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Nonprofit hiring: 4 strategies to meet the best candidate

By Susan Tomlinson Schmidt
May 5, 2021

Your employees are one of your nonprofit’s most valuable assets. They complete your mission, raise funds, and keep your nonprofit running to its full potential. However, finding the right employees is a multi-step process and can sometimes lead your nonprofit to the wrong answer.

The nonprofit sector has had a difficult year, losing over 7 percent of its workforce in 2020. While any loss of able employees is a tragedy, this does mean that if your nonprofit is hiring, there is a significant pool of qualified candidates to interview. It’s just a matter of attracting them to your organization.

Nonprofit Leadership Alliance’s nonprofit professional development expertise has helped hundreds of nonprofits understand their professional goals and empower them to find and train the employees they need. To help your nonprofit find candidates who can help you achieve your mission, we’ll discuss how you should:

  1. Create a detailed job description
  2. Build an inclusive work environment 
  3. Survey current employees 
  4. Provide training resources 

The steps of your hiring process will vary depending on your current needs as well as the positions you are seeking to fill. Keep in mind that to even get candidates to apply, you need to build the kind of environment in which your model employees would want to work. Also, after hiring an employee, you’ll want to retain them. As you build out your hiring process, keep an eye on the kind of work culture you’re building. 

1. Create a detailed job description 

The most obvious way to find the employees you need is to write a job posting that details the necessary qualifications and candidate expectations. However, many employers list required skills and experiences but still fall short of fully describing the position.

Before writing your job description, take the time to answer the following questions about the position:

  • What level of experience is necessary? A job posting for an entry-level position will have different requirements than an executive position and will likely require a different hiring procedure. Understanding what experience and qualifications to ask for requires knowing both what you need and what can be expected of candidates applying for the position, considering the compensation level and benefits you are offering.
  • Why would someone want this job? Outside of receiving a regular paycheck, why would someone want to work for your nonprofit? Thinking about your volunteer program can be helpful—what attracts people to give up their time for free to work for your organization? The answers may include internal motivators such as improving key skills, contributing to a part of a fulfilling mission, working with experts in your field, and other incentives that accompany nonprofit work.
  • What parts of the job can be taught? Some skills, like how to use a certain kind of software, are nice to have ahead of time but can be taught on the job without issue. Soft skills such as the ability to work on a team, ask useful questions, and function independently can be honed but rarely trained directly. You can invest in learning courses to expand your training opportunities, but be on the lookout for previous experiences that signal the applicant is trainable.

If you’re not the strongest writer, have someone with a writing background review your job posting. Sometimes a responsibility or qualification that seems straightforward to you might be confusing to someone just getting started in your industry. Not to mention that typos and grammar mistakes can scare away the most qualified candidates!

2. Build an inclusive work environment

New employees bring a fresh set of eyes to your nonprofit, and a diverse group of people brings an even broader set of perspectives. If you look at your current employee roster and see a lot of similar characteristics, consider if the environment you are building attracts (or potentially repels) a certain kind of person.

Having frank conversations about building an inclusive environment can be difficult. It requires honesty and a genuine willingness to change. Too many organizations write documents about how they are committed to diversity, then fail to act on any of the recommended initiatives to actually improve their current practices.

Some organizations feel that acknowledging inclusivity draws overt attention to demographic differences and can come off as unprofessional. When done poorly, this can be true,  causing some to shy away from the topic altogether. To keep your nonprofit committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, remember the benefits of a workplace that is welcome to everyone:

  • Increased creativity. The greater the diversity of lived experiences at your workplace, the more problem-solving strategies and creative solutions you’ll have. For example, a marketing team made up of people with a wide range of perspectives will be able to account for an equally wide range of reactions to any external messages you create about your organization.
  • Better business practices. Studies have found that diverse teams are twice as fast at making decisions and those decisions are better than those made by non-inclusive teams 87 percent of the time. Your team’s makeup will impact how your staff members go about making decisions. Fostering a culture of inclusivity will encourage your team to be comfortable with speaking up and sharing their ideas.
  • A wider range of talent. If you’re subconsciously limiting the number of employees you’re considering, you’ll also limit the number of talented individuals you’ll meet. Unfortunately, research continues to show that even organizations that state they are committed to diverse hiring still often fail to do so. Consider looking into more objective hiring practices, such as redacting names from resumes to ensure you are assessing each applicant solely on their skills. 

Of course, it’s not enough to simply have a range of diverse employees. How your leadership responds to and promotes diversity will determine whether or not these practices result in tangible benefits. Listen to your current employees, make a concerted effort to consider all ideas, and take any complaints about discriminatory words and actions seriously.

3. Survey current employees 

To find someone who fits your workplace culture, consider asking your current staff for employee recommendations. Friends, family, and former colleagues of your employees are a useful group to start with, especially if you want to encourage more applications.

Your employees are also one of your most valuable sources for understanding what potential applicants are looking for in a job and assessing if your nonprofit has these qualities. Astron Solutions’ guide to employee recruitment and retention describes how many of the practices that encourage employees to stay with your organization also attract new talent. In particular most employees value:

  • Work-life balance. Some 55 percent of millennials (who now make up the majority of the workforce) report that work-life balance is very important when they are considering job prospects. This doesn’t mean these employees aren’t dedicated when they are at work, but that they want an employer who understands they also have a life outside of work. While a candidate who asks about vacation days in their first interview might be a red flag, don’t be afraid to share your time-off policies in your job descriptions.
  • Effective internal management and organization. Your employees want to know that they will be managed well and that their responsibilities will be efficiently communicated to them. Implementing effective internal management will also make your organization run better, as managers will stay updated on daily staff member activities and develop healthy professional relationships with them.
  • Professional development opportunities. Research has found that employees are rarely motivated by the carrot-and-stick approach of rewards and punishments. Instead, professionals become invested in their work when given opportunities to be creative, operate independently, and grow their current skills. While some employees, especially new ones, need more oversight, providing opportunities for professional development can attract and convince employees to continue being a part of your nonprofit. Not to mention it makes them better employees, too!

When an employee does recommend a candidate, make sure to give that candidate a second look, but also remember that you are not obligated to hire them. Outside candidates are likely to be attracted to the same benefits as your current workforce, and recruiting externally can help prevent your nonprofit from becoming too insular.

4. Provide training resources 

As much as you may want all employees to hit the ground running, no candidate you meet will come ready to excel at every part of their job on day one. Part of the hiring process is understanding what to expect from new employees right out of the gate and what you’ll need to train them on.

Additionally, employees at all levels are interested in improving their current skills with training resources. Providing mid-level employees with the resources to develop professionally can prepare them for more senior positions at your organization, allowing you to promote from within. Internal promotions streamline the recruitment process, as current employees are already familiar with your work culture and are fully acquainted with all of your colleagues.

You can hire training consultants for specific skills or find nonprofit learning courses from online sources. Some training resources even allow your nonprofit to build its own materials, allowing you to create custom programs for new employees being onboarded and advanced technical lessons for higher-level employees.

Closing thoughts

Your employees are an investment of your time and resources. You should plan to devote time and resources to finding the right ones. If you find you’re not having much luck, remember that hiring processes often depend on external factors such as the state of the economy or current trends in your industry. This doesn’t mean the right candidate isn’t out there but rather that you should vary your recruiting approach to find qualified, diverse, and passionate candidates to join your cause.

Tags: Management and administration