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.
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In conversation with On-Ramps: 6 things to keep in mind when starting a job search

by Imani Doyle (she/her), Kevin Do (he/him), and Michelle Kedem (she/her)

“In conversation with On-Ramps'' is a series that captures discussions we’ve had about the issues facing today’s social sector hiring managers and applicants. In this edition, three On-Rampers discuss the search process, the trends in the social sector job market, and what to keep in mind when starting the job hunt. 


Today’s social sector job market

Since the start of the pandemic, On-Ramps has been seeing many nonprofit organizations—especially organizations that serve people in crisis—experiencing a demand for their services that outstrips their capacity. The funding community is acknowledging the need for capacity building and providing nonprofits with the resources to grow their teams. At the same time, we’ve been hearing about the Great Resignation: employees leaving their jobs to find more purposeful work. Given this confluence, we thought we’d share our thoughts for those starting a job search. Here are six tips.  

1. Find out what motivates you

Kevin: When starting out your job search, it’s important to ask yourself, "What are the reasons I'm looking to leave my current job and what are the things I'm looking for in my next position?" It’s important to have answers to these questions both for your own soul searching and for the interview process. 

For example, you may be interested in more professional growth, or you may be looking to move into another industry or type of role entirely. Make sure that you're able to understand and describe your motivations to someone asking those questions in a first-round interview.

Leverage and cultivate your network. If you're looking to make the switch from a career in marketing to development, I recommend reaching out to folks you know who work in development and can tell you about their experiences. If you don’t currently know people with these kinds of experiences, I recommend researching people you know on LinkedIn to see if they have contacts with relevant experience, and asking them if they can connect you.  

And if you’re coming from the private sector, it's especially important to think about articulating your motivations for moving to the social sector. You need to be able to identify some of your transferable skills and any connections you might have to an organization’s mission. 

For instance, I’ve interviewed some candidates who primarily had for-profit experience who were interested in moving into the nonprofit education space. While they didn’t have direct experience working in an education nonprofit, they demonstrated their commitment to education through board work or volunteering. That clear commitment to an organization’s mission might be really compelling for some hiring managers even if the candidate hasn't worked in the nonprofit sector before. Imani actually wrote a really insightful blog post a while ago on making the transition to the social sector. It’s worth checking out.  

2. Know what you’re looking for

Imani: As you think about stepping into the job market, you need to know your non-negotiables. It’s really important to make sure you're aware of what you're looking for and where you’re not willing to compromise. Then, as you're participating in these interviews, you can listen for indications that this job meets your criteria.

Organizations will also want to know that you care about the work that they're doing, and that you’re not just running from something else. I think both can be true, but really make sure you have a strong answer to “what is it about this particular organization’s mission that compels you?”

Kevin: I would add that, if you’re really interested in a role, it may be worth applying even if your background doesn’t perfectly match the job description. If you have 60% or 70% of the skills, I think you should entertain the idea and apply. I’ve come across research that has shown women often don’t apply for roles because they feel like they need to meet 100% of the requirements, when in reality, you often don't need to. From my experience, a lot of hiring managers have a belief that folks can grow in certain aspects of the role, and they don't expect applicants to meet every single requirement on the position description.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t apply for a role you don’t really want, even if it’s at an organization you like. For example, if you're really focused on working in marketing in a nonprofit that does a specific type of work, then it’s probably not going to be very motivating for you to join that organization’s development team. It really goes back to the importance of the initial soul searching you have to do. 

Imani: Yes, and to that point, you're better off just reaching out for an informational call with the organization you’re interested in rather than applying for the wrong job. People will sometimes apply for a role just to get their foot in the door—sometimes that works—but it often doesn’t. 

On a related point, as someone working in the recruitment space, candidates will sometimes reach out cold to request that I keep them in mind for any searches that might be good for them. But, if I’m not currently working on a search that the candidate is a good fit for, or if it’s been a while since we last connected, it’s hard to connect them to the right team or role. If you are going to reach out to a recruiter it's helpful to specify the role or organization you’re interested in along with what your current expertise is. This will give the recruiter a chance to better set you up for success with this little bit of additional insight. 

3. Get comfortable discussing DEI

Imani: In the social sector you need to understand what DEI means to you and how DEI has played a role in your life, personally and professionally. There isn’t a single organization that we work with now where we don't ask the candidates in our first round of interviews about what diversity, equity, and inclusion means to them. The racial reckoning a couple of years ago really brought to the forefront issues that a lot of folks already knew about, but were new to others. 

Now, we're in a position where there are organizations who are all about DEI, recognize it, and do it on a daily basis. And then there are organizations that are earlier in their journey and want to start cultivating and bringing on leaders that can lead that journey as well, or be a part of that journey with them. No matter where an organization is in their DEI journey, they want team members who are knowledgeable and committed to advancing those principles.

Michelle: I agree with that—for applying for any job, and actually just to be a participant in society, you need to be committing yourself to equity. That's life advice in addition to job advice. 

Imani: If this is something new to you, then it's something new to you. Be honest. But demonstrate your capacity to learn, and if possible, do work with it. See how you can advance equity in your current job. At this point, competency around DEI is not only an asset, but a requirement for someone to be successful in the social sector. We've had candidates who didn’t advance, even when they had all the other skill sets, if they weren't able to really be a part of that discussion and be a part of that journey.

