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HR Insider | Hiring Practices at the Center for Effective Philanthropy

A desk with laptop, a lamp and a succulent plant.

As part of our “HR Insider” series, I recently interviewed Leaha Wynn, a long-term Idealist user and Senior Coordinator, Human Capital at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). We talked about how she got into this type of work, the recent growth at her organization, and what makes a job candidate really stand out.

Great to speak with you today, Leaha! Tell us a little bit about how you got into this work.

I’ve been working at CEP for a little over a year and a half, and I’m new to nonprofit HR overall. I work mainly with our human capital department, which includes recruiting, professional development, and talent management initiatives at the organization.

I fell into the field of nonprofit HR through a recruiter. I had been looking for ways to be more involved in the public service sector, in policy or philanthropy. A recruiter I had worked with in the past recommended that I might be interested in these areas. And I started out working in a split role, actually: Human Capital and Research.

I developed an understanding of the roles, what they were like, and it was really helpful in my day-to-day recruiting efforts. I’ve been enjoying it thus far and through the regular check-ins with my supervisors, decided to focus more on the human capital aspect, since I saw there was room for growth and innovation.

Do you do a lot of hiring?

We just went through a period of significant growth, so up until this point, we have been doing a fair amount. In the past year, our staff grew from 32 to 42. It was a planned growth period. Typically, we don’t plan to grow to that degree each year. 

Recently, I’ve been focusing on talent analytics. What I’ve found is different locations get us quality and diverse hires, not just in their backgrounds but in their experiences. For example, we take a look at sourcing, time-to-hire, the candidate pool, and the like. We use this information to help develop future recruitment strategies and to estimate recruitment timelines.

You mentioned in an earlier conversation that it is important for a candidate to do his/her research. What are some of the best ways a job seeker can research an organization for an application (and interview)?

First and foremost, visit the organization’s website. It’s a must. You can really get a good feel for the organization based on what they post and highlight.

Look at staff pages and take note of the types of experience staff has had in the past. Read the mission statement, know what is important to the organization. You can also look at third party review sites, such as Glassdoor to learn more about the organization’s culture or even a Google search to get more information about the sort of impact the organization might be having in the field. Look at articles in which the organization was mentioned or featured.

What should job seekers know about an organization like yours?

We are attempting to get at a very important issue- providing foundations with data and insights in order to improve their effectiveness, and as a result, their impact on nonprofit organizations and the people and communities they serve. We offer assessment tools to foundations, develop research that is broadly disseminated and available for free download, and host conferences for foundation leaders, among other things- all in the spirit of improving philanthropic practice.

Internally, we strive for transparency, collaboration, and a learning culture. We are serious about the work we do, and we work very hard to create the best possible product -- but we also try to maintain a healthy work-life balance and have fun together, too.

How do you recruit for the different roles at your organization?

We always use a variety of methods to get diversity in regards to background, experience, and perspective. We post on a variety of job boards, including Idealist, as well as tap into our networks- public service networks and a variety of affinity groups. For example (especially for entry-level positions) we reach out to a lot of diverse, high-performing and rigorous colleges.

We also cultivate a pipeline of candidates over time. We have recently included an interest form on our career site, which gives people the chance to tell us the types of roles they might be interested in. This allows us to reach out to them to develop the relationship and identify fit.

About halfway into our growth this past year, we decided to add a new element into our process- an exercise to assess technical and analytical skills for the roles that require them. It’s a relatively new practice for us and it’s been incredibly informative. We recognize that reducing implicit bias is such an important aspect of the recruiting process, and instituting this exercise is a way to further do that in our process.

Please share a story of a time a candidate stood out to you. What did they do to set themselves apart? 

Candidates who have the skills from their education or training as well as the relevant experience, and who are able to tie their experience in because they understand both what the job entails and what we do -- those are the candidates who stand out. We have a few directives in the application, and we also like when candidates follow the instructions. We have high expectations and when someone has a clear desire to learn and grow, it’s important to us, and not always easy to find!

We also like to see people’s experience clearly tied into their cover letters.We are actually eager to consider applicants who don’t have the clear-cut relevant experience, but they have to make a compelling argument to show they know what the role entails and showcase how they can do the work.

Ah, so cover letters still matter to your organization!

We ask for a cover letter as part of the process and I sometimes see job seekers fail to tie in their accomplishments with the work they are hoping to carry out in the role they’re applying for. It’s an important piece for us, especially since we do get applicants whose experience does not always clearly match the role they’ve applied to.

