Selecting a Search Committee Chair

Outlining Responsibilities and Expectations

by Bill Weber


Posted March 24, 2023

This article is part of our series, “Advice for Search Committees.” To view the other articles in the series, click here: Advice for Search Committees.

Whether your nonprofit search committee is tasked with recruiting a new CEO/Executive Director, Chief Development Officer, or any other senior position, you will need a search committee chair in order to be effective and successful. But what does serving as chair of a search committee actually entail? Consider this job description for guidance…

*Note: You will find special considerations/annotations throughout the job description. These will be in italicized, red font.

Search Committee Chair Goals

  • Develop and implement a plan that will yield a successful hire
  • Ensure the job description and process aligns with organizational strategy, values, and mission
    • This is why a current board member should lead the committee, with input from other members and senior staff. Begin with getting agreement as to what success looks like.
  • Select, convene, and manage the search committee
    • I try to avoid hybrid meetings where some members attend in-person and some attend online, as they can prove frustrating.
  • Oversee internal and external communications
    • One of the biggest issues with recruiting a new CEO is the uncertainty and lack of communication that is often felt among internal staff, constituents (e.g. clients, members, students/families, etc.) and supporters. Targeted and appropriate communication during the search process is essential.
  • Comply with all relevant regulatory and legal requirements necessary for a fair, inclusive, and equitable search
  • Make sure resources are in place and expectations are appropriate for the hire to achieve stated goals
    • For example, significant budget investments in staffing and/or technology may be necessary
  • Ensure candidates and the search committee have an honest, transparent, and comprehensive understanding of the opportunities and challenges
    • I take the point of view: “If a friend of mine were a candidate, what would I want them to know?”
  • Makes decisions when “reasonable people” disagree
    • Consensus is preferred but not always possible, and disagreements, if not handled properly, can have large repercussions. The chair should be able to steer the process away from long-term negative impacts on the organization.

Qualifications and Skills

  • Current board member (preference for two or more years on the board)
    • A former board member could also be right for the job.
    • While the chair of the board should be on the search committee, they should not be the chair due to the additional demands on time.
  • Respected and trusted by board leadership
    • This must trump all other qualifications. You can purposefully recruit committee members with specific skills that the chair may not have, but there is no making up for a lack of respect and trust.
  • Ability to commit 35 weeks, 2-5 hours per week, to the process (from convening search committee to offer and onboarding)
    • The search itself might take 20+ weeks, and that doesn’t include the start-up period (which is often a scramble). In addition, the finalist candidate may not be able to start right away, and encourage the search committee chair to guide the new leader in their onboarding. For these reasons, consider 35 weeks a cautious minimum.
  • Assessment skills (candidate assessment; assessment of the position’s strategic opportunity)
  • Communications skills (messaging to the search committee and internal and external stakeholders)
  • Conflict resolution and consensus development leadership skills
  • Deep familiarity with the organization and passion for its mission
    • The search committee and chair will play a critical role in recruiting a candidate, so their ability to express why the opportunity is compelling is key.

Key Responsibilities

  • Recruit and manage a 6-8 person search committee of diverse experiences, skills, and knowledge
    • Higher education often has larger committees.
    • I prefer not to have current staff on CEO/Executive Director search committees, but I often advise including the head of HR as a non-voting member.
  • In conjunction with the search committee, develop a plan (assessment, candidate recruitment, interview and decision making, offer, and onboarding)
    • Set clear expectations, a clear timeline, and specific steps that all can agree to ahead of time, so everyone is on the same page, and feels they have an equal and fair say.
    • Consider the importance of input from senior staff, and other staff as appropriate in the process. Buy in across all constituents at an organization will ensure success.
  • Establish ground rules for committee attendance, decision making, and confidentiality
    • There may be a delicate sequence from who does the trial offer to who nails down the details.
  • Assign a point person for logistics
  • Obtain input from key stakeholders and communicate progress to them
    • Board members and staff who haven’t been part of a search committee before might be under the false impression that the sole role of the committee is to find and hire a candidate – that’s the “headhunter” model. However, there’s more to the process than that. The search committee chair needs to carefully manage expectations at every stage of the search in order to create alignment and hire the right candidate.
    • Search committees don’t just facilitate the process – they provide strategic direction from start to finish.
  • Manage expectations amongst fellow board members and staff, both in terms of their involvement in the committee and around candidate qualifications and experience
  • Adapt plan as the search evolves
  • Partner with HR leadership throughout the process
    • HR will play a role in everything from ensuring confidentiality to record keeping, establishing the salary range, and explaining the onboarding process to candidates.
  • Ensure effective onboarding program is in place
  • Negotiate final offer
    • If the committee chair has the authority, they should make the offer
  • If a search firm is to be used, then select and manage the relationship

Other Responsibilities as Required

  • Search committee chairs need to be responsive, adaptable, and able to think on their feet. You may need to cancel, suspend, or rethink the search process for a variety of reasons. There may also be instances where you will need to release search committee members from their duties due to a lack of performance. Never underestimate what might happen! I once had the chair of the board apply for the Executive Director role halfway through the search. To be considered as a candidate, they had to resign from the board. Then, they did not get an offer! Being able to navigate this situation—and other complex ones that might arise—requires diplomacy and effective communication – the hallmarks of a successful search committee chair.

A Couple Final Notes

  • Search committees can vary from the College of Cardinals that selects the Pope to your local school’s ad hoc superintendent search committee. In this article, I have focused on nonprofit CEO/Executive Director search committees, which can easily be adapted to other high-level nonprofit searches. Note that higher education searches are the most different.
  • You may hear the terms “coordinators” or “task force leaders” instead of “chair” or “chairperson.” The term “chairman” is no longer acceptable and should not be used.

From understanding the best practices for search committees to our vast network of connections, you can trust Development Guild to find the right candidate for your organization. We pride ourselves on our rigorous, fair, and transparent executive search process. Learn more about our executive search services or how to become a candidate.

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