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“Cover letter required.” This statement on a job listing produces groans among countless job seekers. We frequently get the question, “Does anyone even read them?” With that concern, it can feel like you’re putting it a whole lot of effort for no good reason.

To gain some clarity around this topic, we spoke with four nonprofit professionals who have influence in hiring decisions at their organizations. Their comments about cover letters shed a much-needed light on this document and its purpose. Read on to learn more.

Who reads cover letters?

Don’t get discouraged if you’ve heard “no one” reads the letters. It’s important to know who is making the comment- recruiter, HR administrator, or hiring manager- and understand their role and degree of involvement in the hiring process. If you ask a recruiter or any other person who does a first screening of candidates, they may say they don’t read them. Bettina Marshall, Office Manager at Alliance for the Great Lakes screens applicants and confirms: “I personally do not read them but there are some hiring managers here that do.”

In that first screen, they will be focusing on your resume. So why write a cover letter if it’s not being considered at that point? While it might be disappointing that your carefully crafted letter is not being read yet, remember it’s still a level playing field. The recruiter is not picking and choosing which letters to read, so it’s not like they are reading another candidate’s letter but not yours.

This is why it’s so important for all your application documents to be strong. If your resume lacks key evidence of your candidacy, your cover letter is not going to save you...but once you’ve made the first cut, you can wow the hiring manager even more if your cover letter speaks to them.

What if you don't send one and it's required?

The professionals we spoke to use this omission as a clear means of reducing the applicant pool. Mary Jo Loparco, Director of Talent Management at AmeriCares says, “If we make it a requirement and somebody doesn’t include it, it’s likely we will not consider them because it shows they don’t follow directions. We really want to know an individual is thoughtfully considering our organization.” She continues, “They are a pretty important part of our consideration process in hiring.”

Okay, so hiring managers read them. What might they be looking for?

Details about your interest in the cause area and the organization itself

Deborah Collins, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Ford Foundation reflects on her years as a hiring manager, “I want to see if the application is boilerplate (standard generic cover letter and resume) or if the applicant has spent effort and time crafting something aligned to the posting/role.” She also adds, “Show extracurricular activities that are relevant to the position or organization. If you are looking for a job at Ford, any volunteer positions that show social justice involvement would shine through.”

According to Mary Helen Foglia, Senior Recruiter at Planned Parenthood, “Credentials are great, CVs are great, but it’s up to the recruiter to make the connections between what they did”...unless your cover letter makes that connection for them. She explains, “I believe cover letters provide us with a view into the person and insight into how they view their credentials and fitting into the organization. Sometimes it provides us insight into what we believe their legacy will be here.”

Written communication skills, as well as appropriate spelling and grammar

At AmeriCares, an emphasis is placed on writing in almost all positions, so the cover letter is used as a writing sample. “We are definitely looking at their ability to write,” Loparco states. “In general, in almost any position here you’re going to have to know how to write concisely, summarize, and get to the point, and have all the right grammar. It’s really important to every role.”

She also notes that they are even more important for particular roles. “We look at cover letters especially for those applying to fundraising and development positions because a big part of a being a successful fundraiser is about customizing your message to a donor. If an applicant can’t articulate that in a cover letter, that’s kind of telling that they won’t be able to deliver on the job.”

Also pay careful attention to names and other details. “I immediately trash any that call me Mr. Collins. I don’t even read them,” warns Deborah Collins. “If you go through the trouble of personalizing it, get the name right.”

The contribution you can make to the organization

The cover letters that have really wowed Collins are those that clearly show their intended contributions to the organization. “It’s as important as meeting the requirements of the posting,” she explains. She uses the following questions to assess the letters: “What do they want to learn while they are here? Do they take the risk to highlight an area where they don’t have a lot of experience because they want to dive more deeply into it in order to round out their skills?”

Foglia echoes this sentiment, “Do your research on the organization. If you are not following the company but think it’s a great opportunity, be very succinct on how your experience is going to bring value to the organization. Understand what the values and the vision of the organization are before you write that letter.” She adds, “Especially with nonprofits, always look for what impact you are going to make on the organization.”

Career plan and vision

Another way applicants get Collins’ attention is in regards to taking ownership. “I look at the cover letter as a writing sample that is thoughtfully crafted to the job you are going for, giving a sense of (their creativity) and their role in the larger context of the organization.” She describes that the cover letter provides, “A lot of references and touch points for where they see themselves in their career and the organization.” When she hires for assistant roles, she notes, “It’s interesting to see if they see themselves as a ‘career assistant’ or if they are going to use it as a platform to progress to new roles at the organization. It’s a two way street. I need to understand what they deliver and what they need to be delivered to help them.”

What else do hiring managers want you to know?

Be familiar with the organization’s branding

Aside from double and triple checking your cover letter for any grammar mistakes, also pay careful attention to the spelling of the organization and the way the organization presents its name. For example, AmeriCares uses a capital “C” in its name. Loparco remarks that this is part of its branding: “Make sure you get the branding correctly and use the branding the way the organization uses in the spelling and showcasing of its name.”

Don’t regurgitate your resume on your cover letter

Loparco advises giving more details in your cover letter. “We are looking for them to tell us something that is different from the resume, not just a regurgitation. We want to know why them? Why does it make sense for us to consider them as an applicant? What about the mission of the organization is appealing to them?”

Get someone to review your document

For those who do not consider writing their strong suit, Collins offers the following advice: “Find somebody whose work you admire---a colleague, friend---who writes well and have them look at your cover letter with you. It really helps to get a different perspective on your strengths and weaknesses. A lot of people will oversell or undersell themselves.”


By Victoria Crispo

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