What Nonprofits Need to Learn About Interviewing Candidates

What Nonprofits Need to Learn About Interviewing Candidates

When social sector organizations aren’t intentional about their interview process, they fail to leverage their greatest recruitment asset: their mission.

Ratna Gill and Megan McGlinchey joined the Living Cities staff in June 2016 as recent college graduates. In this mini-series, they reflect on their experience entering the workforce, with a focus on the aspects of Living Cities’ organizational culture that are crucial for attracting, hiring and retaining talent.

In the last three posts of this series, we discussed why it can be challenging to find entry-level job opportunities in the social sector and provided suggestions for overcoming these barriers. In our next three posts, we’ll be discussing the process of interviewing for jobs in the social sector.

The Social Sector Job Interview

As a college senior last spring, I commenced a long and arduous job hunt, searching for the “perfect” job for me in the social sector. My most important criteria were that I wanted to work for an organization:

  1. Whose mission aligned with my personal values, and where I could make a difference.
  2. Where my position would allow me to enjoy the work I was doing day-to-day.
  3. Whose work culture made me feel positive and motivated at the office.

My goal was to do good, and to enjoy doing it. But while I was working hard and felt I had done the best I could do in college to pursue my passions and perform highly, the job interview process at many points made me feel unintelligent and disrespected. I found myself wondering if I hadn’t done “enough” in college, and really struggling to find balance between two seemingly conflicting interests. On the one hand, I wanted to come across as “serious” and “professional” about the work of the organizations I was interviewing with. On the other hand, I didn’t want to fully hold back from channeling the genuine care, fear, and passion I feel toward working on social issues like poverty, environmental justice, and racial equity.

The Interview Experience

At many points during my interviews I found myself thinking, “I just want to create social good in the world – why is it so hard to find a place that will allow me to do that?“

I believe this is because many of the questions that interviewers asked me felt like they were designed to “stump” me rather than learn about me (e.g. “Okay, we’ve heard your whole spiel about how environmental protection and public health are related, but it seems like you have a really environment-focused resume that you’re trying to shove into a public health mold. Convince me that this isn’t true.”) Honesty and vulnerability certainly seemed to be punished rather than rewarded (e.g. “We read your personal blog and it says that you’re stressed and you’ve applied to 120 jobs. Why should we believe you want this one, and that you can handle the stress of working here if you’re so stressed about the job search?”). At many points during my 50+ interviews I found myself thinking, “I just want to create social good in the world – why is it so hard to find a place that will allow me to harness my passions to do that?” And perhaps most problematically, I found myself thinking that the problem was with me. Maybe I wasn’t being stiff or polished or professional enough. Even though this was the social sector, maybe I shouldn’t open up as much about my passions or the experiences and connections that led me to care about this work.

It wasn’t until an advisor in my dorm overheard me recounting one of the above interviews to a friend and literally intervened to say, “I’m sorry but I couldn’t help eavesdropping – you do realize that the problem is with your interviewers and not with you, right?!” that I took a moment to pause my reactions of self-doubt and step back and analyze the behavior of the individuals interviewing me.

Part of the problem was that my interviewers were trying to mimic their counterparts in the private sector.

I think part of the problem was that my interviewers were trying to mimic their counterparts in the private sector in a few ways. The interview processes for consulting and finance, for example, are known for being cut-throat and intense. But that type of interview structure and questions at many points weren’t appropriate for the type of work that the organizations I was interviewing for were doing. They simply didn’t match the tone of the mission of the organizations, and at times weren’t even relevant to what I would be doing day-to-day in the roles I was interviewing for. In my process, the impact on me was that I found myself much less excited about the prospect of working at firms that interviewed this way.

What social sector organizations have to remember is that the private sector firms that set up their interview processes this way also offer other huge benefits to candidates, like higher salaries, and a clearly structured job application cycle with recruiting happening at predictable times. In the absence of being able to offer these perks, it is all the more critical for social sector organizations not to fall into the trap of echoing the tone of these private sector interview processes.

In fact, by designing an interview process that does not align with its values, a social sector organization loses the opportunity to leverage one of the greatest recruitment assets it has – the values-alignment that brings many people to the social sector in the first place.

