On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Question marks in the background with caption "Interview questions to assess culture alignment"
Interview questions to assess culture alignment

Hiring for a social sector organization is about more than finding a candidate with the right skillset. A candidate’s alignment with the culture and mission of the organization is also a crucial qualification. But how do hiring managers assess this? And just as important, what should candidates consider when preparing for this facet of the interview? 

We asked social sector thought leaders to share their favorite interview question for ascertaining cultural and mission alignment. Read on to see their answers, followed by what we think hiring managers and candidates can learn from them.


photo of Aubrey FoxAubrey Fox, Chief Executive Officer, New York City Criminal Justice Agency

The Question: “Tell me something that has stood out to you or that you’ve learned during the interview process.”

The Reason: By the time I speak to someone, they’ve gone through several rounds of interviews with staff at my agency. I like to see whether the person I’m speaking with can reflect on the interview process itself—not only on what they’ve learned about the organization, but also provide reflections on the people they’ve spoken with, as they will potentially become colleagues. 

I want to hear authentic answers about what has resonated with them and what makes them excited about the potential of taking on a new role. Obviously, there’s a lot of theater in an interview, as people are trying to present the best or most strategic versions of themselves. But I like to see if people can play the role of theater critic at the same time, observing and commenting on what has gone on.


photo of Adeola Whitney

Adeola Whitney, Chief Executive Officer, Reading Partners 

The Question: “Why are you interested in Reading Partners, and why are you seeking us out now, at this point in your career?”

The Reason: When candidates are directly asked a question related to mission or culture alignment, it's easy—and frankly expected—for them to respond to
those specific prompts. I like asking a more open question because it allows strong candidates to speak instinctively, and often passionately, about their personal journeys and how our organization, mission, and culture is relevant to them at this stage of their career.

Ultimately, I am interested in candidates who can deeply internalize our
mission and give voice to why their personal values are well aligned with
our organizational values.


photo of Alice McMillianAlice McMillan, Chief of Staff, PushBlack

The Question: “Please tell us what you know about workplace culture and organizational development.”

The Reason: It’s my favorite because it allows you to truly weigh a candidate's knowledge of this very important subject matter. There are no lead-ins. It is not a question that they can provide a generic answer to—or tell you what they think you want to hear. And it gives you the opportunity to assess their knowledge of the issue. 


photo of Shenkiat LimShenkiat Lim, Director of People and Culture, Scratch Foundation

The Question: “What interests you about this role and our organization?”

The Reason: I like open-ended questions, rather than asking questions that might inadvertently guide someone to a particular answer. What people proactively choose to tell you says a lot about who they are. I look for answers that show an understanding of and an alignment with our mission and values. 

I then follow up by asking for specific experiences that have informed their motivations. When I hear an answer that aligns with our values and has a concrete and meaningful example, that's when I can start to feel confident that there may be a good fit. 

On-Ramps’ Analysis

While each of their questions varied in wording and style, nearly all of them asked the same fundamental thing: why this, why now? And it makes sense: What everyone inside an organization ostensibly has in common is a commitment to the change they seek to make in the world. Find that, and you find the alignment. 

But it’s remarkable how many candidates get the answer wrong. We’ve seen missteps in several directions. There are those who say things like, “I want to apply my skills for a good cause.” But there’s a lot of good to do in the world, and these leaders are aiming for a specific change. This particular cause is their life’s work, and they want to build an organization of others who are deeply engaged in creating that change. 

Another frequent mistake is to be too sunny about the mission, with over-the-top enthusiasm. We’ve also seen candidates take an approach that’s too academic, with their only connection to the cause being a book they read or a course they took. Both of these approaches can come across as superficial or naive.

The way to get the answer right is to engage in deep self-reflection and answer it with specificity and nuance. As with so much else, authenticity is key. Ask yourself, if when the going gets tough (and making the world better is hard and less resourced than making money), is this work you care about enough to stick with for many years? If so, you should be able to articulate that with specificity and connect it to your personal or professional experience.

The Takeaway

Asking the right interview questions is crucial to finding a candidate who aligns with the organization’s culture and mission. Strong questions are often open-ended and can't be answered by a quick read of a mission statement or a skim of a website, but rather, require self-reflection, nuance, and authenticity from the candidate.