3 mistakes of the new-to-nonprofit job seeker

Rosetta Thurman recently wrote an article on the Jobs for Change young professionals section about sabotaging your chances at a great nonprofit job with your cover letter. Her three main points cover the dreaded “Dear Hiring Manager” intro, mixing up the organization name, and finally, not demonstrating any passion. Having conducted a fair number of hiring processes in my current and previous jobs, a few other gems come to mind.

Business lingo. In both interviews and cover letters, hearing my organization being referred to as a company sends chills up my spine. This may not be offensive to some nonprofit hiring managers, but to stick on the safe side, it’s better to use a term like “organization.” I’ve also been in an interview where the candidate (attempting to move from the private sector to nonprofit) spoke of goals of being a senior VP in 5 years. That’s great and all, but nonprofit senior VP roles are few and far between. Plus, it made her sound corporate, and not in a positive way. Understanding the common use of “ee dee”, or Executive Director, vs the less common CEO is also an important distinction. (I blundered my first nonprofit interview by asking what they meant by “ee dee”. Thankfully, I overcame and still got the job.)

Missing the mission. I want to know that you are a fit for the organization. Memorizing the mission statement is a start, but truly getting “it” could be incredibly important for the organization, depending on the role. As is true for most jobs, skills are only one part of your application–fit is just as or even more important. I usually throw in a ‘toughy’ in an interview that links back to the mission. In my current role where community-campus engagement is important, I often ask candidates why they think it’s important for the university to be engaged with its greater community, and what challenges might arise in doing so. It’s not a question than can easily be prepared for, and the answer can make or break a candidate. Usually, if I can’t find someone with the skills and the mission fit, I wait for someone else to come along who truly is the right person to be on the bus (a la Jim Collins).

Buying into nonprofit myths. If you’re new to the nonprofit sector, talk to friends in the sector, or do some informational interviews. As Rosetta Thurman mentions in a separate post on being clueless in the nonprofit sector:

You can’t be clueless about the nonprofit sector if this is the field you want to work in. There’s more to this line of work than handing out food and bell ringers for the Salvation Army. As a future nonprofit leader, you need to know the unique facets of nonprofits, from their business structures to legal requirements to specific training available. All of the information is out there for you to learn, so there’e no excuse for being a total ditz.

Trust me, no one wants to hire a ditz.

What have you come across in your hiring experience? Or have you made a blunder yourself in a nonprofit application process?