One of the fastest growing sectors within executive search today can be found in nonprofit. Presently, close to 150 recruiting firms specialize in some form of talent acquisition in this sector, which includes foundations, cultural institutions, and academia, to name a few.
One of the leaders in this burgeoning field, Koya Leadership Partners, has moved to the forefront. Today, with eight offices and 30 consultants, the firm conducts some of the nonprofit world’s most prominent assignments – from CEO placements at Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Chicago Botanic Garden, to other prestigious management posts at Dartmouth College, Sinai Health System and Merit School of Music.
In the following interview, founder and CEO, Katie Bouton, reveals what led her to launch a search firm in this sector and goes deep into some of the nuances she’s encountered in this very specialized part of executive recruiting.
Katie, you founded Koya Leadership Partners in 2004. What events led you to a career in search and, more directly, recruiting for the nonprofit sector?
I worked in HR for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations and was struck by the difference between how they approached hiring and talent strategies. I felt that in order to achieve their missions, nonprofits really needed and deserved the hiring expertise and talent management consultation that a search firm could deliver, and became convinced that there was room in the market for a firm that focused on primarily nonprofits. What initially piqued my interest were certain dynamics that you don’t see in other areas of what we might term ‘traditional search.’ For example, the nonprofit sector is very ‘industry specific’ where a focus on mission and culture fit are paramount – and that’s a challenge I enjoyed.
What so excited me when I first began searching for nonprofit clients was that I was able to identify someone who might have had a very successful career in the corporate world, for example, and now I could help them shift their career into running a foundation or cultural institution or to consider a key position in academia – where they could use their skills and prior experience to make a difference to an organization in need of leadership. As a recruiter, when you make that fit happen it’s very rewarding and it’s those aspects that were among the prime motivators for my career shift to recruiting for the nonprofit sector with Koya. Our tag line is ‘the right person in the right place can change the world.’ It is really why I do the work; our placements help change the world we live in. That might sound a bit corny but I genuinely believe this and it is truly what motivates me and those at Koya. We all share this same vision.
You hold a Master’s degree in HR and organizational development. How does that distinction buttress the work you do?
My HR and organizational development background is my foundation and the foundation of the firm. I know how transformational an exceptional hire can be for a team and for an organization, and I’m deeply attentive to how each of the hires we are engaged in can and should be part of a broader organizational strategy for our clients. I think the experience that I have in this area, coupled with some of the other HR expertise on my team, has allowed us to develop a strategic and nuanced approach to how we assess client’s needs at the start of a hire and how we help them make strategic hiring and talent development decisions both during and after a hire.
One key differentiator for our firm is our focus on the onboarding and coaching of new executives. We make certain that, as part of our process, both the new executive and the organization are set up for the new leader to be successful. The new leader and the organization work with our team of executive coaches to identify common goals for their first year and map out a detailed plan for integrating the new leader into the nonprofit’s culture.
What are some of the most significant changes to recruiting in the nonprofit sector that you’ve seen since you entered the field 12 years ago?
A key change is technology and how it has enhanced our business practices. Our ability to quickly identify and connect with potential candidates increases each year with technological advances such as LinkedIn. Recruiters can now spend less time generating target lists of prospects and instead invest more time building deep relationships with top talent. At the end of the day, the executive recruiting that we do is about people and relationships, so even though technology helps us do our jobs better and more efficiently, our work will always require personal connections with candidates and the ability to cultivate those relationships over time.
Another significant change is the focus on the nonprofit sector as a true career path and professional sector for high performing leaders. When we started, there were very few firms that focused exclusively on the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit search practice was usually an afterthought or ‘nice to have service’ at a bigger firm. But now, nonprofits are seen as viable career paths for top industry leaders. Today, 80 percent of the candidates we see are at the executive level. As a result, candidates and clients are demanding personalized attention and sector-specific expertise from search professionals. In order to make a successful placement, and be credible with candidates and clients, recruiters in this field really need to be embedded in the nonprofit sector. The line between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors is increasingly blurring, meaning that top professionals are switching back and forth between the corporate sector and the nonprofit sector throughout their careers. Top recruiters need to be able to leverage and tap both worlds.
Describe what ‘mission-based’ means to you, Katie, and how it applies to the types of candidates you consider for top level positions?
At the candidate level, mission-based means that a candidate is truly motivated by, and aligned with, a mission–and understands how both small decisions and strategic visions dovetail with, and advance, that mission. Being mission-based doesn’t have to mean that a candidate has devoted her or his entire career to the same mission, nor does it even mean that she or he has worked in the nonprofit sector. But it does mean that mission drives the individual’s personal motivators and that she or he understands what it means to advance a broader social cause. These can come from a range of experiences, including volunteer work or serving on a board.
Your firm does a great deal of work for foundations and higher educational institutions. What are the primary differences in working with those organizations versus for-profit sector companies?
We don’t approach search with a one-size-fits-all approach; we tailor each strategy and engagement to the client’s unique needs and circumstances. But in the case of foundations, where we are often working in close partnership with a living donor, and in higher education, which requires extensive group facilitation and decision-making, we draw upon our previous experiences to ensure that the approach we take meets our clients’ needs. Foundations, particularly those with living donors, often require emphasis on interpersonal dynamics and chemistry, as the candidate will be working directly with the foundation’s benefactors and potentially serving as the family’s public spokesperson, a role that requires exceptional communication skills and an understanding of how to navigate complex relationships.
In higher education, leadership searches are conducted by search committees comprised of representatives across the university/college. In the past, and in some cases today, these committees rely on postings and advertisements to build a slate of interested candidates. However, with the increase in competition and other challenges like enrollment and limited resources in higher education, many institutions are now looking for leaders who are strategic and visionary. They want proven professionals with track records of success in evolving their institutions from how they were in the past to addressing important and pressing contemporary issues in the sector today and into the future. Many of these leaders are charged with transforming their institutions and are not looking for opportunities elsewhere. They are very comfortable in their present roles, well compensated and taken care of at the institution in which they are committed to presently. The only time they put themselves into contention is when a search consultant comes calling and that is when it can get very interesting. This is the reason why higher education institutions are turning to search firms to aggressively recruit new and strategic leadership. Most higher education institutions don’t have the internal resources to do an expansive search and they don’t have the talent internally to approach and recruit passive candidates. This is why search firms have increasingly played an important role and will continue to do so.