The first steps to a great hire

How do you attract great applicants to the jobs you want to fill? “We dug the job description out of our files and posted it on a couple of websites, but we just haven’t gotten many interesting applications. . .” is something I hear all the time from organizations who are trying to hire. Many times, nonprofits will put a lot of time into a robust interviewing process and extensive reference checking… but they spend almost no time on trying to intentionally build a strong applicant pool. Here’s the truth: you can have the most careful selection process in the world, but if no one great is applying for your job, you’re going to end up with an underwhelming hire. So how do you go about building a strong pool?

Early in the search process you want to open the doors wide, and invite as many interesting and diverse people into your process as you can. Later in the process, you will want to narrow the search and start culling away the people who are not going to be a good fit for your organization so you are left with the cream of the crop. The problem is, most organizations start this narrowing down process much too early in their search. This article describes two important steps in building a strong applicant pool: 1) creating a great job announcement, and 2) reaching out to your networks for candidates.

Yes, following these steps will take a lot longer than posting the Xerox of the job description from the last time you had to hire and just seeing who responds. But the beauty of it is, taking these steps will have other benefits to you, even beyond building a stronger applicant pool. The process of writing an interesting job announcement will almost certainly help you gain clarity on your goals for the position and what you are really looking for in your search. And then sharing that job announcement broadly becomes a great opportunity to talk up your agency, with all the positive “ripple effects” that come from great word of mouth, such as increased name recognition, donor cultivation, and volunteer recruitment. All that and a great pool of applicants, too! Read on for details . . . .

Step 1: Start with a Job Announcement, not a Job Description

A traditional job description is usually a laundry list describing the duties of and qualifications for a particular position. But a job announcement says much more. A good job announcement is an invitation to engage in the process, telling the reader:

  • Why yours is a great organization, at an important and exciting time in its history
  • How the position being hired will be a critical part of the team
  • What interesting challenges or opportunities the new person will be able to dig into and really move the needle
  • What special skills or experience candidates can bring that will help the organization meet its goals

In short, a job announcement is a marketing piece. It should say to the reader, who is very likely not currently looking for a job (more on that in Step 2!), “This is an amazing opportunity! You should drop whatever you are doing right now and start thinking about joining us!” Even if your readers work in some entirely different sector, you want them to come away with a positive understanding of your agency and the important work you are doing just from reading this announcement.

There is certainly a time and a place for traditional job descriptions in the search process. I like to e-mail them to candidates after the first interview, so they can review it and ask any questions when you bring them in for the second. That is the time you want to be disclosing all the ins and outs of the job and hearing your candidates’ questions and feedback about it, not in the first step of the process.

Remember that the goal of the job announcement is to invite people into the process. Here are some “Do’s and Don’ts” for creating a job announcement that encourages people to apply:

  • Do make your announcement visually appealing. Like any marketing piece that describes the vibrant and impactful work or your organization, it should be easy to read and formatted attractively, ideally with pictures and color.
  • Don’t list every last job responsibility in the announcement. Of course, never lie, but now is not the time to point out that during the week of your signature event, the new Development Director may be working 12 hour days. Stick to the key tasks and the things that make the job unique from others like it in the field.
  • Don’t include a long list of “requirements” (unless they are truly non-negotiable). It’s one thing if candidates need a particular certification or a college degree, but be careful about saying things like “10 years of experience required” if that is really just your preference. Candidates will bring all kinds of interesting job and life experience to this process that you can’t imagine right now, and your goal at the beginning is to screen people in, not out – there will be plenty of time for that later. I try to use language like “The ideal candidate will bring . . .” rather than a list of hard and fast requirements, in order to leave the door open to a wide range of qualifications.
  • Do publish a salary range. If you have a relatively narrow salary range, including it will help the right candidates to know they are a fit. Yes, people may screen themselves out if they think it is much too low – but they probably wouldn’t have taken the job in the end anyway. A much bigger problem is people who don’t apply because they assumed it wouldn’t be a bump up from their current job when in many cases, it is. Vu Le describes a host of other good reasons to publish your salary range, including working against gender and racial discrimination, here.
  • Don’t ask applicants to submit much more than a resume and cover letter. Your best candidates are often happily employed, not desperately looking for a job. Applications that require three references, a writing sample, or make a lot of other demands will discourage candidates who are ambivalent about job hunting. References, in particular, can be a deal breaker: if people aren’t sure yet if they are ready to move on, they definitely won’t want to alert their employers or mentors. There will be plenty of time to get writing samples and references once your candidates have had an interview and are getting excited about the opportunity at your organization.
  • Do include contact information to answer people’s questions. It never ceases to amaze me how many job opportunities specifically say, “Do not contact us with questions.” Why wouldn’t you want to encourage a great candidate who might be on the fence about applying, by answering his or her questions?! Sure, you will have to take a few extra calls, but think of the potential pay-off. And if you have done a good job providing information and included the salary range, there really won’t be that many additional questions to answer.

