Is Your Nonprofit Hiring? – Interview Tips You Can Use

From conversations with nonprofit leaders and scans of job boards, it seems hiring in the nonprofit sector is picking up. The question is, can we find, screen, interview and hire the right people? In the Spring issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review*, Alana Connor reveals an interesting piece of research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology**.

It seems appearance and ability to talk a good game has as much (or more) to do with hiring than actual skills and experience. In their analysis of several studies, Barrick, Shaffer and DeGrassi found executives and hiring managers have a great deal of confidence in their ability to read people. However, a candidates ability to sell themselves (self-presentation) is having a larger impact on hiring decisions than their actual abilities.

Barrick and colleagues have some solutions you might find useful when interviewing your next, great, nonprofit leader:

  • Every question should be job related with no more than 12 questions
  • Every candidate is asked them same questions
  • Develop an answer key of great, good and poor answers to each question
  • Score each interview based on candidate answers
  • Hiring managers should only consider the highest scoring candidates

Self-presentation is relevant to a job interview. But it cannot outweigh the actual skills and abilities of a candidate. Barrick suggests hiring managers rate their gut reaction to the candidate and include it when reviewing the candidates’ answers to the 12 questions.

I asked Karen Alphonse of what questions she might suggest.

  1. In reviewing the job description, what part of the description match your background most closely?  Which are a stretch? How do you plan to address the challenges which you may not have met before? 
  2. What excites you most about this current role?  Which specific aspect of the role do you find most engaging?  Which are least engaging and why?
  3. How does this current role build upon or apply your leadership skills?
  4. How does the job apply your concrete team-building, management, fiscal and implementation skills?
  5. What would you expect to accomplish in your first few weeks, few months, year in this role?
  6. How would you create a platform for success?  What specific strategies would you apply to make sure that you reach your goals?  How would you get buy-in from peers, direct reports and your most senior leaders?
  7. In the past, which job-related experiences have been most challenging? Why?
  8. In the past, which job-related experiences have been most rewarding? Why?
  9. Explain how you have applied your skills and experience at similar roles in the past.
  10. What do you expect your references to say about your most notable achievements in the workplace?

To listen to my conversation on Making a Difference radio with Karen Alphonse from, click here. She offered great information for candidates and employers! In addition to asking the right questions, Karen suggests the following during the interview process:

  • More rigorous interviews (to weed out studied responses and great presenters lacking requisite skills), can include asking other relevant staff to participate in the interview process – this will give you a 360 degree perspective on the candidates;
  • Problem-solving during the interview. Raise a troubling scenario — perhaps one which remains a challenge — and have candidates propose strategies on the spot;
  • Actual generation of product during the interview.  Karen advises employers to ask candidates to
    • Draft a fundraising letter
    • Conduct a limited computer search to identify prospects AND
    • Draft a strategy summary

These kinds of exercises provide real, live data about how a candidate thinks and operates. (Barbara’s note: In addition, I develop an exercise based in reality. I send it to final candidates complete it within a period of time. Every candidate gets the same information to complete the task. It requires research, writing skills, meeting deadlines and of course the final product is an indication of how the candidate presents information and works.)

While the hiring “freeze” in the nonprofit sector seems to be defrosting…we need to be more conscientious than ever to be sure we hire the right people with the right skills for the right job with the limited resources and people we have. There is a glut of people with and without nonprofit experience clamoring for job opportunities in the independent sector. It is a great time to be looking for great candidates, be sure to take the time to be thoughtful in your hiring process.

We all know how a candidate will “fit” within the organization, its culture and people is important. But people and culture can be badly upset when an organization makes bad hires; new hires don’t effectively do their job, or in the end, we realize they don’t know what we are doing. Worse when we keep them and it impacts morale, the bottom line and ability to get the work done…but that’s another blog topic!How’s your search going for the perfect candidate. Please share your tips for interviewing candidates and selecting the right person.

*Alana Conner, “Ideas/Research, Interviewer Beware.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2010

**Murray R. Barrick, Jonathan A. Shaffer and Sandra W. DeGrassi, “What You See May Not Be What You Get: Relationships Among Self-Presentation Tactics and Ratings of Interview and Job Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 2009.

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4 thoughts on “Is Your Nonprofit Hiring? – Interview Tips You Can Use

  1. Barbara, I agree with your post in part…I do think interviewers need to take a deep dive beyond the ‘smoke and mirrors’ and really assess a candidate’s ability and organizational fit. As a former HR professional turned newbie fundraiser, however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the importance of hiring managers working in partnership with their HR professionals to construct a successful recruiting process. Tests need to be reliable and valid in order to protect the organization, and HR professionals are generally better at making sure those conditions are met. My experience from working at nonprofits has been that the same independent spirit and passion that drives the organization’s success also lends to managers that have a tendency to want to do things on their own, and that can be problematic at times.

    1. Warren,
      You are so right!

      Many nonprofits aren’t lucky enough to have a HR professional, but if they do, availing themselves of this great experience is so important. It seems this bias toward self presentation effects HR professionals and hiring managers. And I have found “testing” not a part of the hiring process, except for technology! These are new times we are living in and they require even more diligent hiring practices to be sure we are utilizing our resources effectively.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Great interview Barbara – thank you!

    I particularly like the idea of asking candidates to “put their money where their mouth is” by generating a product during the interview process.

    In my own personal experience I’ve found that the role of mission is underplayed. There are instances where an individual may not have the requisite experience, yet he/she does have an unwavering commitment to the organization’s mission. Never underestimate enthusiasm – it sells.

    From the candidate’s point of view, there are a number of questions they should ask?
    How many development directors has the organization had? (early on in my career I arrived at a new DD position where the organization had had five DD’s in three years – seriously).
    What kind of support does the fundraiser get from board members, from program and executive staff?

    1. Thanks Pam! Great questions for candidates to ask of the organization! Candidates need to interview the organization as much as the organization asking the candidate. Even in the new economy, no one wants to work where they are the only one pushing the boulder uphill or where expectations are not realistic.

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