How can nonprofits compete when seeking qualified applicants?
These days, it seems we all need a competitive edge in our recruitment practices. However, that’s always felt true in the nonprofit sector, where wages rarely compete with those offered by for-profit companies. So how can resource-strapped nonprofits set ourselves apart from the countless other companies trying to hire from the same applicant pool? One of the ways we can start expanding our number of qualified applicants is by improving the equity of our hiring practices.
Creating the foundation for equitable and effective hiring practices is a commitment from the very top of the organization. Setting this foundation allows room for long-held assumptions to be questioned, experiments to be tested, and change to be supported throughout the organization. The organization’s leadership must be committed to both increasing equity and continuously improving processes. Without that support from the top, the managers implementing these practices will not be successful.
There are ten ways that leadership can improve equity and increase the efficacy of the hiring process:
1. Question educational requirements and value life experience.
The first assumptions to question are the educational requirements and types of experience that are valued. Is a bachelor’s degree truly necessary for an HR Director to be successful in her job? I am living proof that a college drop-out can be highly effective in such a role. When you meet with a job candidate, talk with them to understand how their experiences, not just their education, have prepared them for this position.
For example, take the position of Development Director. Is being a member of a fraternity or sorority, interning at nationally recognized charities, and/or working for local rainmakers indicative of fundraising skill? During recruitment, you should consider the experience applicants may have coordinating mutual aid activities, volunteering on parent-teacher group boards, or canvasing communities. These experiences all involve working and speaking with the public, representing organizational brands, and asking people for money or other resources or opportunities.
Sometimes, lived experience is the most valuable experience a person can have. For example, a parent of a child with a disability might know what questions to ask when managing a family support program for families experiencing disability. Get to know your job applicants so that you can see what value they bring to the position.
2. Determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) required for the role.
Using the duties of the position as a guide, determine what KSAs are required in order for someone to succeed in the role. Then, base the required and preferred education and experience on those KSAs. This shouldn’t be thought of as lowering the threshold, but changing the lens through which we evaluate applicants against that threshold.
3. Pay attention to the language in the job posting.
Examine the job posting. Is the language accessible to people new to your organization or field? Avoid industry jargon so that people who are not as familiar don’t weed themselves out of your applicant pool before ever applying.
Similarly, try to make the language broadly appealing so that it does not feel like it is aimed at a particular audience. If a job announcement for a direct support professional says it’s “a great opportunity for parents,” child-free people may get the impression that the organization values parents more than others as employees.
4. Be comprehensive.
Provide as much detail as possible in the job posting. At the very least, try to include the job duties, schedule, working conditions (i.e., office, remote, outside), wage range, and benefits.
The more information we can provide to applicants the more trust we build from the outset. This trust is integral so that both the hiring manager and the applicant can determine whether the position is a good fit. This trust should also improve the quality of your applicants as more qualified applicants will want to work for your organization.
Above all, remember that when applicants are informed enough to self-select in or out of the hiring pool, this self-selection saves the recruiter valuable time. So even if writing a comprehensive job post might take a little more time on the front end, it might end up saving the recruiter time overall.
5. Make the application itself accessible.
Look for unnecessary barriers or inconveniences to applying for the job. In the past, we got used to having more applicants than positions, which led to prioritizing ease for the recruiter over the job seeker. But now with more jobs than available workers, we no longer have that luxury. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and ignore the impact that recruiter-friendly processes have on job seekers, especially those who already face greater rates of discrimination in the workplace.
For example, requiring resumes for customer service positions presents an unnecessary barrier for folks who don’t have easy access to a computer and internet service. Instead, you might offer a simple online application that doesn’t require people to also upload a resume and cover letter along with the application. These simple online applications can be easily created and collected using Google Forms or similar programs for organizations without applicant tracking systems (ATS). Better yet, you might accept both online and paper options that can be obtained and filled out on-site.
However, some positions do necessitate a resume and cover letter, such as procurement manager and communications coordinator. Consider whether your position actually involves writing or networking. If it doesn’t, there is little value in requiring a resume and cover letter as a writing sample.
6. Come up with your top three requirements.
Once applications are received, they must be reviewed and scored either using an ATS (Applicant Tracking System, software that enables the handling of recruitment) or by the manager or recruiter. My experience has predominately been the latter, and I have reviewed countless applications and resumes over the past 18 years. One of the practices I’ve developed is to identify the top three abilities that are needed for the hire.
For example, the top three requirements for hiring a Salvage Specialist in our reclaimed building materials store were customer service, reliability, and ability to lift and move heavy and awkward materials. Our most recent hires for that position all have very different prior lived and worked experience, but they all had backgrounds interacting with the public in some manner, doing physically-demanding work, and references who remarked upon their diligence and reliability.
