Working in talent management at Aspen Leadership Group allows our team to engage daily with peers in philanthropy, trading insights about the skills and experiences that have enhanced their careers over time. We seek to share this collective knowledge with the ALG community in order to help our members build their own exceptional careers. Informed by our backgrounds in advancement, our consultants have found that candidates who build a strong case for their candidacy are often the most successful. In the same way that fundraisers leverage relationship management skills and a tailored strategy to each engagement, candidates should apply those principles to each job application.
Build Your Case
Michael: What are the key elements of a strong case for one’s candidacy?
Ashley: I would say that the top five elements of a strong case are: mission-alignment; a relevant skill set; experience and/or aptitude; presentation; and passion. These five elements can help you stand out in a job market that is increasingly competitive–with as many as two to three times as many candidates in a search as before COVID-19.
Michael: How do these elements relate to the application process?
Felicia: Throughout the application and interview process, starting with the cover letter, candidates who show that they are passionate and excited about the opportunity and the organization for which they are applying, will stand out. We realize that this can be difficult if the candidate is applying for multiple positions, but this step is critical to making a case for your candidacy. We also realize that maintaining enthusiasm throughout the interview process and during virtual interviews can be challenging, but if enthusiasm doesn’t come through, it will make the search firm/hiring manager wonder if you really want the job. When the candidate is passionate, it creates excitement. You have to demonstrate in your application materials that your skill set and experience match the qualifications of the specific job. As a result, you should highlight some skills and minimize or even omit others, which require some résumé tweaking.
Michael: I’m not sure that people want to hear that they have to create a new résumé for every position for which they apply.
Jeanette: True but your materials must speak directly to the position for which you are applying. One size does not fit all when it comes to your résumé and cover letter. Both the résumé and cover letter should be revised accordingly for every position for which you apply. Tailored materials that are succinct and clear will keep the reader from having to “dig” for relevant information and more easily illustrate why you are a strong candidate for that role.
Ashley: While your job experience itself will not change, the words you use throughout your résumé, the skills you highlight, and the way you craft your summary should. I recommend that candidates create a skeleton résumé that includes the critical information that will be shared with all hiring managers (past employers, dates of employment, education, etc.) and then insert relevant bullets and detail that expand upon that experience tailored to the role. Then develop a separate inventory that includes summaries of your accomplishments, including quantitative data. You can then copy and paste the text into your résumé to customize it to the specific job.
Demonstrate Mission Alignment
Michael: You mentioned mission alignment as the first key element. Mission alignment and passion are critical, but in this highly competitive job market what if a candidate appreciates the mission of an institution but does not have a demonstrated commitment to or experience with it?
Felicia: It is critical that you care about and connect with the mission of the institution. If you really “don’t care” about the mission, you should not be applying for the position. Constituents and donors will know if you genuinely care about the mission and the institution that they have dedicated their time and money toward, and so will your potential future employer.
Michael: I agree but I also invite candidates to consider the depth of an institution’s mission before abandoning it. Take a deep dive into their website. Consider factors beyond the stated mission. Although a mission statement may be concise and simple, an institution’s mission is, in reality, often complex and multi-faceted. The more that you know about an institution, as well as the people that work there, the better prepared you will be to make a compelling case for your candidacy.
Jeanette: This is a great opportunity to find common ground–the same way that you find common ground when working with donors whose philanthropic priorities may not be exactly aligned with your institution’s mission. Though a candidate may not have direct professional experience within a sector or related to the work of an organization, they should consider personal stories and shared values that can help make a connection from their life to an institution’s mission.
Ashley: Consider it from a donor’s perspective. A zoo might appeal to donors because of its commitment to both animal care and to conservation, and also as part of a rich urban fabric. Similarly, a children’s hospital might help children in need and also lead larger public health initiatives. When considering an organization, look at its multiple facets and explore how your background might align with these areas. In your materials, clearly articulate that alignment.
Communicating Experience Versus Aptitude
Michael: What is the relationship between past experience and future success–in other words, experience versus aptitude? Is the former always necessary for the latter to take place?
Ashley: In today’s competitive job market, you need to illustrate that you can do the job, often on day one. Aptitude can enhance past professional experience, but the burden lies on the candidate to illustrate that ability to the hiring manager. Initially, past experience may resonate with a hiring manager, but a skilled communicator can overcome that hurdle and make the case for their candidacy.
Felicia: If your past experience is not a match to the job qualifications but you have the aptitude, you’ll want to make a strong case in your cover letter. This is where candidates should explain how their previous work experience is transferable. Candidates should read the qualifications carefully, and then cite specific examples of how they can be successful in this new role. Additionally, if it’s a different sector from your past experience, you’ll also want to explain why you’re interested in transitioning into a new sector. For example, a fundraiser who has only worked in the performing arts might be applying for a position at a children’s hospital. In this case, the candidate should explain “the why” in the cover letter. Why do they want this job; why are they interested in this particular organization; and why are they making a career change at this time? If you have a personal story to amplify this, even better.
