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Want to hire effectively in a highly competitive market for talent? Plan A Advisors offers this primer to help nonprofits get the personnel they want and need to fill positions of every kind.

If you hire right, your nonprofit’s gears mesh. Make the wrong pick and they grind – or worse. Mistakes can be costly in momentum, money and morale. Add structure and discipline to your hiring process and you’re more likely to make a smart selection.

Craft a Good Job Description

Good hiring begins with an enticing job description. You are marketing the position! You’re also establishing the parameters for measuring job performance once you hire.

Analyze first. Make a list of the tasks, responsibilities, skills, qualifications, and other relevant factors associated with a particular job.

Borrow from others. Look at examples online to make sure the job description you are drafting is thorough and competitive. AI can help you write one, too.

Provide context. The introductory paragraph describes your nonprofit and establishes the significance of the position within an organizational framework.

Focus on what’s important. Highlight responsibilities that will consume 70% of an employee’s time. Begin each bullet with an action word. List the remaining 30% as “additional responsibilities;” without this division a list can seem overwhelming.

Don’t overstate qualifications and requirements. Make sure you spell out preferred qualifications, education, experience, and other characteristics needed for success. Beware that too long a list can discourage competent candidates from applying. But clarity gives you solid ground for saying “no” – particularly when a board member or funder puts forward a favored candidate.

Share the salary. Share the salary range and benefits so you’re not interviewing candidates for whom the compensation package is inadequate for their needs. (Note: Some states mandate that employers disclose compensation in any job advertisement.)

Advertise and Track

Advertising a position without getting a strong response is like throwing a party that no one comes to.

Sell the opportunity. When you advertise, you market your nonprofit as much as you market the job. Accuracy, visual appeal, and concision count. Sizzle is important too.

Use many networks. Distribute the job description liberally using job boards like Indeed, Idealist, and Glassdoor; social media including LinkedIn; college campus career centers; job fairs and networking events; professional organizations or associations; and of course, your personal and professional contacts to amplify your reach.

Incent employee referrals. For hard-to-fill positions, offer an incentive to current employees for referrals, like a small bonus paid once a referred hire successfully completes their first quarter.

Set a closing date. Signal the urgency of a response to candidates with a deadline for submissions; this gives your nonprofit a deadline, too, by which interviews should begin.

Respond to every inquiry. Acknowledge each resume when it comes in, so you don’t have to correspond with the candidates you’ve eliminated again. Say “thanks” and “you’ll hear from us if we’re interested.”

Keep track. If you aren’t using a hiring platform, park submissions in a dedicated folder. As they come in, record each on a simple spreadsheet, last-name-first, with the date received and the source, if known. You’ll use this spreadsheet later to score and rank the candidates, and to evaluate the effectiveness of your advertising.

Evaluate Submissions

Best to wait till you’ve got a critical mass (after the closing date) before reviewing candidate submissions because resumes and cover letters are easier to evaluate comparatively.

Set a scoring matrix. Pick three key attributes to evaluate every submission. Examples: ‘quality of submission,’ ‘appropriateness of qualifications,’ ‘value of prior experience.’

Review resumes. Read each cover letter and resume. Look for neatness in the overall presentation and sincerity in the letter; a candidate should clearly demonstrate they’ve taken the time to get to know your nonprofit before writing.

Assign a score. Mark a high of three to a low of zero for each of the three key attributes on your scoring matrix. Be tough. Record the points on your tracking spreadsheet so you’ve got a record of each candidate you’ve reviewed. You can also add a “notes” column to record an observation or two.

Get to your top five. Use Excel to tally the scores for all submissions. Sort by total, high to low. In most searches, your hire will come from the top five scorers. Numbers six-through-ten are back-ups.

Interview Your Top Picks

Your winning hire will likely come from among your top ranked candidates so there’s no need to interview more than five to start. Scoring and ranking the entire group should make it easy to find your top picks.

