Top Ten Questions from Job Seekers… Answered!

Search consultant and volunteer leader Sally Carlson shares something different about how to find a nonprofit job right now.

Top Ten Questions from Job Seekers… Answered!
11 mins read

Build your brand and stay relevant to the nonprofit sector.

Search consultant and volunteer leader Sally Carlson does executive-level searches for both nonprofit and for-profit companies. Sally is known for her straight shooting style: no fluff, no coddling.

We asked her to tell us something different about how to find a nonprofit job right now:

1. Are there any jobs out there for someone with my background?

As a search consultant, I speak to a lot of people looking for jobs; this is one of the most common questions from people seeking both for-profit jobs and nonprofit jobs. The answer is: Yes. And there are people currently in them.

So in this economic environment, your opportunity will be based on someone stepping out of their current job. As a result, instead of looking for job openings as you might have done in the past, you are trying to be on the talent radar when an opening is just occurring.

2. Everyone tells me to “network.” What does that mean in really practical terms? What is effective networking?

Vague guidance can be very irritating; I know the feeling! Here are some specific ideas and guidelines; do them all!

Email your friends and say, “Here’s what I’ve done.” Include scale: say “a department of five staff,” or “raised $400,000 per year.”

Suggest to your friends: “Please pass along any job opportunities you hear about that might be relevant to me, and please share my information with your networks of people who know of opportunities for people with my type of background.” And say you’ll circle back to them and keep them apprised as your situation changes. 

Some people will email you back; set up coffee times with those people first.

Facebook and LinkedIn: I wouldn’t say, “I need a job” on Facebook, LinkedIn or any other public space. If your Facebook “friends” really are your friends, they’ll know that already.

Give them updates — perhaps you’re exploring opportunities in nonprofit advocacy organizations — and ask if they know people they can connect you to. Remember that you’re managing the brand of yourself online.

Call people you know and say you’d like to get together, re-establish a connection, hear what they’re doing now. These people should include: people from your college, people from prior places you’ve worked, people who were colleagues at other organizations when you were at your former position, people who you’ve served on boards with in the past.

Don’t be embarrassed or shy about reviving stale connections; these folks are probably wondering what you’ve been up to and would welcome the outreach! When you meet with someone, ask for two or three people they can connect you to. Also, remember to ask how you can reciprocate the favor.

Stay active in professional associations, such as a network for nonprofit finance professionals, or an association of social workers. Go to conferences in your field, such as affordable housing or health care. Start your own industry or functional peer group and meet on a regular basis.

Suggest to individuals that you get together for coffee and learn more about what they and their organizations are doing. Use these forums for high-volume connections and then do great one-on-one follow-up.

3. Should I have a business card? What should I put on it?

Yes, have a business card with all standard information to make it easy for people to contact you. Where a title might appear, you might say, “Former Executive Director” (don’t use the organization’s name). 

Use a professional and understandable email address: not “fungirl@something.”

4. I think I’m getting turned down for being over-qualified.

I’m applying for jobs that are a step down from where I was… but I really do want the jobs I’m applying for!

Your goal is to make yourself the highest probability candidate, the sure thing. Emphasize your experience and accomplishments — again, use metrics. Don’t say, “I was responsible for all aspects of the X program;” say, “I grew the X program from three staff to eight staff by working with the executive director to raise $300,000 from new sources.”

They are going to be worried that you’ll bolt at the first better opportunity. Instead of waiting for them to ask, think about how you’re going to contextualize your response in terms of the mission, your sense of loyalty and commitment, and put those answers into what you say at the beginning.

5. I’m not getting jobs because I don’t have experience.

I’m young and/or I’m moving over from a different sector. How can I get a job when I don’t have experience?!

In contrast to the person above, you can’t compete on experience, so show that what you do have makes the difference to success. Focus on the mission of the organization and the energy, commitment, enthusiasm and work ethic that you’ll bring to it.

