Resumes are important for any job application but for nonprofits and social-impact organizations, cover letters are the place where a hiring manager should be able to easily determine whether a candidate is a strong fit.
What can you include in your cover letter to impress employers hiring for social-impact jobs? Read on to find out!
Tip #1: It's all about the mission
A mission statement describes an organization’s main purpose. Everything that nonprofits and social-impact organizations do is mission-based, so it makes perfect sense that these employers look to hire people who are passionate about the organization's mission. Make sure your cover letter reflects your connection to the mission.
If an organization’s mission focuses on strengthening the rights of people living in slums, they will want to hire people who are passionate about helping disadvantaged populations.
So, how do you capture that in a cover letter?
Provide examples that demonstrate your passion for the organization’s mission and demonstrate that you have related experience.
Compare a cover letter that says, “I found your job posting on your website and I am highly qualified for this role” with one stating, “I am passionate about helping disadvantaged people. I started a club to raise funds for homeless kids when I was seven and more recently spent three years working for human rights organizations.”
Put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager. Which candidate’s cover letter better demonstrates that they are a good fit for your organization’s poverty rights-focused mission?
Tip #2: Say why you are passionate about the organization or its work
In a past career, I worked for the National Wildlife Federation on projects to protect the Great Lakes and was often part of the hiring team. I can very specifically recall one cover letter in particular (this candidate was submitting a cover letter and resume in application for a spot on the Lake Superior project team) that read:
"My family had a cabin on Lake Superior and I spent every summer swimming and kayaking there. I would be thrilled to devote my passion and relevant skills to protect this truly great lake.”
This cover letter was memorable. It showed that the candidate had a strong personal connection to Lake Superior. Ultimately, this cover letter won the candidate an interview.
Tip #3: Highlight successes you have had using skills critical for the position
Resume bullets are good for succinctly highlighting relevant skills but often cannot do justice in providing the details that bring a success story to life.
If, for example, you are applying to a position that requires relationship building and fundraising skills, You may have a resume bullet that says: "Cultivated relationships with new foundations resulting in $1 million new funding."
In a cover letter you can elaborate:
“I would be thrilled to help XYZ organization strengthen relationships with foundations and to increase funding levels. While working at ABC organization, I took the time to develop strong relationships with leaders at three new foundations and to understand their giving priorities. As a direct result of my efforts, all three foundations invited us to submit grant proposals totaling $1 million which we were ultimately awarded thereby doubling our funding.”
Tip #4: Name-dropping
These days having a strong resume and cover letter is not a guarantee that you will be selected for a highly competitive interview slot. Outside candidates are often competing against candidates that may have interned or worked previously at the organization. In other cases, candidates may know someone in the company that can vouch for them.
It can be a big gamble for employers to hire a candidate that looks good on paper but who has not been vetted by staff, board, or others whose opinion the organization respects. Hiring managers do not want to take this gamble.
What can an outside candidate do to compete?
Consider who you know that either works at the organization or whose opinion would be respected, and mention that person in your cover letter.
Of course, this tactic will only work if the person knows you fairly well and can say good things about you, so make sure that is the case before you mention their name in your cover letter.
Pro tip: Ask the person whose name you’ll be including to make sure they are okay with you mentioning their name and send them a copy of your cover letter as an added courtesy.
What would this look like in a cover letter?
Perhaps your professor has collaborated on research with a targeted employer and they would value her opinion. You might mention in your cover letter:
“I heard about this position from Professor X who recently collaborated with your organization on ABC project. She strongly encouraged me to apply because I have worked on similar projects.”
So what happens when I mention a person’s name in my cover letter?
The hiring manager will likely reach out to that person if they are interested in you as a candidate. They will ask them questions to “ground-truth” the type of person you are. Do you get along with others? Are you an effective team member? Any issues?
It is difficult for a hiring manager to assess your character from your application alone so it is extremely helpful for them to have a trusted person that they can consult. When you provide them with a name, it makes their job easier and can elevate your candidacy.
Tip #5: Highlight a major challenge for the organization and suggest solutions
Finally, if you really want to impress the hiring manager, identify a major challenge for the person in the role and suggest some innovative solutions.
How do I determine what might be a big challenge for someone in that role?
Set up an informational interview (a brief chat) with someone working in that department and ask them.
What does this tell the hiring manager?
It shows that you would be an outstanding staff member, someone who is a creative problem solver and who takes the initiative to make the organization better.
In your cover letter, you might say:
“I understand that one of the major challenges for the person in this role is to build local community support for this new project. If hired, I would identify key leaders in the community that may be supportive and look to engage them to help build community support. I would also use social media to educate the community about the project. Finally, I would develop an incentive program to get local business and organizations on board.”
Follow these five tips for making your cover letter stand out and get hired by your dream social-impact organization.
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About the Author | Lisa Yee-Litzenberg is a certified career coach and President of Green Career Advisor, helping individuals find their career niche and secure their dream jobs in the environmental and social-impact sectors. Prior to her current role, Lisa led the environmental career services at the University of Michigan for 10 years and spent 12 years working for the National Wildlife Federation.