7. Consider using a three-tier ranking system.
For many years I have also used a three-tier system of ranking applications and resumes: yes, no, and maybe. Those who fall into yes category are the applicants that appear to be the best match on paper. Those who are not qualified, didn’t follow instructions, or otherwise have some sort of deal breaker (i.e., incompatible availability) fall into the no category. And then there are those who may not seem as likely to be a good match, but appear qualified and don’t have deal breakers; these are categorized as maybe.
However, this is a fluid categorization system. If the folks in the yes category are narrowed down to fewer than you wish to be in your target pool, then the maybe group is re-ranked and the top applicants moved to yes.
8. Offer panel interviews with different staff members.
The nonprofit I am currently with has a practice of conducting panel interviews that predates my time there. The panel always includes representatives from different departments, a mix of managers and non-managers, and a range of gender and racial identities. The same panel interviews all applicants for the position, and if a panelist must miss an interview, then detailed interview notes are shared with that person to catch them up to speed.
The panel interview provides a diversity of perspectives on the applicant and leads to better hiring decisions and more investment in the onboarding process by panel members. It also provides current employees professional development as interviewers while providing candidates the opportunity to ask questions of both managers and rank-and-file workers. This will help candidates get a feel for many different aspects of the organization’s work by speaking to those who hold a variety of different positions.
However, prior to conducting interviews, everyone on the panel must be trained to avoid protected class information. This training must help to prepare the group to recognize cultural differences that can be misinterpreted by those from different backgrounds.
For example, many Americans have been taught to judge applicants by the strength of their handshake (yes, even in 2022). This is particularly true for applicants who identify as men. But when we judge someone based on their handshake, we may be discounting people raised in other countries, folks with disabilities, and people who don’t identify as male.
Eye contact is also something that is greatly valued by most Americans as a sign of honesty and integrity. However, for some people eye contact is either physically impossible or culturally taboo. People with vision impairments may not be able to physically control where both their eyes are directed. Different cultural and religious traditions may discourage direct eye contact out of respect. And there are many people who are simply so nervous it is hard for them to maintain eye contact. Pre-interview training for panel members is crucial to ensuring that individual assumptions do not discriminate against applicants.
9. Give applicants the interview questions beforehand.
At my nonprofit, applicants invited for interviews are provided a copy of the interview questions at least 48 hours in advance of their interview. We started this process because it was considered best practice for increasing equity in our hiring process.
However, it’s also turned out to be a fantastic tool to help even seasoned interviewers, such as myself, differentiate between those who interview well and those who are likely to do the job well. Providing the questions up front puts candidates more at ease. Applicants are more likely to give genuine and thoughtful answers to the questions, not just say what comes to mind when they are nervous and on the spot. The point of the interview is not a stress test, and we can take some of the unnecessary stress out of interviews by sharing questions in advance.
10. Consider a variety of relationships as references and question the necessity of background checks.
Beyond the application and interview processes, nonprofits may be able to promote equity in the background and reference check process. For applicants re-entering the workforce after incarceration, a parole officer or case manager may serve as a reference. A similar approach can be used for people who lack verifiable references due to a long period of unemployment, recent arrival in the US, or because they are new to the workforce. When asking for references, consider who can speak to the applicant’s character. These are the people who can provide references even if no one can speak to their previous job performance.
If appropriate to the organization and role, employers may welcome applicants with certain criminal histories. At my nonprofit, we will consider any applicant who is not prohibited from working with specific populations, regardless of their criminal history. That of course has limits: I probably wouldn’t hire someone convicted of fraud or embezzlement to be a bookkeeper. However, where there is reasonable leeway, we are flexible, and we have found that this allows us to open our minds to candidates that a background check would otherwise preclude from hiring.
Worth the Effort
Recruitment is a time and labor-intensive process already. Incorporating new or additional steps can feel daunting. But it is well worth the effort. When we invest the time and energy to cast our recruitment net widely and welcome a broad variety of qualified candidates, we can attract outstanding people to advance our missions and serve our communities. In the end, we all benefit from more inclusive hiring practices.
About the Author
Jennifer Gwin has more than 20 years of experience as a nonprofit employee, volunteer, and board member. Her nonprofit career has focused on human resources and administration. She has both PHR and SHRM-CP certifications. She currently works as the Director of Administration for The ReBuilding Center, a climate justice nonprofit, and is the Chair of the East Clackamas County Unified Fire Districts Civil Service Commission.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.