Executive recruiter Jane Phillips Donaldson

Jane Phillips Donaldson (Courtesy of Jane Phillips Donaldson)
Jane Phillips Donaldson lends her search expertise to the University of Illinois.

There’s a science to executive search, an analytical rigor that evaluators bring to the process of identifying clients’ needs and finding candidates who are able to meet them. There’s an art, too, to envisioning a fit that no one else could see and making a successful connection that neither client nor candidate would have suggested.

“It’s identifying and extracting the skills and experiences that are transferrable,” says Jane Phillips Donaldson, ’65 LAS, MS ’67 media, co-founder of New York City-based Phillips Oppenheim—one of the first executive-search firms to specialize in the nonprofit sector. Since its inception in 1991, Phillips Oppenheim has served more than 600 clients around the world, and Phillips Donaldson has garnered recognition as a leader and pioneer in the field.

She’s equally accomplished as a high-level volunteer at distinguished nonprofits, serving as a trustee at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and StoryCorps, and sitting on the boards of the University of Illinois Alumni Association, U of I President’s Council, UI College of Media’s National Advisory and U of I Foundation, which she chaired.

Phillips Donaldson is an ace practitioner in the art of search as well as a beneficiary. Her first job as a talent evaluator was at Yale College, where she worked as an admissions counselor shortly after earning a master’s degree in journalism from UI. A fourth-generation Illinois alumna who grew up in Park Ridge, a Chicago suburb, Phillips Donaldson moved east with her husband so that he could attend law school at Yale; once they arrived, she needed a job. A friend recommended her for the admissions post at Yale, but it was the person making the hire who introduced Phillips Donaldson to the art of recruitment by showing her how her prior experiences would translate to the job. “He said, ‘College admissions counselor is one-part sorority rush chair and one-part freshman dorm counselor,’” she recalls. Making that sort of connection, she notes, “is what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Still, in those days, Phillips Donaldson had no plans to pursue a career in executive recruitment. She ascended quickly within higher education, working as dean of admissions at Wesleyan University and returning to Yale to establish its job placement program for graduates. That was her first taste of pairing skilled job candidates with open positions, but just when she might have been ready to take the next step toward a recruitment career, her first husband, fellow Illinois graduate Bruce Morrison, MS ’07 LAS, decided to run for Congress. Phillips Donaldson left her job to work as his campaign manager, and, after his victory in 1982, put her own career on the back burner.

“My own career did not have a particular strategy, which puts me at odds with what I suggest to other people,” she admits. Instead, Phillips Donaldson says she has made choices “driven by interest, commitment, passion and also serendipity, I suppose.”

It was serendipity that ultimately led to her first executive search referral, consulting for the Ford Foundation. Phillips Donaldson wasn’t working in the recruitment field at the time, but a friend thought she might be able to make a smart recommendation from her network. The result was an ideal fit and a happy client.When she decided to re-enter the full-time workforce after her divorce, Phillips Donaldson launched her nonprofit-focused search firm along with colleague Debra Oppenheim. “We hit it just right, just as there was an explosion in the not-for-profit sector in terms of the job possibilities and competitive pay available,” Phillips Donaldson says.

In 1995, she married another public figure: William H. Donaldson, who later served as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. This time, Phillips Donaldson continued working at her firm, building it into an executive-search powerhouse whose clients are a who’s-who of nonprofits, from Carnegie Hall to the American Museum of Natural History, National Audubon Society, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

All that experience with nonprofits has given Phillips Donaldson a unique perspective on her volunteer endeavors, which include 16 years on the board of the U of I Foundation.

“One of the most important things any organization must attend to is leadership and leadership development,” Phillips Donaldson asserts. “You have to make sure the talent is there—that it’s supported, managed well and encouraged—because if not, nothing else will matter. You’ll be adrift. Knowing that makes me feel good when I wake up in the morning, because what I do is try to make that happen.”