Ron Schiller and Steven Wallace, Aspen Leadership Group

The success of advancement work—constituent relations and fundraising—depends on engaging all potential constituents as fully as possible. Most organizations across the nonprofit sector would benefit from increased cultural competency—the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with people with cultural backgrounds different from one’s own—in order to engage more constituents more fully. A more diverse workforce has a greater capacity to strengthen a team’s and organization’s overall cultural competency.

If you’ve been involved in hiring, chances are you’ve heard a colleague use the term “fit” or “cultural fit” when evaluating a candidate. The intention behind such an assessment is typically to mitigate risk—to the employer and to the candidate—but it is virtually impossible to apply such an assessment in any objective way. We suggest here a way of reframing the whole notion of “fit” in order to minimize unconscious bias in recruitment and lead to better outcomes in the team’s and organization’s impact.


“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said acclaimed management consultant Peter Drucker. Nonprofit leaders are well aware of the impact of culture on team and organizational success. Without a healthy and inclusive culture, even the best plans implemented with the best of intentions can fall far short of goal.

An organization’s culture consists of a set of shared values and behaviors based on those values. A strong and healthy culture is marked by team members who clearly understand and can communicate about the organization’s core values and how those values shape organizational behavior. Does this mean, however, that all the values of individual team members must be shared values? In an inclusive culture, all members of the team are invited and empowered to make their best contributions. In an inclusive culture, leaders welcome team members whose values—outside of the essential shared core values—expand the team’s diversity of perspectives and lived experiences and, in turn, the team’s cultural competency.


While it is essential to the team’s success that employees share the organization’s core values, that does not mean that every person in the organization will share values that live outside the organization’s core values. For example, a healthy team may have widely varying political beliefs, religious beliefs, eating and drinking lifestyles, personal and family value systems, and so on, based on a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. Values beyond those that are core to the organization may in fact become desirable more for their diversity than for their uniformity. This diversity of values, drawing on a diversity of lived experiences, may be exactly what the organization needs to serve and engage more of its constituents.

Those involved in hiring, then, must resist a simplistic assessment of “cultural fit.” When the assessment of cultural fit goes beyond the degree to which the candidate shares core values of the organization, many types of conscious and unconscious bias can creep into the process. For example, affinity bias—the unconscious tendency to get along with people who have similar backgrounds to ourselves—can lead search committee members to introduce subjective assessments, often based on false assumptions, and lump those in with their overall assessment of “cultural fit.” Often that assessment estimates the degree to which a candidate may mesh with the status quo but fails to recognize how the status quo could limit future outcomes. How many times have we heard our colleagues – or ourselves – rule out a candidate saying something along the lines of, “The candidate has the skills and qualifications, and they seem to be aligned with our mission; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I just don’t think they’re a good fit for our culture.”

Successful search processes begin with clear communication of core values followed by identification of candidates who share them. Once candidates and hiring managers are clear about the values that must be shared, a deeper exploration of a candidate’s ability to add to a team’s competency allows everyone involved in the hiring process to understand “fit” in a different way—keeping in mind that the desired “fit” may be found in the degree to which a team will be pushed beyond its current capacity. Reframing the discussion around cultural alignment and cultural contribution rather than “fit” will lead to better outcomes.

Furthermore, successful leaders understand that while core values remain the same, the team’s overall culture and cultural competency will change every time a new person joins the team. Embracing that cultural growth can often change the organization—potentially requiring an evolution in its rules, behaviors, and processes. Organizational leaders must ask themselves, “Are we willing to listen to new members of the team and truly make changes required to realize the cultural growth we want and need?” If the answer is “yes,” it is important that this openness be conveyed to candidates and factored into hiring decisions.


Successful hiring managers and search committee members:

  1. Understand that simplistic assessments of “cultural fit” lead to less successful recruitment outcomes. 
  1. Identify core values essential to individual and team success.
  1. Evaluate the degree to which a candidate shares the organization’s core values.
  1. Identify gaps in the team’s cultural competency. 
  1. Evaluate the degree to which a candidate can expand and improve the organization’s ability to engage all of its constituents.

We encourage readers to share examples of success in expanding your team’s cultural competency through effective hiring with ALG on social media and via email. We hope to elevate best practices from the field and share them with the ALG Community in future articles and presentations

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