The Nonprofit’s Guide to Human Resources
Managing your Employees & Volunteers
October 2011, 1st Edition
Create a supportive and effective workplace environment
This book is a practical, easy-to-use resource for anyone— experienced or not—who is in charge of human resources at a nonprofit. It focuses on HR issues unique to nonprofits and their employees, many of whom work with vulnerable populations. It can help your organization:
- manage volunteers
- maximize the staff’s commitment to the mission of the organization
- address performance and team management issues in a small workplace
You’ll find answers to the formal and informal HR questions that arise every day on topics like hiring, salaries, benefits and terminations. The book also provides guidance on good practices with an approach that nonprofits will find familiar and friendly.
"Great nonprofits are driven by great talent. Getting great talent depends on attracting, choosing and supporting great people. The Nonprofit’s Guide to Human Resources offers a systematic method for recruiting and retaining the right talent to fuel a nonprofit to achieve its all-important mission."
-Nora Silver, Director, Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership
Add Your Own Review
Your Companion to HR in Nonprofit Organizations
- Differences in Nonprofit and For-Profit HR
- The Long and Short of Employment Law
- How This Book Is Organized
1. Who Will Join Your Team? Recruiting and Hiring Staff
- Who Will Be Doing the Hire?
- Hiring: A Five-Step Process
- Step 1. Defining the Job and the Candidate Profile
- Step 2. Recruiting a Strong Pool of Applicants
- Step 3. Screening and Selection
- Step 4. Making the Job Offer
- Step 5. Bringing the New Hire on Board
2. Salaries and Benefits
- What Is Compensation?
- Laws You’ll Need to Know
- Setting Salary Ranges and Individual Salaries
- Looking at the Big Picture: Overall Compensation Analysis
- Incentive Pay in Nonprofits
- Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA)
- Classifying Your Employees: Who Gets Overtime or Benefits?
- Minimum Wages and Exceptions
- Rest Breaks and Travel Time
- Benefits: Compensation Beyond Wages
- Noneconomic Benefits
- Administering Your Benefits Plan
3. Performance Reviews
- Reasons for Performance Reviews
- Special Considerations for Small Organizations
- Types of Performance Reviews
- Defining What’s Expected of Employees
- Keep Track of Employee Performance
- Gathering the Building-Block Information
- The Role of Judgment
- Setting Up Your Review Process
- A Step-by-Step Look at the Review Process
4. Strengthening Performance: Supervision and Team Leadership
- One-on-One Supervision
- Dealing With Poor Performance
- Legal Reminders for Supervisors
- The Important Role of Team Leaders
- Coaching and Mentoring
- Staff Training and Education
- Titles: More Than Just Words
- Leadership Development
- 360-Degree Feedback
5. Terminations and Layoffs
- Trying to Improve Employee Performance and Behavior
- Before Firing—Steps to Take
- Firing At-Will Employees
- Termination for Cause
- Firing “On the Spot”
- Once You’ve Decided to Fire
- Handling Exit Interviews and Forms
- Avoiding Layoffs Through Furloughs
- Temporary Layoffs
- Postemployment Health Insurance
- What Happens If an Ex-Employee Sues?
- Who’s Eligible for Unemployment Insurance
- Providing References
6. The HR of Volunteers
- Managing Volunteers
- Defining Volunteer Jobs
- Recruiting Volunteers
- Screening Volunteers
- Getting the Right Insurance Coverage for Volunteer Activities
- Preparing for Your Volunteers’ First Day
- Creating Leadership Positions for Volunteers
- Volunteerism Practices and Policies for Volunteer Board Members
- Thanking Volunteers
- Professional Development for Managers of Volunteers
7. Bringing in Outside Help: Independent Contractors
- Employee or Contractor?
- Benefits and Drawbacks to Hiring Independent Contractors
- Criteria for Classification
- Independent Contractor Questionnaire
- Creating an Independent Contractor Agreement
- Managing Independent Contractors
- Paperwork for Independent Contractors
8. The Board’s Role in HR
- The Board’s Oversight of the Executive Director
- The Board’s Oversight of HR
- Guidelines for the Board’s Role in HR
9. Unions and Nonprofits
- What Is a Union?
- Laws Governing Unions
- Who the Union Represents
- How a Union Contract Is Created: Collective Bargaining
- What’s in a Union Contract
- How Union Drives Work
- HR Under a Union Contract
- Employees Who Are Not Part of the Union
- Day-to-Day Union Representation: Business Agents and Shop Stewards
10. Creating a Safe and Productive Workplace Environment
- Protecting Employees’ Health and Safety
- The Workers’ Compensation System
- Ergonomics and Preventing Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)
- If Jobs Involve Driving
- Employee Use of Cell Phones
- Smoking in (or Near) the Workplace
- Employee Abuse of Drugs or Alcohol
- Preventing Harassment and Bullying
- Workplace Violence
- Shaping Your Organizational Culture
- Policies for Email and Internet Usage
- Workplace Romances
- Dress and Grooming Codes
- Off-Hours Conduct
- Gaining Insights From Employee Climate Surveys
11. Organizing HR Functions
- Staffing the HR Office
- HR Attorneys and Consultants
- Outsourcing HR Functions
- Who Does HR Report To?
