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How to Recruit Employees for a Nonprofit

While it may be challenging to offer salaries that compete with what’s available in the for-profit sector, there are nonprofit recruiting strategies you can use to emphasize the additional incentives nonprofit organizations offer to full-time workers, like the chance to improve their community.

Continue reading to learn how you can find and retain the right employees for your nonprofit.

5 nonprofit recruiting strategies to follow

Charitable organizations depend on volunteers, but nonprofit employees are held to different standards, as they would need to meet performance metrics that are tied to their positions, said Shelby Woods, a consultant at Koya Leadership Partners, which provides strategic advising to organizations.

“I think you’re going to get more out of a permanent employee versus a volunteer who may be there for a few hours,” Woods said.

Here are a few strategies you can implement to find nonprofit employees.

1. Write a thorough job description.

Think of the job description as your “north star,” Woods said. It should not only explain the scope of the role, but also what you expect from the employee. When evaluating an employee’s performance later on, you could refer back to the job description to see if they are meeting expectations.

You would also want the description to sound compelling and enticing. Express your excitement for the job and organization, as well as how fulfilling the work would be for a new employee.

Nonprofit job seekers are typically attracted to the sector because of the opportunity to make meaningful impact through their work. Emphasize the non-monetary rewards employees stand to gain from working for your organization. Perks like retirement plans, paid vacation time or flexible scheduling would be worth communicating as well.

2. Recruit from job boards and your internal network.

Listing your available openings on nonprofit-specific job boards would broaden your reach when searching for candidates. Websites like Idealist, The Bridgespan Group and the Chronicle of Philanthropy list job openings throughout the nonprofit sector, but may come with a cost. For example, Bridgespan charges $100 to post full-time jobs and $50 for part-time positions for a maximum of 60 days. You could also post jobs for free on a more general search site like Indeed.

A number of firms specialize in nonprofit executive recruiting. An executive search firm could help you identify leaders to fill out your nonprofit’s C-suite.

If you don’t have the budget to use outside recruiting tools, you could ask for referrals from people in your personal network, as well as those who are already involved in your organization, Woods said. Your current employees or volunteers would be familiar with the nature of the nonprofit and may know someone who would make a good fit.

“Those referrals tend to be your best hires,” Woods said.

3. Be upfront about salary.

One of the main differences between for-profit and nonprofit hiring is the discussion regarding salary. Salaries may be lower at nonprofit organizations than they would be at for-profit companies, and it’s important to be upfront with a candidate about how much they could earn.

“The big thing that’s really jarring is salary, from the beginning,” Woods said. “No one is in the nonprofit sector to get rich.”

Plan to discuss pay with a job candidate at the start of the hiring process. During your first conversation, you may want to ask what they consider a competitive salary for the position, then be realistic about what your organization could offer, Woods said.

But it’s not all bad news — the average weekly wage for employees of private nonprofits was $1,032 in 2017, the most recent data available. That’s only slightly lower than the average $1,064 earned by workers at all establishments. When comparing nonprofits with other major industries, the nonprofit sector is the nation’s third largest in terms of employment and payroll, according to the Center for Civil Society Studies. And in areas like education and hospitals, average nonprofit wages are higher than their for-profit counterparts.

The job title for the position you are trying to fill should reflect the salary range you can afford. If your organization is unable to support salary levels for a chief development officer, for example, then you should not conduct an employee search for that title.

4. Create a system to evaluate candidates.

To identify candidates who would be the best fit for the role, you and any other team members who are part of the hiring process should agree on a system for screening applicants. All team members should be on the same page regarding what to look for in resumes and cover letters.

Consider creating an assessment grid to compare multiple resumes across core criteria. Your grid could include categories such as job and volunteer experience, accomplishments, technical skills and education. Identify red flags to watch for, like an unexplained gap in work history.

You could create a similar rubric for the interview process, Woods said. Scoring candidates in areas you’ve prioritized would allow you to compare potential employees.

“This is when the job description is really important,” she said. “You’re not just working from gut instinct, but you’re evaluating a candidate from the things you were looking for from the beginning.”

Sample job interview questions for nonprofits

There are plenty of resources for interviewers to consult before asking prospective employees about their background, skills, strengths and weaknesses. But here are a few additional questions nonprofit leaders can ask job candidates.