We are actually eager to consider applicants who don’t have the clear-cut relevant experience, but they have to make a compelling argument to show they know what the role entails and showcase how they can do the work. When your experience does not clearly align with the role, spell it out in the cover letter.

There’s quite a bit of research that suggests not to require a cover letter as a part of the process and that they’re outdated, so there have been moments when we reflect on our process and ask ourselves if we should still require them.

But it sounds like they still work for you.

Well when we analyze the qualities of the applicants that continue through our process, they almost always are the candidates who have provided a thoughtful cover letter. My advice to job seekers would be to take that portion of the application process seriously.

What do you wish interviewees asked you?

I really enjoy when interviewees have thoughtful questions that show they know the implications of the job. There’s no one particular question (that stands out), but when applicants show they already understand the ins and outs of the role, and how that fits at the organization, it is impressive. 

Where do most of your hires come from?

Mainly through online applications -- from universities and job boards. The majority of those we interview ultimately come through Idealist, actually. We value the candidates who come through your portal.

Do you research candidates on social media?

We avoid the social media accounts, especially early on in the process. We evaluate candidates on their application materials. As I mentioned earlier, we try to take implicit bias out of the equation as much as we can.

What aspects of the job search do candidates focus on that aren’t really that important to you?

Some will provide more information than we ask for, such as writing samples or transcripts. Since we don’t ask for it, it’s not part of our process and we don’t take those additional details into account. It wouldn’t be fair to do so. Another aspect of taking implicit bias out of the hiring process is evaluating candidates on the same criteria. If we look at additional materials for some, but not for others, it would take some of the integrity out of the process.

What do you expect to see from a new hire 30 days after employment? 3 months? 1 year?

It depends on the role and the new hire’s prior experience. For example, if the hire is coming right out of college without experience in the nonprofit sector and is entering an analyst role, she or he might be just finishing up orientation and skills training after 30 days. A willingness to jump right in when training is over is expected. Project work begins in the first week or two of a new staff member’s tenure, before orientation is completed, and it can be a little tricky, so just being willing to jump in is a big part of the on-boarding process.

After three months, they will have had the opportunity to participate in our review process. Much of our work is somewhat cyclical, so after one year, they will have experienced multiple project cycles, whether that be a research report or two or multiple client engagements, so we would expect them to be able to carry out the duties related to the role and make recommendations to process improvements. Of course, they should also be learning and contributing to the culture of our organization along the way.

At your organization, what is more important for a candidate to have, passion or skill? 

This really depends on the role. For the analyst role, which we hire for the most, the skills listed as required are expressly required. There are a few cases that have led to exceptions being made where tangential experience coupled with passion and other unique skills resulted in our investment in more training than is typical.

We care deeply about the quality of our work and because the analysts have to carry out statistical analysis, we see it as our responsibility to hire people who can produce accurate findings to our clients and stakeholders. Passion for the nonprofit sector is often matched by their passion for data.

What’s one trait that all candidates need if they want to work in this cause area regardless of role?

All roles don’t need to be able to carry out statistical analysis, but they do need to be team players. We care a lot about maintaining an excellent culture. As a relatively small organization, even one person can make a difference in either a positive or negative way. It’s also important that candidates have the ability and desire to have a rigorous approach to their work. They should be excited to meet our high standards in both of these regards.

What misconceptions do people have about your cause area?

Some outside of the sector feel that helping foundations assess their effectiveness is easy, and easily translatable from assessments in the for-profit sector. For-profit industries can assess performance by analyzing profits, but there is no analog for nonprofits. Another misconception is that we can’t provide livable wages. The nonprofit sector is very large and diverse, and is often painted with too broad a brush.

What roles are the hardest to fill in your org?

Looking at the analytics I’ve been running, I can say with certainty that it’s the advanced computer programmer roles that we very occasionally hire for- software analytics engineers and architects.

We very rarely recruit for those roles and they are hard to fill. Candidates with these skills are in high demand right now. We’ve also found that candidates are either passionate about the mission but don’t have the hard skills needed, or they have the skills but are not passionate about the mission.

And ideally, candidates will have both passion for your mission and the skills for the job!

The majority of those we interview ultimately come through Idealist, actually. We value the candidates who come through your portal.

Leaha, it’s been great talking with you! What new things are coming up for the Center for Effective Philanthropy?

We have a new research report on benchmarking foundation evaluation practices which we co-authored with the Center for Evaluation Innovation that we are planning to publish in September of this year. All our publications can be found online on our website.

By Victoria Crispo

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