- Providing Feedback to HR About HR Functions
- Professional Development for HR Staff
- Personnel Files
- Employee Handbooks
- HR’s Role in Change Management
- HR Audits
Who Will Join Your Team? Recruiting and Hiring Staff
Attracting and recruiting the right people is not just an administrative task; it is essential and strategic work for any nonprofit. Your organization may have a great vision and goals, but without the right staff, that vision will not get very far. Besides, you will be investing time and attention with these new recruits, so you want to be confident that they’re good fits for your organization. And, bringing people on in the right way can establish a professional, warm, and mission-oriented tone that will carry forward throughout the individual’s employment at your organization.
In this chapter, we focus on the steps you can take to most effectively find, hire, and integrate paid staff into your organization. In addition to paid staff, your workforce may include volunteers and independent contractors. These are covered separately in other chapters of this book.
Who Will Be Doing the Hire?
In most cases, whichever manager will be responsible for supervising a new employee is also the one who will recruit and hire that employee. But others might be involved in the hiring process, as well. In a larger nonprofit, the Human Resources (HR) department may recruit and screen candidates for certain positions and then the manager will step in at the end to make the final choice. In many smaller or less-established nonprofits, there may not be an HR department at all, although typically someone is charged with responsibility for HR matters.
Whether you have a full-fledged HR department or a lone, “sole provider” HR person, HR should work with managers to ensure that a strong candidate is found, hired properly, and effectively brought into your organization.
Example: Program Director Jackie hired a new educator. In response to his question about vacation time, she said, “Everyone starts off with four weeks of Paid Time Off per year.” Within the new hire’s first two months on the job, he wanted to take a week off with pay. The HR director explained that the four weeks PTO was earned over the course of the first year, and that new employees didn’t begin with four weeks PTO already in the bank. Unintentionally, Jackie had miscommunicated about the benefit package, and the ensuing anger and resentment on both sides lasted for months. After this incident, Jackie made sure that she didn’t discuss benefits with applicants or new hires; she referred these questions to HR.
Hiring: A Five-Step Process
In the remainder of this chapter, we break down the hiring process into five steps and explain how each of these steps works.
Step 1. Defining the job and the candidate profile
Step 2. Recruiting a strong pool of candidates
Step 3. Screening and selection
Step 4. Making the job offer
Step 5. Bringing the new hire on board.
Step 1. Defining the Job and the Candidate Profile
A first step will be to write a job description that defines the job to be done, the job requirements, and the desired skills and talents of the person you want to hire. The exercise of writing a job description can be valuable: It makes managers articulate the tasks and responsibilities for the position, and consequently understand what the job truly requires. In addition, a written job description helps ensure that there is agreement within your group or organization about what the job will entail and how it will fit into the organizational structure. (If, for example, the executive director thinks that your new development associate should be seeking corporate sponsorships while the development director is hoping to give the person a back-seat role designing a new donor database, some further discussion is in order.)
If, like most nonprofits, yours has an organizational chart that lays out who reports to whom within the organization, you’ll also want to figure out in advance where the new hire will fit within the organizational chart.
The job description also plays a role in encouraging candidates to apply. Part of your goal is to attract as many qualified applicants as possible. Potential applicants will read the job description carefully. So you’ll want to take advantage of this opportunity to talk about the job in a way that’s both accurate and attractive to potential candidates, highlighting your organization as a financially stable and satisfying place to work.
When you describe what your organization does, make it sound as bold and exciting and important as it is. Your job candidates most likely include many people who care deeply about your area of work, regardless of the actual job they’ll be doing. Some of them could likely earn more money elsewhere, but will choose to accept a lower salary out of commitment to the mission.
The job description will also provide a basis for developing interview questions and for assessing the merits of candidates. And after the hire, the job description will serve as a reference point for supervision, and as a tool in performance evaluation. In short, the job description has both a management and a marketing role to play.
But let’s not forget the basics: As shown in the sample below, your job description should provide all the key information applicants will need: the title of the position, the location of the job, whether the job is full- or part-time, the salary and benefits, and how to apply for the position. It should also list key job functions, information about your organization, and any requirements or desired skills, experience, or background necessary for the job. While you will, as mentioned above, want to market the job and your organization to attract a wide pool of applicants, you don’t want just anyone to respond. The description should also serve as a screen, so that candidates who lack crucial qualifications or don’t like your mission will choose not to apply.
The hiring manager and HR manager should develop and review the description together to be sure that it is accurate and complete, meets legal requirements, and is in line with your organization’s other job descriptions.
Don’t run afoul of antidiscrimination laws. Before sending or posting a job description, read through it again with an eye toward legal risks. In particular:
• List only those functions that the job truly requires. If a food bank warehouse worker will be operating a forklift most of the time, the ability to lift and carry 50 pounds may not be an essential job function, and requiring it can result in screening out qualified female applicants and applicants with disabilities.
• Use inclusive terms. Instead of “busboy” use “dining room attendant”; instead of “youthful” say “enthusiastic” (if that’s what you mean).
• Don’t overplay diversity characteristics. Make sure you don’t appear to be searching only for employees of a particular gender, age, or other protected characteristic. Don’t say, “Preference given to minorities and women.” You can say, “We are an equal opportunity employer, and we encourage applications from women and underrepresented populations.”
• Reconsider degree requirements. If the position for which you are hiring really does require a degree or advanced degree, that’s fine. But many don’t— and requiring applicants to have a degree can screen out qualified people who (perhaps because of their economic background) do not have degrees.