Aligning the Way You Interview with Your Organization’s Values

I might not even have known that a different interview paradigm could exist, but for my interview process at Living Cities. During my first round, I apologized off the bat for a technological difficulty that caused my interview to be delayed, and the staff member interviewing me immediately normalized the blip for me: “It’s your senior spring – I am sure you are so stressed, and if this small technical difficulty is the biggest issue you’ve had this semester, you seem to be doing pretty well.” It was a simple statement but it completely reset how I viewed the firm and myself, for the remainder of the interview process. The simple humanity of this interviewer demonstrated to me, through actions, the basic humanity and human dignity that Living Cities so fiercely believes in, of our staff as well as the populations we serve. My other interviewers at Living Cities were sure to comment on the importance of the passion they heard in what I was saying, how open I was to learning what I didn’t already know, and the value of the breadth of real-world experiences informing my interest in Living Cities. Above all, they were kind, warm, and gracious. I noticed these things during the interview process, and once I joined the organization as a summer intern, the philosophy was articulated to me explicitly:

“Our job is to make the lives of low-income people easier, and we can’t do that unless we are taking care of ourselves as well,” a colleague said to me during my first week here. Again, the notion was so simple, but I feel as though we in the social sector internalize an obligation to personally sacrifice our time, money, or wellness to be making a difference for people on the ground. And many times we do (I’m not saying working in the social sector is easy) – we make less money and we often work long hours – but in the areas where we don’t have to create stress for ourselves, it’s important that we remember not to.

“Our job is to make the lives of low-income people easier, and we can’t do that unless we are taking care of ourselves as well.”

Personal wellness, work-life balance, and being kind are emphasized as parts of the culture of Living Cities, and vulnerability is (on the whole) accepted rather than punished. At the end of the day, working on behalf of marginalized communities can be taxing, tiring work, and if we are not able to support one another and be gentle and kind to ourselves, working on issues of social justice is not sustainable.

A New Paradigm for Job Interviews in the Social Sector

Which leads me to my recommendation: a little bit of strategic thinking about how we design the interview process can go a long way. While we may not be able to “woo” candidates by flying them out to cocktail hours to meet with our partners, being kind doesn’t cost anything. Projecting the culture that your organization embodies (or is working to embody) can be a very powerful tool for social sector organizations to attract and retain the rich talent they want.

We welcome any questions, comments, or feedback you may have, and encourage you to follow our series on Hiring in the Social Sector. Stay tuned for the next post!


Latest Articles

How 2020’s “Year of Reckoning” Shaped What Comes Next for Closing the Gaps

In 2020, Living Cities launched the  “Closing the Gaps” Network, paired with a cohort of cities participating in a “Year of Reckoning” initiative. This foundational year brought together leadership in six cities–Austin, Albuquerque, Memphis, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Rochester–to interrogate how racism has shaped their cities, to organize together to implement policies and practices that would build wealth for BIPOC …

Wealth Beyond Survival

People of color are reported to be on track to become the country’s new majority by 2045. Knowing this, government leaders, private investors and philanthropic funders need to have a more comprehensive understanding of the challenge ahead: For people of color, starting a business, though a risky endeavor–especially compared to the experience of white entrepreneurs–is only the beginning of the …

Supporting and Growing Overlooked Entrepreneurs with Urban Innovation Fund

In 2012, Julie Lein and Clara Brenner started Tumml, an urban ventures accelerator with a mission to empower entrepreneurs to solve urban problems. Through their experience with Tumml, Julie and Clara saw how investors can overlook certain types of entrepreneurs, mostly women and people of color. Building on their experience, Lein and Brenner founded Urban Innovation Fund (UIF) as first-time …

1863 Ventures Seeks to Close the ‘Friends and Family’ Financing Gap for New Majority Entrepreneurs

Melissa Bradley understands how barriers to capital for entrepreneurs of color hurt our economy and our communities. “There is clearly a cost if we do not invest in diversity,” said Bradley, founder of 1863 Ventures. “We miss out on great returns when we are not inclusive in our investment theses. There are opportunity costs for all of us.” She cites …

Get Updates

We want to stay in touch with you! Sign up for our email list to receive updates on the progress we’re making with our network of partners, as well as helpful resources and blog posts.