  • Describe your passion for our mission.
  • How do you inspire volunteers to go above and beyond?
  • What’s the most challenging donor solicitation you’ve ever conducted?
  • What are the top three challenges facing the communities we serve?
  • What would you say to someone who said that a nonprofit career is a fallback option?
  • What kind of work do you find most meaningful?
  • How do you prevent burnout?

5. Broaden your expectations.

Although experience with similar nonprofit organizations would be a plus, don’t limit your employee search just to people with relevant work experience. There are many soft skills that are useful in the nonprofit sector, regardless of the type of organization.

Nonprofit employees typically have to wear many hats and work on multiple projects at once. Ask job candidates about their past experience collaborating on assignments, especially those that crossed departments, Woods said.

“Grit is something worth looking for,” she said. “In the nonprofit sector, there’s an aspect of having to roll up your sleeves.”

Also find out how well a candidate can learn new skills. If they are comfortable adapting to unfamiliar environments, they may be able to succeed in your organization without prior experience.

“Even if someone on paper doesn’t look like the right fit, keep an open mind because someone could surprise you,” Woods said.

Nonprofit recruitment mistakes to avoid

When searching for candidates to hire, make sure to avoid these missteps.

Asking intrusive questions.

During an interview, there are certain questions you cannot ask a candidate. Inquiring about age or marital status can come across as discriminatory and is illegal, Woods said. Try to avoid topics that may be too personal for a job interview.

Questions should focus on the candidate’s past employment, as well as skills, ability and knowledge as it relates to the job at hand. Steer clear of questions that address their personal habits or lifestyle, and make sure you ask all candidates the same questions to remain fair.

Avoid closed questions that produce “yes” or “no” responses, as they wouldn’t provide much insight into the candidate’s capabilities. Additionally, refrain from asking loaded questions that push a candidate toward a response. Pose direct, open-ended questions that allow the candidate to do 85% of the talking.

Putting too many responsibilities into one position.

Nonprofits may try to stretch the budget and combine several positions into one. But a role with too many requirements could complicate the recruiting and hiring process. Focus on the key responsibilities you need an employee to take on, and create a straightforward job posting that gives applicants a clear idea of what the position entails.

Narrowing your organizational needs would help candidates understand if their experience fits the role, and make it easier to ask the right questions during an interview.

Sticking to a preconceived idea of the perfect candidate.

As mentioned earlier, you should be open when interviewing potential employees. Looking for someone who exactly fits a profile you have in mind could stop you from considering a worthwhile candidate.

Although your job description would help you target the right people to bring in for an interview, don’t be concerned if their resume doesn’t perfectly align with the posting. You may decide that soft skills like proficient communication abilities are more important than industry experience.

“Sometimes, someone coming into the nonprofit sector can bring a different perspective that can really be valuable for your organization,” Woods said.

Tips for managing nonprofit employees

Though exempt from certain federal mandates, like paying income taxes, nonprofit organizations still must adhere to federal and state employment laws.

Once you hire employees, you would be required to:

  • Withhold taxes from wages, including state and federal income tax.
  • Withhold local tax, if applicable.
  • Purchase workers’ compensation insurance for your organization.
  • Offer health insurance coverage if you employ 50 or more full-time workers.

Set workplace standards: Consider writing an employee manual or human resources handbook highlighting workplace policies. A handbook would instruct supervisors how to manage employees and set behavior and performance expectations for the staff.

Pay fair wages: Employees must earn the legally mandated minimum wage, and oftentimes state minimums differ from the federal minimum wage. You should pay employees whichever wage is highest. If employees work more than 40 hours a week, you may owe them overtime pay as well.

Consider awarding bonuses: Nonprofit organization can pay employee bonuses, but bonuses are reported to the IRS as part of total employee compensation. Make sure any bonuses you award do not appear to overly benefit an individual, as that would violate IRS guidelines. If the IRS considers employee compensation excessive, your nonprofit could lose tax-exempt status.

Provide non-monetary benefits: Offering additional fringe benefits may be useful in retaining employees and keeping workplace morale high. You could provide free snacks and beverages, childcare services, team events or birthday celebrations.

Keep in mind that as you search for impressive employees to work for your nonprofit, candidates would likely want to be equally impressed. Make sure employees know their hard work would pay off, both in monetary compensation and personal fulfillment.

“This is a two-way street,” Woods said. “Just as you are evaluating them, they are evaluating you.”


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