The Job Description Worksheet
Here’s a handy way to develop your job descriptions: Use a worksheet like the sample shown below. The worksheet provides a summary of the job and all the elements and relevant information in column format. We have added a notes column on the right to explain how to use the worksheet.
Worksheet and Sample Job Description
Development Associate Position: Family Support Network
San Diego, California
Especially if your organization has more than one location, or if the job is of a sort that is commonly done from the field, be sure to indicate where the job is physically located.
• Maintain donor database, including recording and responding to donations
• Maintain calendar for donor solicitations, follow-ups, grant proposal submissions, report due dates, and other fundraising-related deadlines.
• Assist with grant proposals, correspondence, Web content
• Assist with fundraising events
These are the “must do” components of the job.
Be as specific as possible. For example, rather than saying, “Responsible for all fundraising events,” say “Responsible for raising $400,000 through special events including annual luncheon, auction, and one new event to be developed.”
• Exceptionally strong English written communication skills
• Demonstrated ability to manage confidential information with integrity
• Strong computer and Internet skills
• Ability to work in a fast-paced environment
• Commitment to the organization’s goals and values
• Experience with nonprofit fundraising and/or special events as a staff or volunteer
• Familiarity with field of children and disabilities
• Verbal and written skills in Spanish a plus
Some organizations may add a note related to constituency: “As an organization working with after-school programs in the East School District, we encourage applications from people living or working in the district area.”
Full time, exempt. $28,000–$35,000 depending on experience
You may choose to post a specific salary, post a range, or choose not to include a salary in the job description. If you don’t post an amount, you may want to use the phrase, “Salary dependent on experience” or something similar.
Cafeteria health plan (that is, one from which the employee can select a variety of health benefits), 3 weeks paid time off annually, other.
If you have attractive benefits, by all means include them, briefly. Make sure your description is accurate.
Family Support Network is an Equal Opportunity Employer. We do not discriminate on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, faith, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities.
Some organizations may add a statement like the following: As part of our commitment to a diverse workforce, we encourage applications from people of color.
This organization’s mission is to support families of children with any kind of disabilities and special health care needs, ensuring that they have the knowledge, access, and assistance to make informed choices. We provide counseling, peer support, referrals, information, and other services, and we advocate for supportive services.
The opportunity to work on an important issue is a key drawing point for many nonprofit staff. Take advantage of the opportunity to explain your organization’s work in a compelling way. Be careful to avoid off-putting jargon.
Email a cover letter and resume—with your full name in the subject line—to email@example.com. Position open until filled. No calls, please.
Include instructions and if applicable, a deadline. You can suggest questions that you would like answered in a cover letter, such as “Include a comment as to why this organization is of interest to you.”
Talk internally with the workgroup before you post and hire. Gather the people who will be working with the new hire, says adviser Meg Busse. “They can talk about what they need the new person to be doing, and what kinds of personal attributes they think would add to the team.” Personal attributes might include a team-oriented outlook, sensitivity to the client population, or a calm presence. She adds, “You’ll also surface conflicting desires and unrealistic expectations: better to discuss these before you hire than after.”
Don’t make the job requirements into a wish list. If you do, you may discourage some qualified applicants. For example, when hiring a program manager, if a Master’s degree isn’t required for the job, don’t make it a requirement in the job description. Don’t say you require five years of experience if you’d be open to meeting strong candidates with only four years of experience. Use the term “preferred” or “desired” when possible in discussing backgrounds.
The Short Version of the Job Description
You will probably want to have a shorter version of the job description that you can use for other purposes. For example, if you take out a Help Wanted ad or send it around to colleagues or others by email, you will want something short, concise, and in text form instead of the longer column worksheet format. You will need to provide the essentials—name of organization, title of position, short job description, basic skills or experience required, and information on salary and how to apply.
Here is an example of this type of job description for the same position as described above in the job description worksheet.
Short Version of a Job Description
Family Support Network, an innovative, community-based nonprofit helping families of children with all varieties of disabilities, is seeking a full-time Development Associate to join an exciting team. The job involves maintaining donor records and assisting other staff in developing grant proposals and holding fundraising events, including our annual “Celebrity Waiter” luncheon. This job is well suited for someone with excellent written communications skills and experience with fundraising who wants to build toward a development director or executive director job, and make a difference in the lives of children with disabilities and their families. Competitive salary and benefits. For complete job description see www.familysupportnetwork.org/jobs. To apply, send cover letter and resume to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on job descriptions, see The Job Description Handbook, by Margie Mader-Clark (Nolo). In addition, Bridgestar has an article on nonprofit job descriptions along with several samples for top-level nonprofit positions at www.bridgestar.org; type “writing the job description” into the search box.
Step 2. Recruiting a Strong Pool of Applicants
Compared to how much time most managers spend on screening and interviewing potential candidates, relatively little time is typically spent on generating applicants into a qualified pool. However, investing more time in recruiting applicants can greatly improve the quality of the candidates you get. In the end, this is always a better investment of time than meticulously choosing the best candidate from a weak pool.
Lead with your mission when recruiting. Your mission not only serves to attract applicants, it can help them understand whether they are a good fit. For example, consider an accountant whose mother recently died of cancer. A brief and compelling statement about your organization’s cancer-related work may go a long way toward attracting this person to your organization instead of somewhere else.
