lauraottingDiversity and Inclusive Practices in Executive Leadership Searches: Insights from a Pro

By: Laura Otting In: Diversity and Inclusion| Leadership

16 Nov 2009

[Editor’s Note: On October 22, the Council hosted a “Leadership Conversation on Diversity and Inclusion in Philanthropy.” The convening brought together more than 50 foundation and nonprofit leaders, trustees, and search firm executives to discuss a newly released report—Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership. The event also included a panel discussion and participant Q &A. In the fourth in a series of posts about the convening, Laura Gassner Otting, a participant and an expert on the nonprofit executive search world, addresses an important topic: diversity and inclusion in senior and executive level leadership searches. In this post, Otting shares candid observations about her experiences working on nonprofit executive searches and offers grantmakers advice on how to maximize their searches.]

In the nonprofit executive search world, diversity is a popular topic. Search committees often come to executive search consultants seeking ‘diverse’ pools of candidates and search firms often measure their successes publicly by their number of hires inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds.

Yet, a recent Council on Foundations study found that 80 percent of executive-level leaders appointed between 2004-2008 (among a cohort of 440) in philanthropy are white and a 2004 Annie E. Casey Foundation study noted that a similar 84 percent of leadership across the whole nonprofit sector is white.

While the Council opened a fresh perspective on the dialogue with their timely question of whether this disconnect represents a supply issue in the lack of diverse candidates qualified for executive leadership, or a demand issue in the lack of desire on an organization’s part to take on the ‘risks’ of a diverse hire, we find ourselves as executive search consultants also asking our clients the sometimes thornier questions of “How do you define diversity? And why do you want to hire it?”

Diversity is widely discussed in searches for executive leadership in the nonprofit world as though it were a simple concept understood by all. In our experience, most search committees mean ‘people of color’ or even people from a specific racial background when they talk about diversity. However, arguably people with disabilities, people with non-heterosexual orientation, or people from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds whether white or ‘of color’ might also represent diversity in leadership depending on the organization. Those serious about adding diversity to their ranks must make defining diversity a priority at the outset.

Once defined, the organization must also consider the following:

  • Why does diversity matter to them?
  • What will diversity bring to the organization?
  • Does the organization understand how diversity will affect staff, board, funders, and other stakeholders?
  • What sort of support systems has or will the organization put in place to ensure that candidates from diverse backgrounds, once hired, will stay and will succeed?

These questions mean that the real work for our clients begins when the search ends.

‘Diversity,’ by definition, means ‘different’ and any new hire who is ‘breaking the mold’ of leadership for an organization will, because of this, need a different set of supports and stewardship in the first few months.

Change is scary, and the more variables the organization adds to the equation, the scarier change becomes. Organizations embarking on a ‘first’ of any kind will not have a built-in community of peers to help navigate new waters, and may make unintended, yet still tenure-shortening, mistakes as a result.

Smart organizations understand that just wanting to ‘hire for diversity’ isn’t enough; it takes ‘planning for diversity’ to really move the needle of these statistics. And, creating a transition plan, a team of champions, and opportunities for open discourse are necessary steps along the way.

Laura Gassner Otting is the founder and president of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, an executive search firm with offices in Boston, Moscow, New York, and Washington, DC.

2 Responses to Diversity and Inclusive Practices in Executive Leadership Searches: Insights from a Pro


November 16th, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Jobs should be awarded based on ones merrit, not skin color.


December 6th, 2009 at 11:56 am


Diversity, does not mean don’t hire the old white man, if your company is already composed of a diverse group. It means that you should be open to hires from outside your general population.

All hires should be based on merit and should consider how this new person is going to help the organization gain new insights and reach long term goals.

Whether that means hiring the 22 year old black woman fresh from the university to bring new technical training to an old foundation or hiring the 68 year old white man who has a wealth of connections from a lifetime of work, should depend entirely on the needs of the organization, not a quota system.

Laura, very well written article. Thank you.


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