Search Committees 101: Getting Started

Laura Gassner Otting
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Upon embarking on a search, one of the very first steps is the formation of a search committee. A successful search committee creates a calm and focused atmosphere inside of an organization in the midst of a leadership crisis. It can set the tone for the search and therefore, the future of a program, a division, or the entire non-profit. To most candidates, is the initial and often lasting face of the organization.

What is a Search Committee?

Membership on a search committee may be one of the most
significant opportunities to serve an organization because it puts a staff or board member in a dual role of public relations director and protector-in- chief. Candidates appearing before the search committee will need to be wooed about the position and the organization as well as be screened for professional experience and personal characteristics. Performing both roles simultaneously is demanding.

The committee must ask difficult questions, seeking to determine not just the candidate’s qualifications but what really drives him or her to want to work for the organization’s particular mission or focus. These questions have to be asked diplomatically; when the search ends, the committee and the successful candidate become colleagues.

How do I Select the Search Committee ?

There are several considerations to keep in mind when selecting a search committee. First, determine who are the organization’s key stakeholders; this may include senior staff and board members, grantors and grantees, community and constituent members, or those politically prudent to involve. Second, recruit members to the search committee who have a proven track record of smart hiring or good judgment about people. Third, make sure that the recruited members will have sufficient time to dedicate to the process; search committees become ineffective in the absence of a continuum of consistent
attendance. Finally, as a way to avoid confusion and frustration, you may also wish to recruit search committee members who have had experience on other search committees.

Search committee members come to their responsibility from
different viewpoints (and therefore, different understandings) of the organization. Each member brings a set of ideas about the organization’s current and future needs; some of these needs are real and some of them are perceived. Brief the search committee completely before they get started to ensure that they have a current 360-degree view before hiring a senior executive. Reviewing the requirements of the next executive will guarantee that the search committee members are looking upon each candidate with a similar understanding of the challenges that lie ahead for the hire and may help them hire for talent and track record rather than personality fit alone.

What Does the Search Committee Chairperson Do?

As the head of the search committee, the chairperson sets the tone for the committee, explains the responsibilities of the committee and holds members accountable. S/he is in regular contact with the organization as well as the search firm, if one is
hired. S/he provides regular updates to the committee and keeps them informed of upcoming expectations of their time or talents.

Choose a methodical and even-tempered search committee chair
with talents in prioritization, time management and attention to
details. There is a lot of information that needs to be processed and distributed throughout the course of a search. It is imperative that the chairperson has time to dedicate to the process; therefore a retired board member is often a good choice.

Responsibilities of the Search Committee

The Search Committee brings the search from a candidate pool to a candidate recommendation. The final decision rests solely upon that individual or board to whom the hire will report. Specific responsibilities of the search committee are:

  1. Draw up the calendar for the search process.
  2. Prepare a budget, including the costs of consulting services (if any), surveying constituencies, and travel for candidates and finalists’ families.
  3. Write the position description and advertise it online, in print, through mailings and by word of mouth.
  4. Act as a conduit between the organization and its constituency on the progress of the search.
  5. Identify and interview semi- finalists based on criteria set out in the position description.
  6. Identify and prioritize finalists and make recommendations to the full Board.
  7. Thoroughly check references.
  8. Offer and negotiate the compensation package with the successful candidate.
  9. Notify the unsuccessful candidates.
  10. Orient the new hire and ease the transition in the first six months.