Think about the organization’s whole workforce as you recruit for a particular job. Hiring is usually done in the context of finding a particular person for a particular job—such as a coach for your afterschool basketball program, or a biologist for your environmental advocacy team. But a vacancy doesn’t stand on its own; it exists in the context of the whole staff. For example, a nonprofit may seek to have a workforce that reflects the racial and ethnic population it serves, or it may want to recruit from among its clients and former clients.
Determine the Scope of Your Search
At the beginning of each hire, the person or team making the hire will need to establish the scope of the search. You might decide to start your search by posting the position internally for a specified length of time (such as two weeks). If you do this, you may choose to hire an internal candidate without ever posting externally. You can also advertise both internally and externally from the beginning, making it clear that a hire will not occur before a certain date.
At the narrowest, some organizations look only among existing staff and volunteers or reach out to known connections using word-of-mouth publicity. For example, if you are hiring a neighborhood organizer and want someone who has a long history in the neighborhood, word-of-mouth might be the best approach. At the other end of the spectrum, if you are hiring an adoptions manager, you might want to reach out to adoption networks nationally.
A wider scope for a search doesn’t necessarily mean that better candidates will be recruited, but it does open the doors for a wider array of candidates. For example, if you are hiring an accountant but only search through nonprofit networks, you won’t know about for-profit accountants who are looking to change sectors.
Post the Position Internally
Even if you don’t think there is an internal candidate for a job, it’s good practice to post all vacancies internally. Doing so demonstrates a commitment to staff development that employees will appreciate. And sometimes an employee will surprise you with ambition and skills of which you were unaware.
In the announcement, include information about how to apply, and a reminder that such applications and inquiries will be kept confidential. You can assure your staff that no hiring decisions will be made during the first week that the position is posted. This ensures that internal candidates will be considered if they have applied within the first week.
Circulate the Announcement to Constituents
People who already know and like your organization are an important pool from which to recruit. Posting an announcement on your organization’s website and Facebook page are ways to publicize the opening to volunteers, donors, and others. Placing an “Open Position” ad in your newsletter encourages readers to let others know of the opening.
Ask direct service staff to think about who among clients, students, audience members, and others might be encouraged to apply. Adviser Sarah Gort notes, “When I was at the housing clinic, 30% of our staff came from the client base. Case workers would recommend clients they thought were ready for an open position.”
Encourage staff and board members to send the job announcement from their own email addresses to people they know, and post the opening on their Facebook pages. The subject/status line could read: “Great opening for Volunteer Coordinator at River Rescue Nonprofit,” or “Job Fighting Big Pharmaceuticals.” Especially when you are trying to recruit from a particular population, asking someone who has connections in the community to reach out with a personal note can produce great results. To involve your staff more actively in recruitment, offer a modest bonus (such as $100 or $500) for referrals that turn into hires. Adviser Meg Busse comments, “Yes! There are so many instances of employee referral programs being incredibly beneficial for nonprofits.”
Help your staff and connections to help you. Adviser Meg Busse suggests: “Make it easy for staff and others to share the opening via Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. Send them an email with the posting blurb in the subject line, and include a link to the full posting.”
Have the opening announced at nonprofit meetings in your area. One way to do this is to find out who in your organization attends professional association meetings and ask them to announce the opening in person. For instance, if you know the Association of Fundraising Professionals is holding a meeting, have someone attend and announce that you have a fundraising position open.
Reach out to other networks, such as the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) and the Latino Mental Health Network, and ask them to circulate or post the job announcement. For many organizations, recruiting through email networks—sometimes with phone follow-up—is the most successful approach to recruiting.
Advertising Online and in Newspapers
Posting jobs with online services and in local newspapers is a good way to extend your reach beyond the usual suspects. In particular, don’t neglect the niche newspapers, such as the local neighborhood newsletter and the ethnic press (both print and online).
Online advertising typically works best with either local websites or nonprofit networks. Many communities have free and low-cost job sites for nonprofits.
The Internet makes it easy for jobseekers who want to move to look for job openings in a particular geographical area. For senior positions that can attract applicants to relocate, consider advertising on regional or statewide nonprofit sites, or on national online listing services such as Idealist (approximately $60 an ad), Craigslist’s nonprofit job section ($0 to $75, depending on location), and Opportunity Knocks (approximately $100).
Blue Avocado maintains a directory of nonprofit job sites. Go to www.blueavocado.org and type “nonprofit job sites” into the search box.
New America Media maintains a national ethnic media directory including print, online, radio, and television media; see www.newamericamedia.org.
Example: T.J. Booker, President and CEO of the Capricorn Theater, comments that its HR Director plays an important role in ensuring a racially diverse workforce “reflecting the very diverse community here in northern Virginia.” He explains: “We have very specific goals for attracting minority candidates; if there isn’t at least one minority candidate in the final three, I am going to question it. We have a commitment to diversifying our work force; we want our workforce to look like the face of our community.”
Working With a Search Consultant
For some high-level, difficult-to-recruit positions such as executive director, chief financial officer, or development director, you might consider hiring a professional search consultant. This might happen right at the start of a search or later if you’ve been unsuccessful trying to do it on your own. Search consultants are expensive; they typically charge a fee equal to one-third of the annual salary of the position being filled.
If you contract with a search consultant, be sure to choose someone with strong experience in nonprofit searches and a track record of developing capable and diverse candidates from a variety of backgrounds. Talk with their previous nonprofit clients and be sure you understand the process, requirements, and fees. There are many consultants to choose from, and a lot of them have mixed track records and results.