Jeanette: This is also an opportunity to share innovative and creative solutions which may not show up among traditional candidates. State how you will translate your passion into action items directly associated with the responsibilities and organizational needs stated in the prospectus.
First Impressions Matter – Consider Your Presentation
Michael: Let’s talk about presentation, not only the quality of one’s materials but the tone and approach. Can you provide some insight into what resonates with hiring managers?
Jeanette: Hiring managers want to see materials that are accessible on multiple platforms, are easy to share internally, that are attractive and consistent with what they are used to seeing. Hiring managers rarely have the time to learn “new ways of looking” at materials. If a hiring manager has to look for something on a résumé, valuable time is wasted.
Ashley: You want to stand out but in a good way–which can be tricky. Hiring managers are impressed by your ability to echo the language and tone of the institution. If your language and tone are consistent with what is in the prospectus, on the website, in their press releases, and in presentations from leadership, hiring managers will notice – often they won’t even notice that they notice! This will instill a sense of shared values in them that will benefit you as a candidate.
Jeanette: Keep in mind that your materials may be viewed on a hand-held device “on the road,” and later shared with a search committee in hard copy from a desktop printer. None of these vehicles are friendly to photos, complex graphics or hyperlinks – don’t include them.
Felicia: We have found that résumés that offer a “quick read” are most successful–that balance detail with succinctness and illustrate an ability to communicate with clarity and brevity. Cover letters are another story.
Résumés and Cover Letters Service Different Purposes
Michael: “Cover letters are another story!” Cover letters are one of our favorite topics here at ALG.
Felicia: Again, your cover letter is where you want to explicitly make your case, with eloquence and passion in a voice that is authentic but also consistent with that of the institution. We often say that if the résumé is the mind, then the cover letter is the heart of an application. I can say with confidence that strong cover letters have ultimately led to job offers to candidates. A generic cover letter, particularly when applying for multiple positions, is a red flag to recruiters and hiring managers.
Jeanette: The cover letter is your pitch for all that you will bring to the role. It should not be a reformatted version of the résumé. It should point out why the information in the résumé is relevant and valuable, and state why you should be considered for the role.
Ashley: Less is more. Keep the cover letter to one page, making a clear and concise case for your candidacy. The initial goal of your application is to obtain an interview.
Go the Extra Mile in Preparing, Reflecting, and Responding
Michael: What should candidates be doing now beyond researching institutions, checking in with their networks, and refining their materials?
Jeanette: It is critical that everyone within the field of philanthropy reflect upon their own journey as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. If you are a member of a traditionally underrepresented group, consider how this has added depth to your experience and how you can use that experience in the context of the philanthropic sector.
Felicia: And if you have not had a personal or professional experience with exclusion, it is still essential that you understand diversity, equity, and inclusion. Seek more knowledge about the racial injustice in our country, institutionalized racism in the workplace, and white privilege. And then, look deeply at your own experiences and those of others. Everyone in the nonprofit sector should be prepared to discuss this topic in an informed way. And to take it a step further, if you have demonstrated experience promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, that is something that all institutions are looking for. How have you made a difference, not only to the bottom line, but also to the culture of the institutions where you have worked?
Ashley: Understand the shifts taking place in the nonprofit sector, and identify how your skills and knowledge can assist an organization. Many organizations are looking to do more with less. Demonstrating your flexibility and ability to adapt is a valued skill set. And if you have worked remotely, as many of us have, you should be prepared to speak to that experience. If you have developed innovative solutions in this environment, share them.
Michael: Any last words?
Felicia: Be prepared and responsive! Remember – this is a highly competitive market. Read the prospectus in its entirety and don’t ask questions that can be found there or via a quick Google search. Do your homework! Respond to emails promptly (and check your spam folder). Update your LinkedIn profile so that it syncs with your résumé and add a professional photo. If the search firm suggests changes to your materials, it would be wise to make the changes.
Ashley: Put time and effort into your application–it will pay off. Keep your materials concise and professional. Remember that the hiring manager might only glance at your materials for 5-10 seconds to start—first impressions matter. Use a combination of quantitative and qualitative information to showcase your achievements. Finally, look at your materials from a third-person perspective. Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes and consider what might be missing.
Jeanette: Also, a word about video interviewing: we realize Zoom calls are becoming more common and less formal, but for an interview, candidates should treat them as formal in-person interviews. First impressions can be lasting.
Michael: Thank you, Ashley, Felicia, and Jeanette. I’d like to close by asking candidates to avoid getting discouraged– focus on what you can do to make yourself a stronger candidate and reflect on what you have to offer. Set goals for yourself, refine your writing and virtual communication skills, and develop a personal vision statement. Stay focused!
We want candidates to know that we are there for them, and also remind them that we have a wealth of materials on our website and the Philanthropy Career Network that can help them craft effective résumés and cover letters that will resonate with institutions, as well as fine-tune their interviewing skills. We also have developed a comprehensive suite of COVID-19 resources including briefings on fundraising; strategies for remote work, hiring, and interviewing; and leadership through crisis.
Please reach out to us – we would love to hear from you – and be well.