Phone first. Why waste time if you’re not impressed by an initial conversation? Start by pre-qualifying your top five candidates in 20-minute phone calls, being clear that “this is not an interview.” Review employment history (why did they leave each previous job?) and check the salary requirement. (If salary is an issue, this is the perfect point to eliminate those you can’t afford.) Then schedule a full hour-long interview by Zoom or in person.

Schedule tight. Conduct all formal interviews within a few weeks (max of two back-to-back in any one day) so the comparison is fresh and no candidate waits too long to hear back.

Team up. First round interviews conducted by pairs will double your impression of the candidate, and also test their ability to respond to different personalities. It is best to have the same pair conduct all first-round interviews to ensure consistent evaluation.

Standardize questions. Use the same 10-12 question protocol for every candidate so you’re comparing apples to apples.

Score each candidate. Have each interviewer use a scoring rubric around a small set of agreed-upon criteria important to the position – such as Relevant Experience, Communication, Problem-Solving, Adaptability, or Collaboration.

Interview Questions and Cautions

Interview questions should minimally test three things: a candidate’s appropriateness for the position, likely “fit” in your nonprofit, and capacity to excel at the job.

Ask questions that reveal workplace behaviors.

  • Share an example of a project where you had to adapt to unexpected changes or challenges. How did you handle it, and what was the outcome?
  • Discuss a time when you had to take the lead on a project or initiative. What actions did you take to ensure its success, and what were the results?
  • Tell me about a situation where you had to work with a difficult team member. How did you handle the challenge, and what was the impact on the team’s performance?

Look out for these red flags marking candidates who are less attractive:

  • It’s about me.” The candidate tells you what the job will do for them, not what they’ll do for the job.
  • It’s them, not me.” The candidate relies on others to solve workplace challenges or blames others for failures.
  • It’s not about anything. The candidate is adrift in his or her career without a focus or stated ambition.

Immediately afterwards, record your impressions in a compact paragraph while your memory is fresh. Make sure you receive a thank you note, preferably with a thoughtful remark.

Pick a Winner

You’ve met your top five candidates. Got one or two you like? Proceed! Need more? Go to your next five highest-scoring candidates. Once you’ve picked a winner or two:

Meet again. Conduct a second formal interview, in-person for sure. Consider adding a different member of your team to get a fresh impression.

Check references. Once you have identified a finalist, contact references but have another team member make at least one of the calls. They’re less likely to be gunning for the positive responses you are seeking. Have a standard list of questions but use the opportunity to dig deeper into any areas of concern.

Check for baggage. Do a Google search and check social media to make sure there’s nothing unreported or unseemly that might be of concern. Contract services are available to do this thoroughly – and to complete reference and background checks.

Make an offer. Ask the candidate if they have any reservations or concerns before making an offer. Be prepared to negotiate upwards in a strong hiring climate.

Make it official. A Letter of Offer lays out salary, benefits, your right to terminate without conditions, and the length of any probationary period. Have a Human Resources professional review the letter to make sure it complies with local, state and federal law.

Advice to Candidates

You’ve made the cut; you’ve got an interview. Here’s advice to make it more successful.

Have a reason. To the question: “Why us?”, prepare an answer that shows a prospective employer you’ve been deliberate in pursuing the job you are pursuing.

It’s not about me. Tell your prospective employer what you bring to the job, not that what the job can do for your career. If you’ve been in the workforce a while, cite specific skills, knowledge, and characteristics as an employee. If you’re short on job experience, talk about attractive qualities like research, technology, and organizational skills that you’ve applied in school or volunteer work.

Bring questions. Do enough homework to prepare several questions requiring more than just a yes/no answer from your interviewer. The nonprofit’s website, a Google search, and a nonprofit IRS 990 filing (found easily on Guidestar) should give you enough raw material.

Have one good story. Nervous? Get into your comfort zone (and make yourself a more appealing candidate) by telling a story to answer a question. You’ll allow some personality to emerge, be more memorable to the interviewer, and find it easier to relax. Examples: a difficult situation you encountered and overcame, an embarrassing moment that you turned around, a leap you took and didn’t look back.

Afterwards, make sure you send a thank you note with a thoughtful remark. Good luck!