Once you opt to move forward with a search consultant, try not to second-guess your decision. In some cases, you may end up awarding the position to a local candidate who was already known to you. Nevertheless, having gone through a broad-based or national search can reassure you and your constituents that you have hired the best possible candidate for the job, even if it turns out to be someone on the inside. And it may make the position more attractive to potential candidates.
Example: A small historical, ethnic museum’s board hired a search firm to conduct a national search for a new executive director. They ended up hiring a local candidate, Eddie, whom nearly half the board members already knew. Was the search consultant a worthwhile expense or a waste of money? Board members complained, “The firm didn’t find him; we already knew him!” Eddie later let it be known that initially, he wasn’t that interested in the position. But after the search consultant convinced him that the museum was looking to raise its profile and was conducting a national search, the job became more attractive to him. He saw that the board was interested in positioning the museum as a nationally recognized cultural institution. He wanted to be a part of helping to realize their ambitious vision.
Lower Salaries Hurt Nonprofit Recruiting Efforts
Are you worried that it will be harder for your nonprofit to recruit staff because the salaries are lower than candidates might find in the for-profit sector?
Actually, says adviser Joanne Krueger, it is harder to recruit staff for nonprofits than for-profits, but not because of salary levels. “When you’re hiring a manager for a manufacturer, there is a huge pool of candidates, and the size of the pool is largely determined by how much you pay,” she says, drawing on her corporate background. “But in a nonprofit, you’re limited to the pool of people who believe in your cause, which might be almost everybody but it might not. You have to be much more targeted in recruiting for a nonprofit, but once you find the people who believe in your work, salary will probably not be the deciding factor in whether they work for you or somewhere else.”
Step 3. Screening and Selection
Hopefully, your job postings and outreach efforts have resulted in a number of inquiries and applications. Before you begin reviewing cover letters and resumes, however, you’ll want to make sure you have your internal process in place. You need to identify the decision makers on the hire, the first-round interview group, the second-round interview group (if appropriate), and the time frame for making a decision. Once you know who is responsible for what, you can start to review the cover letters and applications and resumes you receive.
Here is an overview of a selection process that works well for most organizations:
Step 1. Select from five to 15 applicants for telephone screenings from the resumes and applications you receive.
Step 2. Select three to five applicants for in-person interviews based on the telephone screenings.
Step 3. Conduct in-person interviews, typically with the direct supervisor and an additional staff person.
Step 4. If appropriate, conduct second-round interviews, typically with the direct supervisor and one or two additional staff.
Step 5. Conduct reference and background checks for the top one or two candidates.
Step 6. Proceed with an offer letter to the top candidate.
Acknowledge all applications and emails you receive. You can do this with a simple email reply or postcard. If you don’t plan on interviewing the applicant, you can simply thank them for their inquiry and say that you received many responses and have chosen to follow up with other candidates who appear better suited for the position. This reduces phone calls from people wondering if you received their resume, and it helps your organization maintain a reputation for professionalism and respect. And don’t forget that some of these applicants may be future volunteers, staff, staff in partner organizations, or funders.
Talking briefly on the telephone with applicants is an efficient, cost-effective way to do an initial screening. The objective in these 20- to 30-minute conversations is to determine which applicants you will ask to come in for interviews. It’s also important to communicate a positive image of your organization during the telephone screening; you don’t want to turn off a qualified applicant.
Ask about the experiences, skills, and interests that you’ve noticed in the cover letter or resume. For example: “Tell me a little more about your degree in Internet Marketing.” If there is something you suspect may be a barrier, the screening call is a good time to ask about it. “Your resume shows a great deal of experience. I want to be sure you know that the salary range for this position is $40,000 to $50,000. Is that a range you are comfortable with?”
Listen for whether the person seems like a good fit with your organizational culture: “Can you tell me what about this job and about this organization interests you?” Finally, give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions, but keep the phone interview under 30 minutes.
The In-Person Interview
Applicant interviews are typically conducted by a team of two or three people, including the supervisor for the position being hired. For some senior positions, it may also be useful to include in the interview some employees who will be working under the new person. In that situation, be clear to the applicant and to the staff participating that the staff’s role is to give input to the hiring team or person, not to make the ultimate decision about whom to hire.
Board members sometimes participate in the interview process, especially if the person being hired will be working with the board. For instance, the board treasurer might participate in interviewing candidates for the top finance job, or the board chair might interview finalists for development director and give feedback to the hiring committee or person. Make sure it’s clear whether the board committee or board member has hiring authority or veto power or whether they are simply advising staff on the hire.
Example: Lisa was the new executive director of a family law nonprofit with seven staff members. One of her first tasks was to fill the vacant controller position (the top finance position). After two interviews with applicants, she realized her legal background wasn’t much help in determining whether applicants knew accounting or not. The board treasurer—a nonprofit CFO herself—offered to sit in on the interviews, although the hire decision would be Lisa’s. Because of her expertise, the treasurer was able not only to help Lisa screen for technical expertise but also to ask important and useful questions about moving from for-profit accounting to nonprofit accounting.
In most cases you will want to have two or more interviews with the final candidate or candidates. For example, in the first round of interviews, two people might interview the candidate together, then one of them and the hiring manager would conduct second-round interviews.
