible. Investigate job boards (including online ones), advertise on your own website, through relevant listservs, broadcasting through professional associations and by word of mouth.

Assessing candidates

Initial screening

The search committee needs to review all submitted applications and determine who doesn't meet the minimum requirements and who to call in for an initial interview. Have a board member (or staff support person) arrange the interview timeslots with the candidated. Consider how interviews will be handled if you have a mixture of local and non-local candidates.


Links and Resources

The Search Firm Guide: Tips for Utilizing Search Firms (PDF 49KB)

Larger organizations with larger budgets may decide to hire a search firm that specializes in executive searches for nonprofit organizations. This document offers helpful information like how to select an appropriate firm, the types of fees and suggestions to ensure the best results.



The search committee will need to determine their list of interview questions. It is advisable to have a lawyer or an human resources professional review the questions to ensure they are legally permissible. Depending on the number of suitable applicants and the search committee's decision about how many rounds of interviews they feel necessary, the search committee may do an initial interview and recommend two to three candidates to be interviewed by the full board during a second interview. Or, the search committee may recommend two to three candidates to be interviewed directly by the board.

While the search committee and board may be interested in the staff's perceptions of potential candidates, the final decision of whom to hire rests with the board.



Hiring a Director for a Non-profit Agency (PDF 161KB)

A step-by-step guide that includes a guide for interviewing candidates as well as a candidate evaluation form.

Hiring and Performance Appraisal of the Executive Director (PDF 285KB)

A workbook developed by the Muttart Foundation as a guide for boards of directors who are in the process of hiring a new executive director and/or providing the executive director with a performance appraisal.

Interview Guide for Hiring Executive Directors (PDF 140KB)

Developed for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada with the support of the HR Council, this guide provides a competency profile for an executive director and includes sample questions for each competency area.



The final hiring decision is made by the full board.

Transitioning to a new executive director



The following information assumes that there is an exiting executive director. In some instances, however, boards might be hiring the very first executive director for a previously all-volunteer organization - in which case the following information would not be relevant.


Develop a transition plan

Depending on the size of your organization and the length of notice given by the outgoing executive director, the board may need to appoint a current staff member as an interim or acting executive director. It will be helpful for the outgoing executive director to provide a list of important upcoming dates (e.g. special events, meetings, speaking engagements, etc.) so that an alternate representative can attend.

Ask the outgoing executive director to ensure files are up-to-date and clearly marked. If there is no cross-over between the outgoing and new executive director, have a board member meet with the executive director to find out where important documents are filed.

Determine who has authority for signing cheques, speaking on behalf of the organization, authorizing staff requests, etc. and communicate this information to all staff.


External communication

Word will spread that your organization is in transition. As a board, discuss your message to the public so that you present a consistent message. Funders and key stakeholders will appreciate being told personally of the transition rather than reading about it in the paper or hearing the new second-hand. With the outgoing executive director's assistance, develop a list of donors and key stakeholders and send out a letter or e-mail to let them know of the transition and the plans of the board of directors to manage the transition.


Internal communication

The departure of an executive director plus time without a senior staff person and the arrival of a new person can be stressful for staff. Keeping staff informed of the process will make it easier on them during this time. Have a board member meet with staff as early as possible to give details of the transition plan.


Good Practice

Assure any applicants for your vacant executive director position that you will respect their confidentiality. Ensure that the search committee, full board of directors and any staff involved in the process understand the importance of confidentiality as some applicants will likely not want it revealed to their current employer that they have applied elsewhere.


Succession planning

It is very important for boards to spend some time reflecting on what they would do if, or when, the executive director leaves. All too often, boards find that they are unprepared for such an occurrence and are left scrambling to quickly replace that person. There are many examples of an executive director leaving only to have the organization fall into disarray: funders withdraw resources and other key staff members leave due to lack of effective leadership. Even when provided with adequate notice, Boards sometimes find themselves in the position of having to scramble to find an interim solution.


Developing a succession plan for the executive director

In some instances, the Board may decide that there needs to be a "second in command" who has the capacity to replace the executive director in the future. This means:

  • Identifying that person in collaboration with theexecutive director
  • Ensuring that the person is motivated to take on the top job
  • Developing a plan to ensure that the eventual successor gains the requisite skills and knowledge to take the job on
  • Ensuring that the second in command is exposed to a broad range of experiences so that he or she has a wider understanding of the operations of the organization

The plan could include a formalized process of mentoring or coaching and training in more specific aspects of the job. When the size of the organization permits, it would be preferable to have more than one person identified as a potential successor to the ED.

In a small organization, it may not be possible to groom a successor from within the ranks of existing staff. To ensure continuity and stability when an executive director leaves, employees may be paired to cross-train each other to ensure there are two people on staff who know each job.

The board chair should have a conversation with the executive director on an annual basis regarding his or her career aspirations. While the executive director is not required to share any career goals, the conversation can allow for a frank discussion about future plans.


When an executive director leaves and there is no succession plan

When faced with the loss or impending loss of the executive director, these kinds of questions quickly surface:

  • Should we hire from within or look for an external candidate?
  • Do we have anyone internally who is qualified?
  • Whether we hire internally or externally, does anyone really know the specifics of what that person was doing?
  • What kind of impact will this change have on our capacity to deliver on our mandate and on our relationships with our clients, donors and volunteers?
  • What do we tell our stakeholders?

Steps to put in place:

  • First and foremost, the board is responsible for drawing up a plan of action and effectively communicating it to the rest of the staff as soon as possible. This is necessary to demonstrate that the board is taking decisive action, to deal with any misinformation that may be generated by a quick departure and to ensure that all of the employees' questions are answered.
  • The board must also communicate its plan of action for replacing the executive director in a timely manner with its funders. Funders will need to be assured that plans and programs are on target and deliverables will not change.
  • With no succession plan or second in command identified, the Board may want to name an interimexecutive director until a replacement is selected. This choice should be made wisely because someone with the right skills and knowledge needs to be chosen. If a person is asked to take on the executive director responsibilities in addition to his or her job, there should be an adjustment in that employee's compensation to reflect the additional responsibilities and work load.
  • Another option is to ask a qualified group of two or three employees to co-manage the organization by sharing the executive director responsibilities. In order for this approach to be effective, it requires a clear understanding of the various aspects of the executive director's position so that tasks may be given to those with ability to take them on. It also requires ongoing communication and coordination between the employees that are part of the co-management team.
  • If there are no employees able or willing to take on the task on an interim basis, a board member may be asked to temporarily assume these functions. Of course, the board member will have to resign from the board if he or she takes on a paid position with the organization.


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