Nonprofit Search Firms: Perpetuators of Inequity?

Shikha Bhatnagar
4 min readApr 23


I recently resigned from yet another nonprofit position, following a highly disruptive and dysfunctional executive transition that happened above me. (More on that later — maybe.) I’m now grappling with yet another job search, even though my gut is telling me I should go out and do my own thing. (More on that later — definitely). After 17+ years in the nonprofit sector as both an Executive Director and Development Director, this is not my first rodeo. In fact, at this point, I’m an old pro.

Over the last nearly two decades, there has been a lot of evolution within the nonprofit sector, including “come to Jesus” moments with philanthropy, racial justice, and recently, pay transparency and equity. There is still an enormous amount of work that needs to be done, but at least these issues are now openly part of the conversation.

However, one topic that is rarely spoken about is the role of nonprofit search firms in perpetuating inequities, even while espousing their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. (These are often firms that are hired by organizations whose entire missions are to break down these barriers!) In my experience, I have seen this in a number of ways:

  • Limiting salary/benefits negotiation: After I was offered a position with a previous organization, I was discouraged by the recruiter (white woman) from negotiating a higher salary for fear that it would put a bad taste in my future employers’ mouths. Even though I am a vocal advocate for negotiating salaries, I (now shamefully) heeded her advice, put my tail between my legs, and did not negotiate any further for fear that she was right and I would lose this opportunity.
  • Disrespect/microaggression: Belittled by a recruiter (another white woman) about a Chief of Staff role that she had reached out to me about! It was as if I wasn’t a senior nonprofit executive with a deep understanding and experience of positions and their roles. I remember how upset I was that day because I felt so disrespected. In that incident, I actually cut off the conversation and blatantly told her that this wasn’t a good fit and goodbye.
  • Onerous, nonsensical, repetitive application requirements. You have my resume, you have my cover letter. Need writing samples? Sure. References? Okay. But, WHY are you having me rewrite my entire resume and cover letter again through lengthy forms, questionnaires, and old-school job applications similar (no joke) to the one I filled out to work at my college bookstore back in 1994? This is highly inefficient, time-consuming, and oh yes, repetitive. And, for someone like me, at this stage of my career, if I see something like that, it is a major red flag and I have more than once decided it is not worth my time.
  • Unpaid work. This is an ongoing issue in the nonprofit sector. During the interview process, you are asked to produce work for the organization on your own time, which often provides free ideas and resources to said organization. I did this for a prospective employer last year and not only was I not compensated for it (I did it willingly in hopes that it would help me move closer to getting the job), the CEO mentioned that she was incorporating one of my suggestions into her strategy. (To be fair, this is not only a search firm problem.)
  • Crickets. I’m going to be honest here: when I was an Executive Director of a small nonprofit, I often was unable to get back to potential employees after interviews because I was juggling about a million things at once plus we could not afford a search firm. But, when your sole purpose is to hire candidates and you are being paid by a client to do so, there is no such excuse. I’m not even talking about first-stage applications. I have been ghosted by search firms after as many as FIVE interviews (including the one mentioned above that got pro-bono work out of me).

The ramifications should be clear. It discourages pay equity, especially for women of color; keeps out candidates with limited time and flexibility (I had to use 4 hours of my own PTO in order to participate in two 2-hour interviews with a prospective employer); creates nonsensical and inefficient requirements even for senior-level positions; and enables exploitation. I should mention that many of the recent interviews that search firms have contacted me about are for fundraising/development positions that are notoriously difficult to hire for. THIS IS NOT HELPING.

I’m sure there are many more examples from all of you and I look forward to hearing about them. One of the problems is that nonprofit organizations are unaware of the dysfunctions within these search firms that they hire, and candidates are often too scared to call them out, especially if they really need to find a job.

I need a job, but I’m also in my mid-40s and have stopped giving a f**k for the most part. I also believe that as senior-level nonprofit leaders, we have the leverage and privilege to address these problems at all levels of hiring.

If you have a nonprofit search firm horror story, email me. I promise to keep your identity anonymous. Let’s call this shit out and blast it out in the open. And if someone wants to help me create a yelp-like platform where this can be done in a more formal capacity, please do contact me.

Have a great Sunday and a wonderful week.



Shikha Bhatnagar

#Socialimpact leader w/ over 25 years of professional experience in govt and nonprofits. #SouthAsianist. Nonconformist. Feminist. Multipotentialite.