Give an example of somewhere — maybe even in college — where you demonstrated that your energy and work ethic made a measurable difference [to a project].

6. What should I do on a typical day of job seeking?

People keep telling me to act like finding a job is my job. I think I’m being as serious as I ever have been. But help me out here: what should I do on a typical day of job seeking?

You do have to stay focused, but that’s not the same as doing hours and hours of job search activity that might not be productive; remember, this is another area to demonstrate that you know how to work smart! This might give you some practical ideas:

Typical day of effective job seeking:

  • Over breakfast read something that keeps you up-to-date in your field, maybe a new book or a newsletter.
  • In the morning have coffee with someone at their office.
  • Make four phone calls and send four emails to set up new appointments.
  • Go to an association luncheon or a peer group lunch.
  • In the afternoon have another coffee meeting with someone you’ve reached out to.
  • Spend one hour – but no more – on the Internet. The Internet is good for researching a specific organization once you’ve gotten a lead. It is NOT good for finding a job.
  • Write thank-you notes! Not an email but real, old-fashioned, handwritten (but readable!) notes on quality stationary. You will distinguish yourself from others and demonstrate that you’re a class act.

Then you’re done: go for a bike ride, spend time with your family, volunteer. The objective is three in-person meetings per day and some balance in your life.

7. What about volunteering? Is that going to help me get a job?

Keep volunteering and continue to serve on boards. All these activities add to your network and help you stay relevant in the sector.

8. How long is it going to take me to find a job?

When people ask this I say: You have some control over how long it takes, but not as much as anyone used to have. You need to have a plan for finding a job and be diligent in following that plan. But the crystal ball is cloudy for any one individual.

A related question is: When do you think the economy is going to come back? My view is that if we are in an unprecedented recession, it’s because we were in an unprecedented bubble. It’s going to come back, but not to where it was before.

9. People are saying that employment and work is changing. What does this mean for me?

People in all sectors are going to have to cobble together their professional careers in ways they haven’t done before. They’ll have four adjunct faculty jobs instead of one tenured professor job. They’ll have three temporary part time jobs for several years… with those jobs changing every year or two; serial employment will be on a shorter time cycle.

Maybe they’ll take a “day job” in another sector while still looking for a nonprofit sector job. Think about being more flexible than you expected you would need to be.

10. I’ve applied for so many jobs I’m getting confused about what my skills are and what I really want to do!

This is a very common pitfall for people looking for jobs! Invest some time and energy thinking about your skill set, your temperament, what you do well, and where your learning edge is. Also, hone a two-minute “elevator pitch” in response to “So, tell me about yourself” and practice, practice, practice (in front of the mirror is best!) until it is natural.

Search consultants like me and employers both appreciate self-awareness. For example, one candidate told me that five years ago when he was the ED he was so enamored of being at the top that he neglected to look at the board function.

That’s the kind of comment that shows some awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and shows that you are learning and evolving as a professional.

Sally, any last thoughts?

Two thoughts: one for individuals and one for all of us. First, remember that there are two goals for you as you look for a job in this economy: building your brand, and staying relevant to the nonprofit sector. All your actions should be directed toward accomplishing one or both of these goals.

By “brand” I mean how you are known in the market — professional expertise and style as well as personal attributes. Are you the Mercedes Benz of fundraising professionals? The Apple of executive directors? The Tiger Woods of chief financial officers?

And secondly: think about it: this global economic meltdown could be the inflection point for increased focus on finding meaningful, personally fulfilling, high impact work.

The nonprofit sector, which has attracted some of the best and the brightest of each generation, is poised to capture and keep these motivated, high performing professionals. Including you!

See also:

About the Author

Sally Carlson

Sally Carlson is the Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Terra Search Partners, a consultancy in executive search and assessment. She serves on the boards of the Non-profit Housing Association of Northern California, the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF, and the Rockwood Leadership Institute, and is a fundraising leader and former board chair of many nonprofits.

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.

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