I do see interesting job announcements like this frequently –but almost always for Executive searches, most often prepared by search firms. But Development Directors, Program Directors, junior positions, and yes, even board members need to feel excitement when applying to be part of your organization, just like an executive does. In a world where anyone with a laptop can create a professional looking document, and a two-page color PDF is no more expensive to post a link to than a boring job description, there’s really no reason not to have a great announcement every time you are recruiting.

Step 2: Reach out to everyone in your networks

Once you have a compelling job announcement PDF, what should you do with it? Start by posting it in an easy to find spot on your own organization’s website, and of course on the job search sites most frequented by people in your particular field. But your outreach does not stop there! Most clients are surprised when I suggest to them it is likely that someone on the board or staff already knows their next hire. Think about it: the “inner circle” at your organization always knows qualified people in your field who care about what you do and share your values and vision. Don’t wait for them to come to you –because I promise you, most busy, highly qualified professionals are not spending a lot of time looking at job search sites.

But wait, is it ethical to “poach” good employees from other organizations? Different people may feel differently about that question, but let me be clear about one thing: the purpose of your initial outreach is simply to let people in your community know that a job is available. You should be telling everyone you can think of who might know someone who would be interested to read your announcement and pass it on to their friends. This is no different than telling everyone you can think of that your organization is having a fundraising luncheon — you’re getting the word out about an opportunity to further its mission.

I will describe step-by-step what I feel is the ideal way to do recruitment, but don’t let “perfect be the enemy of good”! In other words, do this if you can . . . but if you can’t, just do something to get the word out!

Look at your calendar right now and find one hour that you can devote your attention to recruiting. Schedule it like you would any other meeting, and commit to sitting down and doing it at that hour. Recruiting has to be as much of a priority as interviewing will be later

Make a list of who you will reach out to. Here are some categories to think about; you will be surprised how many names come to you if you take the time to jot some notes on paper. Remember, you are not trying to think about people who might want the job –that’s too limiting. You are thinking about people who might know someone who would want the job:

  • Your own “inner circle”: this includes your own staff and board, key volunteers, and any kind of advisory board you may have. You’d be surprised how many organizations forget to reach out to this most important group!
  • People who you know who are non-profit leaders or who work in any relevant non-profit roles (like fundraising): you may know these people from other jobs you have been at, professional trainings you have attended, boards you are on yourself, consultants or speakers you have heard, reporters who have consulted with you over the years, etc. 
  • People who know a lot about your issue area: Even if they don’t know people in no-profit work, people who really know your issues will know people to pass it on to. And you never know who might want to make a leap out of another sector.
  • People who “know everyone”: You know the people I mean, the people who are natural networkers and you seem to run into everywhere because they are super engaged in the community. Even if you are not sure they would have a direct connection to your mission, this is another group that can really pay off to connect with
  • Another good way to get your brain thinking is just to scroll through your list of linked in contacts or FB friends and jot down anyone who falls into any of these categories. Once you have your list, you want to reach out to people in this order of priority:

Send individualized email (with announcement attached) to as many people as you reasonably can. The more the better, but of course time is limited (and you are going to have to respond to people who write back!) so prioritize your best “prospects” or connectors. Your email should simply say that you are wanting to let this person know about a great opportunity at your organization and you’re hoping they will read the announcement and forward it to anyone they know who might be interested or know people who would be. For your best-connected people, you should offer to call in a few days to follow up and get names of anyone you might want to reach out to or ask them to post it on their social media accounts.

Send group emails to your next level of contacts.

LAST: post on FB, LinkedIn, or any other platform you are using.

I like to do this after sending personal email because people may see your subject line and think “oh, she already posted that on FB, I don’t need to open it.” You want your inner circle to feel special.

You know you have been successful when people you reach out start saying, “Oh yes, someone else sent me this too.” That’s the point at which you should start seeing the applications roll in!