Checking The Right Box For A Nonprofit Job Search

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Last week, I withdrew my name from consideration for an amazing job with an amazing nonprofit.

I was one of the two top candidates vying for a new leadership role that promised to expand my skills in management, communications, and fundraising. The organization appealed to me for a number of reasons:

  • Small budget and minimal staff with large impact
  • Secured funding for the next stage of its infrastructure growth
  • A solid reputation thanks to two decades of reliably good work
  • An involved board openly discussing healthy board and executive director roles

The part-time position would satisfy my desire to simultaneously engage with the local nonprofit community and develop my freelance writing services. I also liked the flexibility it offered by working remotely and at a co-working space with other community organizations and social enterprises.

The good vibes continued during the interview with the executive director and board members. Right questions were asked, and my responses were confident and articulate. The interview was becoming a conversation that explained what assets I offer and how I would apply them.

But then a question was posed, and I suddenly had the unbalanced sensation of driving a car with a flat tire down a long, never-ending highway.

“What is your experience working with the (fill in the blank) community served by our org?”

It was such a basic and appropriate question for anyone serious about working with the organization. Attracted to the job responsibilities of the position, I thought about the organizational mission and its served community more as contextual information when writing the cover letter and preparing for the interview. Its tools of film, video, and other digital media hit the right buttons in mind, and the responsibilities would advance my nonprofit professional career.

However, I had no experience working with its targeted community and there was no belly-burning passion for doing that.

My response to the question was as clunky as the three-tire car veering off the road.

The holy grail for many of us working in the nonprofit field is the job that advances our career and synchs our personal values with the employer’s mission.  Without the intrinsic motivation of working towards the success of the nonprofit, we know the difficulty of staying engaged and enthusiastic in a field notorious for low compensation and high burnout.

Especially in a small organization, the love of mission can sustain and elevate the performance of dedicated staff.

Conversely, I believe that a skilled employee can appreciate the organizational mission over time. Similar to learning and expanding professional skills on the job, understanding and advocating for the nonprofit mission is possible for someone who first takes a position to advance their career.

I also recognize the importance of an employer finding the right fit in employee values and skills for the organization and its ideal culture. Locating, interviewing, coaching, and learning from nonprofit talent are key responsibilities for organizational leaders. Some of my biggest hiring and managing lessons came from not taking adequate time to understand and acknowledge the real motivation of potential employees for their application; one more 15-minute telephone call could have prevented months of uncertainty.

Ultimately, the applicant must be aware of which box they are checking off in the job search and its impact on their performance and tenure.

I left the interview feeling ok, but through the afternoon, I accepted that the numerous assets I offered could not compensate for my one glaring deficit.

When the executive director kindly followed up about next steps, I thanked her and the board for their consideration. I then explained how my lack of personal connection to the mission would be a problem. I regretted taking her time and that of the interview panel.

In our conversation, we agreed that there may be future opportunities for engaging with the organization, but for now, I believed I needed more mission love and fewer job skills.

What do you think about my decision? When researching nonprofits for employment, how do you balance your personal connection to the mission of the organization with its professional responsibilities?

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