Over the past two months, as we have been exploring the topic of Inclusion, it has become clear that Inclusion isn’t just one thing. It has many facets, and it can mean many things to many people. It’s also not something that’s ever really finished – never “done and dusted,” as they say. Inclusion is something we have to be intentional about every day, in our thoughts, words, and actions. Much more of a journey than a destination.

And just as hiring organizations are on their own Inclusion journey, so too are candidates.

In fact, as an executive search firm, we, too, are on our own Inclusion journey – evolving how we think and talk about inclusivity, expanding inclusivity with the firm, as well as working toward greater inclusivity within the advancement profession. A big part of that work is creating space and opportunity for conversations, in forums such as The Great Rethink, but also in individual searches, with individual candidates and hiring organizations.

For candidates, in particular, throughout the search and hiring process we do our best to help navigate the nuances and sometimes delicate issues surrounding Inclusion. We facilitate and broker those conversations with prospective employers. And from that experience, we can offer a few key insights that we hope will help every candidate, as the entire profession moves forward and evolves on this issue.

Inclusion is for everyone, regardless of identity.

First, we want every candidate to know that they have the space and opportunity to talk about Inclusion – to inform and be a part of the conversation. It’s very important to us, as a firm, to create that opportunity for all candidates, regardless of their identify.

All the senior consultants at ALG have been fundraisers. We have been through the interview process for advancement positions, both hiring and being hired. We know how important it is to feel heard and valued—that one’s voice and views matter.

Today, we see greater opportunity to talk about Inclusion in ways that may not have been possible or available before, and every candidate is not only invited to participate, but at some point, will be expected to do so.

Inclusion is a learning journey.

Part of our goal, as a firm, is to be true partners and facilitate a process of understanding and learning. And often, as the hiring process unfolds, we find that for both candidates and hiring organizations alike, the nature and meaning of Inclusion is fluid.

After the recent pandemic, upheaval in the job market, and a rethink of their relationship to work, we are seeing many candidates still in a place of deep reflection. When we ask about Inclusion, they may start with things like salary transparency, or staff diversity, or HR policies.

But behind those issues we often learn about deeper personal concerns, like access and belonging – e.g., just how will an employer ensure access to opportunity that may not have been readily available in the past? Will I have a seat at the table where decisions are made? How much can I expect to forge a personal sense of belonging with colleagues and peers? Often, those questions can only be resolved through time and experience.

The situation for hiring organizations is also complex – what does Inclusion mean in terms of the organization’s mission, stakeholders, donor base, executive team, hiring and promotion practices, and culture? How open to change is the organization, and how fast can it evolve? For many nonprofits, all those variables are in flux. And to be frank, it’s hard for organizations that are early in that process, or don’t have a full plan, to offer full transparency to candidates.

So, for candidates, it’s important to understand that we learn as we go. Rather than being an on/off switch (either an organization is inclusive or it isn’t), a better way to visualize the Inclusion journey, both yours and theirs, is like two paths converging. Even while Inclusion means bringing together differing ideas, views, and experiences, are you both on a journey toward the same end goal? Can you work together to achieve a more diverse and stronger organization, with greater mission-driven impact?

Think of Inclusion like an alignment of values.

Mission alignment is a driving concept in the advancement profession. In almost every search, we hear from candidates that they are looking for alignment between their personal values and an organization’s values. That could take the form of, say, a commitment to health equity. Or a love of education. Or a personal connection to a specific community.

Inclusion is an important marker of values, and there are many ways candidates can look for signals, and get a baseline assessment, of their values alignment with an organization. Most candidates want to know: Does an organization’s practices match their stated aspirations? The extent of inclusive practices can be seen in an organization’s salary equity and transparency, which is easily assessed in an organization’s 990 filing. One can look at diversity of the leadership team and staff, or the Board, or their programs and stakeholder communities. And does the organization get generally positive reviews from people who have left?

As you begin learning about an organization, take that as a starting point: discuss, explore, share ideas, ask questions, and see whether there is any alignment to be found.

Reflect on your own journey, experience, and ideals.

What does Inclusion mean to you? Why is it important? What have you done to advance Inclusion personally and professionally? What specific aspects of Inclusion are most important in the kind of environment you want to work in?

Maybe the most important aspect of Inclusion is a personal feeling of belonging. Maybe it’s an issue of professional advancement. Perhaps your focus is on expanding stakeholder programs, or community impact, or specific areas for advocacy.

Do you need to be at an organization that is far along in its Inclusion journey and “firing on all cylinders?” Or would you be willing to join them where they are on that journey, or lead that journey from the beginning?

In their Inclusion article, Steven Wallace and Jeanette Rivera-Watts encouraged advancement teams to accelerate Inclusion by thinking in terms of “cultural add” and not “cultural fit.” Would you be willing to be that “cultural add?” Would you enjoy bringing new perspectives and life experience to an organization that wants them?

Assessing values alignment on Inclusion requires not just knowing where an organization stands, but also where you stand in your own journey.

You can manage the conversation, but you can’t avoid it.

In the initial phases of an interview process, we often find candidates hesitant to bring up Inclusion – what access and belonging look like in practice, for them, on the job. We understand that discussing these topics can feel personal, and candidates often need to build trust first: at Aspen Leadership Group, our goal is to build trusting relationships with both candidates and clients so that we can help to facilitate the alignment that both parties seek in the hiring process.

But we would encourage candidates to be bold with the topic. Moreover, we would caution that as the advancement profession moves forward on Inclusion, the topic cannot be avoided. It will come up, and we want candidates to be prepared.

As difficult as it may be, all candidates need to be able to answer some kind of comprehensive question about Inclusion, such as:

    • Share with me some of the ways that you contribute to making the spaces in your life, personal or professional, more inclusive.
    • Tell me about your commitment to inclusivity and the skillset needed to partner with a diverse constituency – including the empathy needed to ensure engagement across a wide spectrum of ideas and experiences. 

These days, most hiring organizations want to understand a candidate’s views, experience, and skills. And, if they are a highly valued candidate who will be moving forward in the process, we need to help shape that conversation so that we can support them.

Inclusion is fast becoming a core competency.

Finally, more and more organizations are viewing Inclusion work as a core competency – including it in prospectuses, as part of their commitment and expectations around DE&I (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion). So, again, we caution candidates not to be caught off guard. It’s imperative that candidates begin to think of Inclusion as part of a required skill set. Develop that experience so that you have concrete accomplishments and ideas to share. Practice and be thoughtful about what you would say with regard to Inclusion: what it is to you, why it matters to you, what you have done, and where you find alignment with the hiring organization.

In any hiring process there are two worlds trying to meet. And with respect to Inclusion, the candidate’s experience and expectations around access and belonging have to meet the aspirations and wish list of the hiring organization. The closer that alignment, the happier, more effective, and more satisfied a candidate will be in their new role – staying longer, with a greater mission-driven impact.

Curious to learn more? Read the next article in our series here.

Contributing authors:



Patrick Key, Senior Consultant, Aspen Leadership Group





Marianna DiVietro, Search Consultant, Aspen Leadership Group

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