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Human Resources Guide for Small Nonprofits:
How To Choose From Your Pool of Candidates

Assuming you get a good response, you now have to weed through all those resumes and cover letters to find the best folks to interview. Consider your needs carefully and pay attention to what is most important. Be careful not to be swayed by bias; you may overlook something important. As it was said earlier, passion and a shared philosophy are important, but they are not they only things.

Remember what you're looking for:

  • Specific skills related to the job.
  • Character traits that reflect creativity, flexibility, and enthusiasm.
  • Ability to work well on a team.
  • Understanding of the need for authority and ability to work within your organizational structure.
  • Knowledge, sensitivity, and passion for your cause.

Specific Skills vs. Experience in the Field

How do you weigh candidates with different, yet important qualifications? Suppose you are looking for a new development person for your domestic abuse and rape crisis center. One of your top candidates has twenty-five years of experience leading support groups for battered women and running programs for crisis centers. She expresses in her cover letter that she was once a victim of domestic violence and is thus especially passionate about helping others avoid or overcome similar experiences. She has little experience in fundraising, but has picked up a few things over the years and is interested in going in this direction with her career. She is willing to take a few classes at her own expense to support her work. Your other candidate has worked in development in the for-profit sector for over ten years, and has spent the last five years fundraising for a political organization. He has an MBA and a strong educational background in non-profit development, but has never worked for a human service agency or had any experience with domestic violence.

There is not necessarily a right answer to this question. Your specific needs and strengths will determine what choice is best for you. However, in general, it is usually better to make a decision based on the candidates' skills for the job in question. (Especially in development!) How a person will fit into your environment is important, but when the job needs to get done...

Things to consider:

  • Don't get fooled by labels. Look for specific details that support the candidate's experience. (# of people managed, # of grants funded, concrete accomplishments).
  • Use references...even contact references that aren't listed. Get a 360-degree view of your candidate by talking to previous superiors, subordinates, and peers.
  • Ask the candidate why they are interested in the position and how they see it fitting into their career path.
  • Background checks. You know which ones are appropriate.
  • Get an idea of candidate's capacity to empathize and sympathize with clients.
  • Examine candidate's pattern of employment jobs, time spent, flow of positions.
  • Higher education is great, but a masters or doctorate may not be as important as years of experience for your position.

May the Force be with you!

The above advice assumes that you have a lot of choice in who you select. This is not always the case, particularly for small non-profits. You can't hold off a decision forever if you need someone now, so sometimes, selecting a person to hire is choosing the lesser among evils. (Okay, that's a little harsh, but you get the idea.) To some extent, every new hire is a gamble. You make the best choice you can and then you cross your fingers that it will all work out. Remember, nothing is permanent, and each time you hire you'll get better at weighing your odds.

If you run into problems, your team can sometimes redeem you. A weak employee can be made strong in a supportive and encouraging environment.

Annotated Bibliography: Human Resources


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