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Passionate, Qualified…But Hesitant To Move: Executive Mobility In The Social Sector

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

tomwaldronBy Tom Waldron 

As the “leadership crisis” from mass retirements looms in the headlines, discussions are emerging about how the social sector will deal with these challenges. The dearth of suitable candidates for senior leadership positions becomes a problem for local social sector organizations with regional funders and place-based programs who generally need their leaders to be just that…local.

Spousal and partner dual careers, dramatic differentials in cost of living, aging parental care, and concern for moving school age children are routinely cited as obstacles for relocating candidates.

In our 2015 social sector survey, the University of Washington Evans School and Waldron explored key challenges faced by leaders of social sector organizations in recruiting leadership candidates from out of area. In the survey we also asked participants about their own personal obstacles to relocating for a role.

Waldron_Logo_Final_CMYKMoving on up…or not

At most social sector organizations surveyed, 25% or less of the senior leadership team were internal hires. Over half of organizations surveyed reported relying on external candidates for their most senior leadership roles, regardless of size.

With this being the case, when filling senior leadership positions, organizations must often search outside their local talent pool to find qualified candidates.

Unfortunately, convincing leaders flexible to pull up stakes and move to a new community seems more difficult than ever, with well-qualified “out-of-area” candidates often removing themselves from selection when it comes time to seriously consider relocation.

Respondents were asked about the top three issues they hear from candidates about being unable to relocate to their organization. Spouse/partner career mobility claimed the top spot at 55%, lower compensation package was second with 46%, and the location of the organization was third with 41%.

The heart of the matter – Candidates consider many factors

Interestingly enough, when we asked respondents (who reflect the talent pool for senior leadership) why they would refuse a move, the answers differed significantly from the ones organizations reported hearing from candidates they were attempting to recruit.

While competitive compensation is still a key factor, among senior leaders who had declined an offer requiring relocation in the past ten years, other factors were cited as the top challenges including geographic location (61%), quality of life (41%), and spouse/partner career concerns (35%).  

Additionally, we heard concerns of caring for elderly parents, custody arrangements and the emotional toll of moving as common threads in our write-in responses.  

Among persons in our respondent pool (who effectively represent the same candidate pool for senior positions), when identifying the top factors that would stop them from taking a position that required relocation, quality of life was top (68%), geographic location second (59%), and cost of housing third (37%).

These inconsistencies suggest that organizations may not be hearing the full story about relocation considerations from declining candidates.

Social sector organizations must innovate in their recruitment

In a highly competitive landscape, being attentive to the range of barriers to acquiring top talent can be crucial to crafting and executing recruitment plans with higher success rates.  

There is no golden ticket. Social sector organizations must be prepared to tailor their approaches based on the individual being recruited, and be attuned to the considerations likely to come into play based on their own geographic locations.

Key factors that organizations can consider customizing when attracting out of area talent include:

  1. Remote control
    Results showed that organizations located in urban areas are more likely to have executives working remotely or telecommuting than those in nonurban areas (62% vs 38%). This may represent a way to address some of the potential financial implications of relocating senior leaders to costly cities. Social sector leaders report varying perceptions on the effectiveness of remote working staff on performance and culture, making this a factor that should be carefully considered in the context of your own organization
  2. Expanded transition plans
    Other organizations are considering more customized approaches to the transition to create for a softer landing. These include extended transition periods where recruited leaders remain in their current location for longer periods, easing family and estate transitions.

    Some organizations can consider providing more support with social and professional networking activities in the early months of transition, or facilitating senior care consultants to assist with care for aging parents.

  3. Comprehensive relocation packages:
    Given the range of factors that prospective candidates consider in assessing the financial impact of a move, social sector organizations should think broadly about compensation. For the candidate themselves, this includes moving beyond base compensation to include moving expenses, temporary housing, and short-term commuting expenses. Expanding beyond the candidate themselves, consideration may also be given to spousal / partner career transition services and school placement counseling.

We hope these findings will spark a continued discussion among social sector leaders on relocation challenges and ways that they can mitigate common challenges. Ultimately, the organizations that offer modern and sensitive relocation programs will have a significant competitive edge when attracting top talent to drive their causes forward.


Tom Waldron is Founder & CEO of Waldron, a national consulting firm that provides a unique combination of executive search and organizational development services. Over the past four decades Tom and his colleagues have established Waldron as one of the premier consulting firms working with social and private enterprise organizations.

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