How To Hire

Of all the difficult things nonprofits have to do, perhaps the most difficult is hiring the right


development staff.  Part of the problem is that too often, non-development people form the bulk of the search committee, and what they see is not always what they get.  Nor is it what they need.

When we think about hiring, too often we create or copy a job description that talks about all the possible tasks an employee may do.  Then we try to hire to the task.  More to the point, too often those charged with hiring, do not have a clear understanding what the task entails. For example, we want someone who will be able to ask people for money, and the third person we talked with is very outgoing and said that she loves asking for money.

Even assuming she is not just telling us what she thinks we want to hear, asking for money is only a part of the process.  And just asking for money isn’t what we want someone to do.  We want them to ask for the right amount of money and for the right project.  And, of course, they must ask for it in the right way.

Instead, think beyond the task to what it is you actually need this person to accomplish in year one, two and three (if they last that long—alas development staff tends to turn over every 18 months!) and seek someone who actually has great ideas for reaching those goals.

Finding out if the person has great ideas is a lot like finding out about your prospects interests, philanthropy, family.  And that can mean asking questions, but even better is having conversations.

I’ve spent a lot of my life writing, editing, asking and being asked interview questions.  We create a false box, and draw the perimeters with the way we ask the question.  A smart interviewee can easily figure out what the asker wants to hear.

Open ended conversations, however, allow you to hear not just what the person says but how they think. Questions are often the start of such a conversation—but again, how you frame the question is important.

“Tell us about your background,” will lead to a recitation of the “best moments of my career.”

On the other hand, asking something like “tell me about the path you took and choices you made that brought you to this point in your life,” should give you a richer picture of who this person is.

The interview questions we ask, generally, ask the candidate to tell us what he or she did in a particular situation.  More helpful would be to find out what—based on the knowledge they have—they would consider doing moving forward.  Instead of “tell us about a time when a solicitation went south,” consider telling them about a fraught situation and ask “what would you do if this happened to you?” Or, “what do you think we should have done?”

There is a belief in HR circles that you must ask every candidate the exact same question so you can judge every candidate on a level playing field.  But I think that the paths you traverse on these interviews will tell you much more about the candidate than a comparison with how others have answered the exact same question.

Besides, I don’t want to hire the “best of the bunch.”  I simply want to hire the best, and I can only do that by learning as much about how the person thinks, decides, processes information.

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