While it’s a good idea to have two or three people in the interview, having more than four can intimidate candidates and make the interviewers self-conscious. Have a brief discussion before the interviews to prepare everyone for their role. Decide who will lead off and who will close the interview; review the “What You Can and Can’t Ask” chart below, and go over any questions you want to be sure to ask.
Antidiscrimination Laws: What You Can and Can’t Do
Discrimination in hiring is not only illegal, it can result in an organization missing out on the best candidates for a job. Through the hiring process, you will need to be aware of antidiscrimination laws and how they apply in the context of recruiting and hiring.
Federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy), religion, age (40 and older), disability, citizenship status, and genetic information. State and local laws may prohibit discrimination based on additional characteristics, such as sexual orientation, marital status, smoking, or weight. When hiring, the best practice is to avoid asking about characteristics that you cannot legally consider in making your decision—or closely related characteristics. For example, you cannot make decisions based on an applicant’s national origin, so you shouldn’t ask questions about the applicant’s birthplace or “native” language. The chart below will help you stay on the right side of the line.
What You Can and Can’t Ask:
Have you worked for this organization or one of its affiliates under a different name?
Is any additional information relative to a different name necessary to check work records? If yes, please explain.
“Original” or prior name(s)
How long have you been a resident of this state or city?
Do you rent or own?
No legal questions
Birthplace, or birthplaces, of parents, spouses, or other relatives
Require submission of birth certificate or naturalization record
Are you 18 years old or older? This question is permissible only for determining whether applicants are of legal age for employment.
How old are you? What is your date of birth? Are you in the same age bracket as the seniors we serve?
Inquiry about religious affiliation or religious holidays observed
Unless there is a specific reason related to the job function, do not ask about height or weight.
Is your spouse or domestic partner employed by this organization?
Are you single? Married? Do you have any children? What is your spouse’s name? Do you plan to have children?
What You Can and Can’t Ask:
Require selection of title such as Mr., Miss, and so on.
These [provide list] are the essential functions of this job. How would you perform them?
Inquiries about an individual’s physical or mental condition not directly related to the requirements of a specific job.
Are you legally authorized to work in the United States on a full-time basis?
Inquiries about citizenship naturalization status, whether parents or spouse are citizens, or a requirement that applicant produce naturalization papers.
What languages do you speak and write fluently?
How did you learn that language? Do not ask questions outside the federal I-9 requirements.
List academic, vocational, and/or professional education, including schools attended and degrees earned, and professional certificates awarded.
Need additional guidance on discrimination in hiring? Check out the website of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that interprets and enforces the laws prohibiting discrimination, at
www.eeoc.gov. You can find additional articles and guidance at Nolo’s website, www.nolo.com; select “Employment Law,” then “Human Resources.”
In addition to asking what can be legally asked, you will want to ask questions about the candidate’s skills and experience, and to see how well the individual is able to address questions and communicate thoughts. It’s a good idea to have five or six questions to ask in each interview, although you’ll need to tailor them to fit an applicant’s particular experience and the job you’re hiring for.
Here are some examples of general background questions you can ask to learn more about previous work experience and start a conversation:
What were your key responsibilities on your last job?
[For support staff] Working for several people can be stressful. How have you managed your work when getting assignments from multiple people?
What experience have you had with volunteers? What are some things you’ve learned about how best to work with volunteers?
[For management position] How many people reported to you directly? What are some ways you supervised them individually? As a group?
[For management position] Have you ever fired someone? Looking back, how did you handle the situation? Is there something you might have done differently?
Most nonprofit jobs—regardless of level—require an ability to work with others in a team setting and to communicate well with that team and other coworkers, clients, donors, and others. Here are some sample questions you may want to use to probe for these skills:
If we were to interview some of your coworkers from your last job, what would they describe as your strengths? Your weaknesses? What suggestions would they have about how best to work with you?
Can you think of a time when you didn’t work well with a supervisor? What was the outcome, and how would you have changed the outcome?
We have a work group that is diverse in age and in racial backgrounds, and sometimes there are misunderstandings. Can you give an example of a time when you have misunderstood someone from a different background and how you handled it?
In many positions, employees will perform better and will be happier if they are in tune with the organization’s larger goals and vision. Here are some sample questions that can help you understand an individual’s sense of self and relationship to an organization and its work:
Tell us something about the mission and work of the nonprofit where you worked.
What is interesting to you about this position? About working at this organization?
Have you done any volunteering recently? What are some of your volunteer experiences and why did you choose them?
What are some things that your previous company/nonprofit could do to be more successful?
After the Interview
It’s a good idea not to discuss each candidate with other interviewers right after the interview. Instead, keep your thoughts to yourself and wait until all the interviews are complete to discuss your assessments with the other interviewers. It is important to discuss the candidates in a way that allows for a free flow of reactions and ideas. You want to avoid “groupthink,” in which everyone on the hiring committee begins to think as one, instead of offering creative, individualized input. Interviewers can each ask themselves:
“Which of these candidates has the background most suited for the position?”
“Which can contribute the most to the organizational culture and team approach of our organization?”
“Who do I think are the top two candidates?”
Then organize the discussion in a way that will keep observations focused. As you discuss candidates, return to the job description. It’s easy to abandon the job description you spent so much time on and focus on discussing which candidates seemed the most appealing. Instead, start by assessing each candidate, one by one, against the job description and profile.
