When I was a student teacher my senior year in college, I was trained by a first grade teacher I observed the previous year. When I observed him in action with his students, I admired how he worked with and dealt with his young students. I could tell he loved what he did. He found teachable moments in mistakes and set aside lesson plans when an opportunity arose. I thought could learn a great deal from him, so I requested him as my mentoring teacher.
When I returned to his classroom as a student teacher, I found he had changed. Over the previous summer, he had started working on his MA in School Administration, and he no longer was as passionate about teaching his students as he was before, showing more deference to school policies regarding the children’s conduct and behavior in the classroom, and he did not stray from the curriculum. He was still a competent teacher, but the profession was no longer a passion, and classroom teaching was now merely another step in furthering his career. While I could not criticize him for doing what he needed to follow his career path, the enjoyable learning experience I had hoped for turned out to be quite unsatisfactory for me. As for me, I tried to maintain my idealism and taught because I loved it.
Over the years that I have been involved in the nonprofit sector in one way or another, I have noticed that boards that are charged with hiring new leaders have two basic choices. Either choice can work out well, according to the short-term and long-term needs of the organization, or either can end up a disappointing disaster that a board may not want to repeat the next time around.
I call the first option the “true believer”. The “true believer” is the one who identifies the problem they wish to solve and is driven by the mission, then comes up with ways to make that happen. The “true believer” is often personally affected by the issues they wish to address, for instance, they have a loved one who was stricken with some particular disease, or perhaps they were a student at a particular college or university, and they are personally passionate about their particular cause. “True Believers” often start their careers in other fields, but because of their personal attachment to the cause, they change careers and join an organization as a volunteer or board member, then work their way up the ladder. Often, if not usually, they learn their skills and responsibilities while serving at the organization, or they bring their transferable skills and knowledge from jobs outside the sector. Sometimes, they will go back to school to earn a degree in Nonprofit Management, going into debt later in life so they can follow their passion. For the “True Believer”, most of what they do is for the organization and its mission and will often, but not always, stick around for a long time.
The second option is what I call the “mercenary”. Just as it sounds, the “mercenary” is highly skilled and educated to perform the job effectively, in order to get a higher income. They went to school specifically to get the skills and knowledge to run a nonprofit smoothly, but their interest in the mission is not as strong as their interest in the paycheck, and when a better paying opportunity comes along, they are out the door, regardless of the mission. Many times, the organization they left the first for is nothing like the organization they joined. “Mercenaries” see each professional move as an advancement, another rung up their professional ladder.
When hiring for a leadership position, a board should consider the organization’s needs carefully, looking at both the short-term and long-term needs of their organization.
If the organization has been failing with certain aspects of running their nonprofit, hiring a “mercenary” to improve things may be the route the board should go. As I noted previously, most “mercenaries” know what they are doing, they know what needs to be done, and they get it done. “Mercenaries” can be excellent interim directors, contractors, and consultants. I am acquainted with some excellent individuals in the sector that I consider mercenaries and would trust them to do a great job for any organization that hires them. Unfortunately, many of these same people will only stay with the organization until they find the next opportunity a year or two later. Then, the board must go through yet another search to replace them. Supporter relations tend to suffer, morale slips with the employees and board, and soon the organization is back where it started. Honestly, I would not suggest a “mercenary” if the board is seeking a long-term leader.
If the board is looking at the long-term needs of its organization, they might consider a “true believer.” Because their passion for the mission is what drives them, a “true believer” has a vision for improving the programs and adding new programs to further the mission. The “true believer” will actively seek new ways to attract more support from a wider audience, and they will be eager to share their enthusiasm with employees, volunteers, board members, and anyone willing to listen. “True believers” are in it for the long haul, and long-term leadership is something any organization needs. The downside of hiring a “true believer” is that often they are not as well versed in the business side of the organization, and often overlook the details involved in running their organization. They might not have the complete training they need, so they will need to further their education by returning to school or attending professional workshops to get up to speed. They may not be aware of things like professional ethics, bookkeeping, or human resources.
The best choice an organization can opt for is a candidate with qualities of both, the “true believer” and the “mercenary.” As a board, you want someone who is competent in the day to day duties of a leader, someone who can manage their employees effectively, someone who understands the importance of building relationships with individuals, businesses, private foundations, and government. But, a board should also seek someone who has a personal stake in the goals of the organization, someone who looks at the big questions and seeks the answers through innovation and collaboration, someone who will stick around long enough to effect that positive change. I have known a few leaders that have the qualities of both “true believers” and “mercenaries,” but they are a rare commodity in my personal experience.