Promoting from Within or Hiring from Outside: What is Best for the Nonprofit?

succession planOrganizations in the process of engaging new management or supervisory staff members often face a dilemma as whether to promote from within the organization or to bring in someone new from the outside. This is not a simple issue. It depends not only on whether there are capable and appropriate people presently employed who would be in line for a promotion. It also depends on the organization’s believing that bringing someone new into the organization would offer a fresh view that may provide opportunities for rethinking the way the agency provides its services to the community.

The issue becomes more complicated when we consider the nonprofit’s interest in developing a solid staff component that will have a sense of the organization’s history and commitment to the community. Often stability is achieved by retaining employees who have not only worked for many years at the agency but also have a strong identification with its purpose, the place it has in the community, and its commitment to provide high-quality professional services to its clients and members. One of the ways this stability can be achieved is by retaining staff for many years and providing opportunities for their advancement.

When a position has to be filled, the people conducting the search process have to clearly state the organization’s priorities. They must articulate the knowledge and skills they seek, as well as the necessary qualifications for candidates to be considered for the position. Without a doubt they will look for people who have some familiarity with the organization and the client population and members who are the recipients of its services.

Often the most logical place to look for an appropriate person is within the organization. This makes sense because when employees of Jewish nonprofits think about their future they consider their professional and personal advancement – including learning new skills, being challenged by their responsibilities, and being given increased authority and supervisory responsibility. Most people seeking this kind of advancement want to develop their administrative skills, determine and direct program services, and be part of the executive team that responds to the larger issues facing the nonprofit sector.

The policies governing the search for and employment of staff members vary from community to community. For example, in Israel a nonprofit organization is encouraged to make public its search for a new employment, but tend to consider all internal candidates first. It is only after all current employees are determined not to be appropriate to fill the vacancy that the organization will consider hiring a person from outside to fill the vacancy. Other Jewish communities conduct a simultaneous search within the agency and in the general community.

In general there is a safer feeling about hiring from within the organization. This is based on the fact that the person who is presently a staff person will in all likelihood continue the agency’s present policies and practices. Of course this does not discount that when professionals assume new positions they may want to make their own contributions to the organization and the services delivered. Often those who have worked for our nonprofits have developed creative ideas and would like to have an opportunity to test them out once they have received a promotion.

In addition, the staff will find it less disconcerting if they know the person and are aware of their work style and professional manners. It is assumed to be less threatening to the staff members when a person is promoted from within the organization. Of course this may not necessarily be the case. At times, the staff might be surprised by one of their colleagues who becomes a successful candidate and decides to make serious changes once selected to fill the vacant position.

The board of directors may also be more comfortable with changes in executive staff that maintain homeostasis within the agency. They may be familiar with the person who is being considered for the promotion. If there is a level of confidence in the particular staff member, then the volunteer leadership will not question the director’s selection.

However, at times the board does not have confidence in the incumbent director and seeks to bring in someone new who has a fresh perspective and in fact may decide to make necessary changes that a person receiving a promotion from within might be reluctant to consider. Before beginning its work, the board’s search committee should discuss which direction to take so there is clarity in the search for the new executive.

A well-planned and thoughtful search process can strengthen the organization because it provides an opportunity to clarify agency values as well as its future direction in providing services to the community. Whether the decision is to promote from within or to search for outside candidates, the rationale and the process have to be stated clearly to board members, professional staff, and the agency’s stakeholders in the community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.