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Luring the right nonprofit job applicants

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Sherry Heuser

Sherry Heuser

Sherry Heuser

We’ve all been there: We’ve posted ads to fill a vacant position, and received a slew of applications from individuals who aren’t qualified for the job, or who don’t seem truly committed to being part of our mission.

How can we reduce this uncertainty and feel better about the alignment of the pool of applicants with the organization and the role to be filled?

Even though all searches include applications from individuals for whom the position is a stretch, there are ways to manage the process that can improve the overall quality of the candidates you have available to consider.

Strategic Outreach

A little work at the beginning of a search will help reduce inappropriate applications.

By targeting your outreach, you concentrate your efforts on individuals who have an interest in, ability with, or aptitude for your type of organization and the position you’re trying to fill.

  • Contact individuals you know are a good match. If they aren’t interested, they might be able to identify colleagues with similar backgrounds who would be.
  • Post information about the vacancy in targeted locations. If you are searching for a fundraiser, post ads in resources utilized by fundraisers, such as Philanthropy Journal and Association for Fundraising Professionals. Individuals interested in and qualified for the position will be familiar with these locations, helping you attract applications from professionals who understand the role.
  • Use your own networks to spread the word. By having “friends,” ambassadors and advocates who know the organization refer individuals they believe would support the mission and are capable of fulfilling the duties of the position, many applicants will be prescreened to some degree.

Information Assessment

Once you reach the point of reviewing applicants’ materials, paying attention to their presentation will give you insight into their interests and intentions, not just their skills and abilities.

  • Read the resume and cover letter with the position and mission in mind. Does the applicant seem to speak same “language” as you? Take notice of the wording selected to determine if he or she understands the work you do, took time to research the organization, and reflects your values.
  • Consider the tenures and types of positions on an applicant’s resume. Looking beyond employment histories to review employment patterns can be enlightening. If the individual had longer tenures in roles similar to the one you are searching to fill, he or she is more likely to be a match for you…and more likely to stay longer.

Personal Connection

In the end, we know a strong individual-organization match goes beyond a good referral or well-written resume.

In order to evaluate how well an applicant will fit the role and mission, and how committed he or she is to the organization, personal contact is critical.

You are hiring a multi-dimensional person, not a flat document, and should get to know as many facets of the applicant as possible during the search.

  • Interview each candidate with the intention of determining if he or she has a meaningful connection to the mission, not just to learn if he or she has the skills to complete the tasks required. Many people say they can’t work for an organization they don’t believe in – find out if this individual truly believes in yours.
  • Remember that actions speak louder than words. Ask yourself if the candidate has demonstrated a commitment to your organization, connection to your team and passion for the mission during the search process; don’t wait until you hire the individual to figure it out.
  • Get to know the applicant in a variety of situations. Informal lunches with small groups will reveal different aspects of an individual’s interpersonal style than formal panel interviews. Because a good hire comes down to compatibility between the applicant’s personality and the corporate culture of the organization, the more familiar you are with the applicant, the better you will be able to determine the quality of the fit.

Although a good personality and culture fit doesn’t guarantee long-term commitment, employees who do not feel connected to the organization will not support the mission over time.

Assess and build those connections even before an individual is hired by using the search process to determine how well an applicant fits with your organization and how committed they are to seeing your mission succeed.


Sherry Heuser is president of Capability Company, a Raleigh, N.C.-based executive search firm serving nonprofits across the U.S.

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