Resume and Cover Letter Tips to Keep in Mind When Applying for a Nonprofit Job

A row of cartoon people, with one under a magnifying glass holding a lightbulb.

Employers view your job application as an example of the quality of your work, like an audition for the job. To ensure you stand out, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

But first, before you even apply…follow the directions!

Make careful note of how this specific employer wants applicants to respond to the posting. Do they want an email sent to a specific email address, a form completed online, specific information included (or excluded)? Or do they use some other process?

Watch for requirements described in the job description like a question for you to answer or a sample of your work to include. Simply by following directions, you will stand out from the crowd.

Create an attention-getting cover letter or email message

Use a cover letter customized for each opportunity to demonstrate your interest in the job and the employer as well as your fit for the job.

  • Make it clear which job you are applying for. Be easy to hire! Include the job title, location, and any other identifier (like requisition number) in the subject of your cover letter/email message. Don’t expect the employer to figure out where you can best fit into their organization. Very few employers will have the time, the intuition, or the interest to help you with your career, particularly when they don’t know you.
  • Demonstrate your skills at written communications. Be brief (not more than one page of two to four short paragraphs). Use good grammar and spelling, and avoid stilted, overly-formal letter like “Pursuant to the employment opportunity posted on the twenty-third of this month…”
  • Focus on the benefit to the employer if they hire you. Employers are more concerned with their own needs than with your needs. So make the benefits of hiring you clear – describe exactly how you meet the requirements of the job and will help solve the employer’s problems. If you can, share how you may exceed some of those requirements.
  • Be sure to reference your experience in nonprofit organizations. In the 2013 Idealist survey, 76% of organizations indicated that prior nonprofit experience (job, internship, volunteer work) was important to them. This shows your “connection” to their mission. So, if you have nonprofit experience, be sure to include it when applying to a nonprofit.
  • When responding by email, your message is your cover “letter.” Unless instructed otherwise in the job description or other instructions for applying, your email message is typically your “cover letter” when you apply via email Preferably, the only attachment will be your resume, unless their instructions indicate they want your resume also included in the text of your email message.

Match your resume to the job’s requirements

Customizing your resume to the opportunity is another method of differentiating yourself from the masses of careless job seekers. These days, you need address the technical requirement of an automated applicant tracking system (“ATS”) where resumes are often stored. Including the “right” keywords – those in the job description – should ensure that so that the system shows your resume to a human being. In addition, resumes must also address the preferences of a human reviewer who may spend less than 10 seconds looking at the top two-thirds of a resume before deciding thumbs up or down.

Examine the job’s requirements and meet them with your resume. This is your opportunity to shine and demonstrate the quality of your work:

  • Include your relevant skills, experience, and accomplishments. Use your relevant background in a “Summary of Qualifications” using the language and terms the employer used in the job description. For example, if they specified experience with “social media” (which you have), use the exact term “social media” on your resume. Then, if appropriate, explain more about your social media qualifications by listing the social networks you have used (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) in ways that respond to the job’s requirements.
  • Make the resume easy to read. Using short groups of bulleted lists and brief paragraphs lay out your relevant accomplishments (quantified, if possible), skills, and experience.
  • Highlight your experience with nonprofit organizations. Even if the experience is volunteer work, you are indicating a commitment to the cause and demonstrating your interest. You also gained experience working with a nonprofit that may give you an advantage over other applicants who won’t have that level of understanding.

Customization and careful attention to detail are the keys to impressing an employer. They take time, but they are important differentiators.

Did you enjoy this post? There's plenty more where this came from! Subscribe here for updates.

About the Author | Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and former Visiting Scholar at MIT's Sloan School of Management, Susan is editor and publisher of and Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Google+.

Explore Jobs on Idealist