How to Think About Your First Hire

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Summary

Your first hire represents a new stage in your philanthropy, and sets it in a new direction. It is, simply, the most important staffing decision you will make. What can help you get it right?

Your first hire represents a new stage in your philanthropy, and sets it in a new direction. It is, simply, the most important staffing decision you will make. What can help you get it right?

First, trust is the single most important criterion. All philanthropy is personal, not just for you and your family, but also for your staff. A lawyer or wealth manager need not share your passions to give you good advice about your legal or investment decisions, but that's not the case with the person who will help you give away your money. Whether you are envisioning your new hire as a strategic thought partner, or expect him or her to play a more execution-oriented role, that person's values and beliefs need to be strongly aligned with yours. Otherwise, you risk ending up in a messy and inevitably unproductive tangle.

Trust, in the context of a donor-staff member relationship, is a complex mix of shared values, mutual respect, and personal chemistry. That doesn't mean you should hire a friend, a situation that creates its own complications. It does mean hiring someone whose professional competence you respect, and who you think will help you make better decisions over time.

Second, you need to think hard, not only about whether you want a partner or a strong right hand, but also whether you need a generalist or a specialist. If you know you're passionate about supporting emerging artists, for example, you might choose someone who is an artist herself, or who has worked in (or even run) a museum or gallery. The set of skills and experiences such a specialist would bring can greatly inform your decision making. The risk with a specialist is that since she will also bring her own point of view (that is, after all, one of the reasons you'd hire her), she may urge you to make choices that do not exactly line up with your own point of view.

Conversely, if you have not yet completely defined your priorities and are still experimenting with different types of philanthropy and causes to support, you might choose a generalist as your first hire. A generalist is less likely to have a stake in one particular approach, and more likely to be open and helpful in advising you as your priorities evolve. However, you may want to supplement his or her work by contracting with specialists who can provide expert insights into how to generate results in particular fields without also driving your decision making.

Finally, think about how long you want your first hire to be in his or her role. Whatever form this position takes, it isn't likely to last forever. So it's probably wise to be clear from the outset that you expect your staff needs to shift as your philanthropy evolves.

For more on managing CEO transitions in family foundations, see: CEO Transitions in Family Foundations

Notes

Excerpted from: Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman, Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results, (Public Affairs, 2011)
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