Becoming a COO
Answers to some common questions about the chief operating officer position within nonprofit organizations.
Answers to some common questions from people considering and seeking chief operating officer positions at nonprofit organizations.
The key to success in a job search is finding the right fit between your skills, interests, and disposition on the one hand, and the characteristics of the potential organization, role, and leadership team on the other. Because of the tremendous variety in role definition across COO positions, finding the right fit can be particularly challenging and important for COO candidates.
Being a COO
Nonprofit chief operating officer (COO) roles vary widely, and so do the resources they use to gain advice. The key to finding support is in tapping a variety of resources and choosing the ones that work best for the individual COO.
David Williams worked at Habitat for Humanity International for more than 10 years, five of them as executive vice president and chief operating officer. In that position he ran the internal side of a very large, complex organization, working under its high-profile founder.
Many experienced chief operating officers of nonprofit organizations aspire to become chief executive officers or executive directors. That said, these individuals are in a better position than most candidates to see that the top job has challenges of its own and that the two positions are very different.
Hiring a COO
What is a chief operating officer (COO)? What do nonprofit COOs do? How can I tell whether my organization needs a COO? What advice do you have for organizations designing or restructuring a COO position? For organizations recruiting and selecting a COO? Answers to some common questions from organizations at various points in the search process.
While there is great variety in how nonprofit organizations structure and use the position of chief operating officer, there are a few key factors and events that drive nonprofit organizations to consider adding it. In this article, COOs and EDs shared their experiences working in organizations that recognized the need for a COO, faced doubts and concerns about the position, and worked through challenges to successfully bring in a COO.
Because the profile of the ideal nonprofit chief operating officer varies so widely, the key to finding the right person is to consider what qualities, skills, and experience will provide a good fit with the needs of your organization. Whether hiring for a newly created COO position or filling an existing position, each organization must chart its own course. However, through our research and our talent-matching work, we have found some practices that seem to increase the chances of finding the right person.
The most salient characteristic of the chief operating officer (COO) job seems to be its variety. Chief operating office roles, and the organizational structures in which COOs operate, are highly varied across organizations and even within a single organization over time. This diversity is evident in excerpts from Bridgespan’s interviews with COOs.
Often nonprofit leaders see the chief operating officer as the Superman/Superwoman who will bring order to operational chaos and generally make life easier for the ED. But that’s not always the case. Getting things back on track often requires more than a COO; it requires understanding why the train left the track in the first place.
This sample job description is an illustration of a program focused chief operating officer. In contrast to the operations/administrative-focused nonprofit chief operating officer, some COOs are responsible primarily for programs, while the ED, the chief financial officer, or another senior executive oversees the more administrative functions.
The chief operating officer role described in this sample job description has overall strategic and operational responsibility for all programs. In addition, the individual in this role also manages a group of program directors and work with the nonprofit's board of directors to keep them abreast of programmatic changes.
In this sample job description, the chief operating officer oversees the functions that support the programs but do not relate directly to program participants, and other senior managers are responsible for the programs themselves.
This sample job description is for the generalist nonprofit chief operating officer who oversees all internal functions. This nonprofit COO oversees everything internal, freeing up the ED to focus on external matters such as fundraising, public relations, and partnerships.