When looking into DEI at a specific organization, definitely go to the website. See how the organization you’re applying to talks about it. If they don't talk about it, you should still do your own research on equity, what equity looks like in the workplace specifically, and, to Michelle’s point, what equity looks like as a citizen of the world. 

I’m emphasizing equity because diversity and inclusion are very important, but there’s a real focus on equity right now, especially at organizations that have already done a lot to build up a diverse team. Now, those organizations are thinking, "Okay, now we have the representation. How are we making sure the actual structures in place elevate the diverse voices that we have?" 

And then, at organizations that are earlier on in the journey, there is still that desire for making sure that the staff has more racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. But even within that desire for diversity, there is a second focus on dissecting what diversity actually looks like and what structures need to be put in place in order for those employees to be successful. And that again ties into equity.

4. Prepare for rejection—and ambiguity

Kevin: Pacing yourself during the job search is really important. One way to do that is setting doable goals. Often, the final goal of the search is to get another job, but that can take a while. You can try to break that down into more digestible goals, like reaching out to a certain number of folks for interviews, researching a certain number of organizations in a week, or completing a set number of applications. A job search can be tough. It can be hard to submit your application and not receive an acceptance or an invitation to interview. It can be really hard to get far in the process and then end up not receiving an offer. So, it is crucial to pace yourself and remember that these things take time.

Michelle: As far as not getting an offer, it’s important to remember that each job has its own nuanced needs and history. I can't tell you how many times we'll have somebody in for a Director of Development role or an Executive Director role and they're not the right match for that one, but they are the right match for a different role, and we end up placing them in the second or third role that they apply for. You can’t take things too personally one way or another. 

Describing your strengths, as you need to do during a job search, can also be a draining part of the process. If talking about yourself is providing a mental block, my quintessential piece of advice is to sit down with a friend and ask your friend to describe what you do. Get your friend to help write your bio and resume, and offer to do that for them. Make a trade. For many people, it's much easier to speak about your friend in positive terms without feeling some kind of way about it, than it is to speak about yourself in that same way.

Imani: Yes, and I would add, don't be offended when people don't get back to you. On-Ramps is strong with communication, but I can't tell you the amount of times I’ve talked to a candidate and they’ve thanked me for just letting them know one way or the other. There isn’t always as much transparency in the process as candidates would like. If you’re embarking on a job search, you need to get comfortable with ambiguity and silence.

You really need to be internally motivated for when that ambiguity starts to get to you, which reminds me of Michelle’s earlier point, that you should meet with your friend and let them remind you of how incredible you are both so that you can pitch yourself to employers and for your own emotional health.  

5. Be honest—and current—in your interview  

Imani: If you are asked a question during an interview, it’s sometimes okay to admit that you don’t have an answer. I think it's so interesting, when a candidate tries to forge a response but it's clearly not a direct answer to my question. It shows me that the candidate isn’t comfortable saying, "I do not know," or, "I have not done this." Those answers end up taking a lot of time without helping me figure out if the candidate is actually right for the role. 

It’s actually more impressive to me when a candidate is honest and says, "Hey, I don't think I have the experience you’re asking about. What do you think the organization is looking for in this role? I have similar skills and I can translate them." That way a candidate is showing humility and willingness to learn, while still advocating for themself. Be okay with naming what you don't know, and seeing if there are other areas for you to put your best foot forward. 

Michelle: I agree. Now, I'm going to tell you my two least favorite things that happen during an interview. One is when I ask a candidate to tell me about a time they managed a team and they pick an example from a very, very long time ago. If you haven't managed a team since the late '90s, then I’m going to wonder why you haven’t. Do you dislike managing teams? Has all your more recent experience managing teams gone poorly?

Instead, pick an example that is a reflection of your current leadership skills. I do value your experience from 30 years ago, but I would also think you've grown and changed a lot since then. Given that, a more recent example is a better reflection of who you are today.
The other thing that’s very hard for me is when a candidate asks for feedback during the interview. I think some candidates are advised to do this, but I find it really hard to answer in the moment. I've been taking notes and listening intently, which means I'll have more thoughtful feedback down the line, but I need time to process it first. 

6. Take a chance

Imani: There's a lot of opportunities right now that exist for folks who are in the job market. So, if you are keeping that positive mindset, as hard as it can be, and if you are making sure to take some of the steps that we outlined here today, hang in there because the right opportunity is there for you.

And if it's an organization that is especially compelling to you, be open to growth. Be open to positions different from what you originally imagined. For instance, if you thought you wanted a chief level role, but right now you're receiving interview offers for vice president positions, consider taking them if you feel like you can grow in that organization. Take a chance.

Michelle: Yes, it's a great time to explore what's out there. When there's a lot of motion, there's a lot of opportunity. It can be unsettling for the people who love their jobs and don't want anything about their jobs to change. And I want to name those people. I see those people. Like me, I'm not going to change jobs in 2022. I love my job. So you don't have to change jobs. But if it's something you've long wanted, now might be the time. And if not, that's okay too.

Kevin: Definitely, and from my vantage point, as a recruiter, it’s really energizing to match folks with jobs that they really want. Keep going and we're there to help you throughout that process and to help you find that job that is right for you.