Basics of the nonprofit job hunt

Sherry Heuser
Sherry Heuser

Sherry Heuser

Organizations seek employees who meet their needs and fit their culture, so a carefully planned approach to your job search is more likely to pay off with a good match for you and your future employer.

Identifying resources to support your search, doing research to better understand what you (and they) are looking for, and taking the time to prepare well can make the process more successful.


Your network of contacts and information sources are indispensable to your search.

In addition to what and whom you know, also consider what and whom your contacts know; resources lead to other resources.

Cultivate contacts and build your network, making sure to inform them of your search and interests. Professional associations, community groups, colleague board members or volunteers, and personal networks all can be tapped for your search.

People who know you well will be able to connect you with organizations that fit your interests and can advocate for you within their own networks. And your network will continue to serve you well once you are in your new role.


To target your search, investigate organizations with mission statements, programs, or activities that inspire you.

Carefully consider the roles and tasks that would make you want to come to work every day.

Read job postings for positions you would love – even if they are located in areas you wouldn’t consider living, pay less than you want, or require skills you do not yet have – then look for similar positions that would match your requirements.

Find out as much as you can about those organizations whose missions speak to you, even if they do not have any vacancies suitable for you or are not located in your target area.  They may partner with other programs or participate in coalitions that introduce you to organizations which aren’t familiar to you already.

Nonprofit support organizations, media outlets and financial reporting websites also can provide valuable information.

Poll your contacts to learn what they know about the positions and organizations you find.

Write down what resonates with you from the postings; capture the most meaningful key words and pay attention to the way the skills you would use in the job are described. This information will help you focus your search on the organizations and positions that are the best match for you.


An honest review of your skills is essential. If you lack the expertise and have time to prepare, challenge yourself to gain experience, even as a volunteer, or get training.

Create a draft resume using the key words you found in your research. Be prepared to modify your resume and cover letter for each search, since the position, organization, mission and, therefore, key words may differ.

Resumes with language and “attitude” that are similar to the position description will stand out among resumes that require more careful review to identify a match.

Have other people read your resume and take their suggestions openly. If people who know you do not recognize the resume as yours, or have questions about what you have written, consider making edits.

Keep your resume as straightforward as possible, without eliminating critical information. If your reviewers think information is extraneous or missing, so will the potential employers reading it.

Think beyond submitting your resume only to posted advertisements and also send it to the resources and contacts who may know which organizations would have your dream job.

Make sure you frame your experience and present yourself in the best possible way.

Through careful planning, your job search will be more efficient and effective, and likely have a more positive result. The main job search points to remember are:

  • Develop a network of contacts and keep them apprised of your search.
  • Investigate which organizations appeal to you.
  • Consider the roles and tasks you enjoy most.
  • Learn all you can about the programs and positions you are drawn to, and identify key words.
  • Use the information you have learned from your contacts, resources and research to target your search.
  • Tailor your resume to the search, and seek honest reviews.
  • Make sure your materials and interactions leave the impression you intend.

Sherry Heuser is president of Capability Company, a Raleigh, N.C.-based executive-search firm serving the nonprofit sector.

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