For each candidate, ask: “How suited is this person for this job?” You still might choose someone who is not the “best suited for the job” because of other qualities, but you will be clearer about the strengths and weaknesses of the person you hire. The process will help you arrive at an assessment that can also help frame orientation and training activities for that person. After the first round of interviews, the group decides which applicants—if any—should be asked to come in for a second round of interviews.
Many executive directors are involved either during or right after a hire as part of ensuring a good fit and a good entrance into the organization. Adviser Terrence Jones, President and CEO of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, comments: “I interview the final two or three candidates for every job at Wolf Trap. It’s important because I want everyone who comes to work here to understand what our organization believes in, our mission, and how we communicate that. We have 80 full-time staff plus part-timers and volunteers, and I want everyone to be part of the Wolf Trap experience.”
Testing for Skills
Despite the obvious dangers of relying on the word of applicants as to their skills, testing is typically underutilized in nonprofits. Skills tests can not only improve the selection process by making sure the applicant has the skills he or she claims to have, they can also help a supervisor know which skills a new hire needs help with.
Don’t make assumptions. It’s easy to assume that someone has a particular skill because it was needed on the last job or because the person has a related degree. For instance, someone may have been the wellness program director at a large nonprofit, but don’t assume that he or she knows about either wellness or program development. It’s possible the person was fired from that job for poor performance, or that the program used “wellness” in a completely different way.
The word “test” may conjure up images of a formal exam in which the candidate is asked to fill in circles with a No. 2 pencil as if she or he is taking a high school standardized test or the SAT. But skills tests can encompass a variety of formats. You can test writing, presentation ability, spreadsheet expertise, accounting knowledge, cooking skills, and so forth. For example, if you are hiring an administrative assistant, you can ask your final applicants to compose and type a brief thank you letter to a donor for a donated set of chairs. You will get an idea of the person’s writing skills as well as computer skills. If you are hiring a natural history instructor, ask each of the final candidates to give a ten-minute presentation on something in nature. These kinds of tests give you an opportunity to see a candidate in action.
Example: Melissa was delighted with Jon, the top candidate for the position of executive assistant. He seemed bright and well educated, and had gone to a well respected college. She was sure he would fly through the test which asked him to write a thank you letter to a volunteer. Instead, she was surprised at how many errors he made: he misspelled the volunteer’s name, used incorrect grammar, and made promises to the volunteer about future activities. Melissa was so surprised she gave him a second writing test, which he also flunked. Melissa learned her lesson; she would not make assumptions again about skills.
There are some things to be careful about when you use testing:
Be consistent. For example, if you have two finalists for a position, test both of the finalists, not just one.
Do not devise a test that is a thinly veiled attempt to get a candidate to do unpaid work for you. For example, you should not ask a fundraising candidate to write a funding proposal, nor should you expect an applicant for a position in the communications department to develop a full-blown communications strategy paper.
It’s best not to use personality/aptitude tests. Personality/aptitude tests attempt to ascertain personality characteristics and attitudes, such as motivational bases, sociability, “ego-drive,” and so on. Because these tests (such as Meyers-Briggs or Caliper Profile) ask personal questions and make judgments based on assumptions about personality types, their reliability is questionable, especially in a multicultural setting. You could also be opening your organization to charges of discrimination.
Example: The board members of one nonprofit were pleased that they had two strong candidates, Jason and Gilbert, for an executive director position. Both men seemed like they would be capable leaders for the group. Jason was from Israel; Gilbert was African American. There was one red flag: the personality test administered by the search consultant indicated that Gilbert had “unresolved anger” issues. In discussions, board members were alarmed by this and they began to veer toward Jason. But during their deliberations, one board member, a white woman, said, “You know, if I was a young black man in a society in which racism remains a challenging fact of life, I might be angry, too!” Her observation was well received by the other members of the board, and they ended up hiring Gilbert. They were rewarded with a strong, consensus-oriented leader. One of the participants in the hiring process reflected after working with Gilbert for some time that he was the “least angry person I know.”
Background checks can be used to verify information that an applicant has provided. For example, you may want to check that someone you’re hiring for a social worker position does in fact have the advanced social work degree that is listed on his or her resume. Many organizations conduct background checks on all candidates after the person has accepted the offer but before he or she is officially hired. The offer letter should state that the offer is subject to a background check.
You’ll want to be reasonable and careful about information you obtain from a background check. Finding out something unexpected about a person should not rule that person out for a job unless it is likely to affect his or her ability to work.
A red flag for one organization may be a green flag for other. For example, having served time in prison or being in recovery may be a reason why an individual would be especially suited for a particular job.
If you conduct background checks, be sure to do so legally. You have a right and a responsibility to do some digging but applicants have privacy rights as well that should be respected. Here are some of the legal issues to be aware of.
Verification of educational degrees. Particularly in human services and in health care, certain procedures or responsibilities can be performed only by individuals with certain required degrees, licenses, or certificates. In most cases, schools and universities will not release information without the written consent of the (former) student.
Verification of work-related certificates and licenses. Most professional associations and licensing institutions will confirm this information with the written consent of the applicant. Examples include Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Certified Association Executive (CAE), and Substance Abuse Counselor Certificate.
Review of public information. “Googling” or searching for information about an applicant on the Internet can often produce interesting and useful data, but comes with risks. First, information on the Web is often inaccurate or incomplete. Consider the student who is reported in the press as part of a cheating ring, yet the newspaper never reports that this student was later cleared of all charges. In addition, you may find out something about an applicant that should not be used in the hiring process—perhaps that the applicant has children or made campaign contributions to a particular political candidate. If you do not hire the applicant and have a record of search results, you can be open to charges that you did so based on such information.
Criminal record checks. Most states now have laws requiring fingerprint checks for any staff person or volunteer who will have direct contact with children or other vulnerable populations such as the elderly or disabled. Criminal background checks are difficult and problematic to conduct well. Information is typically kept on a state-by-state basis, and there is great variation among states on the type of information kept and the reliability of the data. In addition, state laws vary on what can and can’t be asked. Some states only allow you to ask about a person’s convictions but not about their arrests. And some states permit criminal history checks only in connection with certain types of jobs, such as teachers or nurses. The United States Equal Opportunity Commission has stated that using arrest records as a basis for employment decisions may discriminate against African Americans, who are more likely to have been arrested without cause than others. Commercial services (such as Intellicorp and LexisNexis) that perform background checks are convenient for large organizations with many staff, but often imply a comprehensiveness or reliability that is unrealistic. Because of the state law variations, you should consult a lawyer before you institute pre-employment criminal record checks.
Driving records. If driving is required for a job, obtain the driving records (usually for a small fee) from the motor vehicles department of the state where the candidate lives or works—and if the candidate lives close to a state border, in the nearby state(s). You will need the consent of the applicant.
Drug and alcohol testing. Except for employers subject to federal transportation and national security regulations (the trucking, airline, and nuclear power industries, for example), drug and alcohol testing is governed by state law. In states that allow employers to test applicants, employers generally have to give applicants written notice that drug testing will be required as a condition of employment. Don’t forget that drug tests are not infallible: they may be subject to false positives and laboratory errors. And if you opt to test only for illegal drugs, don’t forget that this will not help you to identify someone with a serious and potentially harmful alcohol or prescription drug problem.
For more information on background checks, see The Manager’s Legal Handbook, by Amy DelPo and Lisa Guerin (Nolo).
Past performance is an important—but not perfect—indicator of how a candidate will perform a job in your organization. It’s estimated that 20% to 44% of resumes “exaggerate or outright fabricate” employment history, so you will want to gather information from sources other than the applicant. However, there are many pitfalls in conducting reference checks. In some cases, past employers may be unwilling to or legally constrained from discussing an employee’s performance. In other cases, you may have mixed references about one candidate but be unable to obtain any references for another candidate. How will you weigh this kind of unbalanced information? And finally, don’t forget that an individual can often work well in one environment but not in another, or someone may have had a specific personality conflict with someone at a prior job.
Here are some guidelines for doing reference checks:
Let final candidates know you would like to check references. Ask them to sign a written release.
During the interview, ask what the reference might say about the candidate’s performance. Not only might this give you some insight into the candidate’s self assessment of strengths and weaknesses, it will give you something useful to raise in the reference check: “Jane told us that you appreciated her creative problem solving. Can you tell me more about that?”
The new hire’s immediate supervisor should be the one to make the phone calls about finalists. A reference check from a peer is more likely to elicit a candid response than a call from an assistant or someone in the HR department. If you are calling another nonprofit in a related field, take a moment to establish a sense of camaraderie, perhaps about shared involvement with particular projects or community events.
Ask open-ended questions, such as “What was his title?” rather than “He was the COO, right?”
Ask: “If I were to hire this person, what tips would you give me in how best to work with her?” This type of question often does a better job of eliciting meaningful comments than the more common question about strengths and weaknesses.
Listen carefully to the tone of voice as well as to the content of the response. Many people are reluctant to make negative comments, but they will often convey their feelings through suggestions, what is left unsaid, or the tone of their voices.
Example: The state Society for the Humanities was impressed by the out-of-town candidate for development director. In particular, they noted the fundraising success of the arts organization he had worked for in another city. But there was something “off” about the references; they weren’t from direct supervisors but from coworkers and foundation funders. When asked for additional references, the candidate revealed that there had been a “personality conflict” with the executive director. Other reference calls were met with pained silences and the faintest of praise. Reluctantly, the Society decided to hire someone else. Later they learned that their out-of-town candidate had been fired for poor performance and for diverting funds from unrestricted support to grants for his favorite projects.
If you are unable to reach a former employer by phone, you can always do a reference check by mail or email. That way you will at least have confirmed the prior employment history.
Occasionally, a candidate will include a letter or letters of recommendation with his or her resume. Don’t forget that such letters are not done in confidence and therefore may not be candid assessments of the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses. These recommendations may have limited usefulness.
This letter requests background information about a former employee of your organization/company, .
Please provide us with the following information concerning this former employee:
• dates of employment
• positions and titles held
• salary and other compensation
• the reason(s) why this individual left your organization’s staff; for example, terminated for cause, resigned, or laid off
• any other information that would be relevant to our hiring process.
You can respond by email , by fax , or by telephone .
If you have any questions or other comments, please call me at .
Thank you for your consideration. I will be telephoning you in a few days to follow up on this request.
[Your name and title] [Name and website of your organization]
Hiring for a position by choosing someone who is already on staff or is a volunteer or intern has many advantages, including:
you already have a good sense of the individual’s capabilities and work style
an internal hire will often become integrated into the position and the work group in a shorter period of time, and
hiring internally is good for morale; it demonstrates that managers want to develop, keep, and promote staff, volunteers, and interns.
A disadvantage to internal hiring is that you lo