While your résumé highlights your experience and qualifications—the “hard” skills that you possess—your cover letter offers the hiring manager insights into your passion and suitability for the organization’s mission.
When seeking a new position, your first opportunity to make an impression will likely be through your résumé and your cover letter. In fact, your ability to engage in a deeper conversation may depend entirely on the impression you make through these two documents.
The cover letter is much more than a transmittal memo to accompany a résumé. While your résumé highlights your experience and qualifications—the “hard” skills that you possess—your cover letter offers the hiring manager insights into your passion and suitability for the organization’s mission and work as well as insights into the “soft,” often intangible qualities that can make you a highly desirable team member.
The most effective cover letters present a convincing case for your candidacy and address four questions:
- Do you understand and personally relate to the organization’s mission?
- Do your skills match or translate into the skills required by the position?
- Is your approach—drawing on your talents and experiences—compatible with the organization’s culture? In other words, are you a “good fit?”
- Are you a talented communicator?
Do you understand and personally relate to the organization’s mission?
Hiring managers in development want colleagues and team members who relate personally to their organization’s mission. In most cases, talent and skill in fundraising are not enough; these must be combined with personal commitment to the mission. This is especially true in positions that will involve interaction with donors, who want to interact with individuals who share their passions. This article assumes that you are planning a cover letter for an organization with a mission that you understand and that is personally relevant to you.
In your cover letter, ensure that the hiring manager is aware of your knowledge of the organization’s mission without coming across as condescending to individuals who are currently engaged in furthering that mission. To construct a well-crafted cover letter and to prepare for further engagement with the organization, you must become as familiar with the organization’s work as any person outside the organization can. This means reading as much about the organization as possible—delving deeply into the organization’s website and published materials including press releases, reading any available strategic planning documents, researching key leadership including board members, and learning as much about the organization’s future direction as possible. This will enable you to make informed statements about the organization’s work that go beyond the superficial.
With this knowledge in mind, state clearly, with conviction but not sentimentality, why this mission speaks to you. Is the organization engaged in a social service that is relevant to your life experience as a consumer or a volunteer? Has one of their programs or alumni influenced your life in a meaningful way? Has the organization had an impact on the community in which you live? A word of caution: balance the sharing of personal information with the hiring manager’s need to fill an important position. Your goal is to paint a compelling picture of who you are and what you care about, while keeping focus on the organization. When including personal information, consider the recommendation of Laura Simic, Vice President for University Advancement at Boise State University, “If it’s information that gives insight into character related to how one approaches one’s work, then I like to see it. However, I’ve seen far too many cover letters with a great deal of extraneous personal information that, too early in the process, is just filler or a distraction.”
Do your skills match the needed skills?
Regardless of how passionate and knowledgeable you are about an organization, if you are unqualified for the position you are seeking, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and wasting the time of busy professionals. In the words of one development leader, “I like a letter than conveys, ‘Here’s what you’re looking for and here’s why I specifically meet what you want.’” You must be more than qualified, you must be “specifically” qualified.
The cover letter is the bridge between the résumé and the hiring manager. In it you must, with efficiency and clarity, make the case for your employment. As one non-profit leader stated, “Cover letters offer an excellent opportunity to provide color commentary on what is in someone’s résumé.” With your knowledge of the organization and the position for which you are applying, cite specific examples of why your experience makes you uniquely or particularly well suited for this specific position. One development leader shared the following question for consideration: “Given your career path, and given the path that the organization is taking, as you understand it, how would the intersection of these two paths make for a good match, not only for the organization, but also for your own professional development?”
Are you a good fit?
In your research, make an effort to gain insight into the culture of the organization where you are seeking employment. The tone of your cover letter should be consistent with the organization’s culture. In your research, note the way that the organization communicates. Is their language precise and formal or is it conversational and less formal? The tone of the language you observe provides insight into the organization’s culture. While your tone should always be professional, these insights should guide the tone you choose for the letter.
Echoing, but not parroting, the language and tone used by an organization displays a shared temperament. As one development leader stated, “I look for a narrative that describes the candidate’s interest in my organization and their awareness of its culture, not simply a reflection of those things described in the job posting.” As you conduct your research, note the number of times you encounter language that causes you to nod your head in agreement, and find ways of speaking that will cause the same reaction on the part of the hiring manager.
As you analyze your career path and that of the organization, emphasize not only the way in which skills you offer and skills required are a good match, but also the ways that values and approaches align.
Are you a talented communicator?
Your cover letter must be free of any typographical, punctuation, or grammatical errors. Avoid complex syntax, esoteric language, and overuse of the first person singular pronoun, “I.” This cannot be stressed strongly enough. Do not rely on spellcheck or online grammar checking tools. Use a widely acknowledged stylebook such as the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your letter. In a word, your cover letter must be perfect.
A short, elegant letter is preferable to a long, plodding document that becomes a chore for both the preparer and recipient. From another non-profit leader, “The best cover letters are warm and energetic, and you feel like you’ve been introduced to the person—you know them.” Development professionals interviewed for this article agreed that a one-page letter is standard, and they cautioned against a letter longer than two pages.
“It does take skill to put together a well-written letter,” adds one development leader. “I place high value on a cover letter—I find that it is a good indicator of communication skills, attention to detail, ability to organize one’s thoughts, ability to prioritize, and ability to respond appropriately to a given situation.”
Every step in the job-seeking process offers opportunities for you to distinguish yourself as an individual who communicates with clarity and conviction. The letter that accompanies your résumé and, ideally, leads to an interview, is in most cases the first impression you will make on a hiring manager. It is in your best interest to pursue it with the same care and attention that you will give to all the other components of the hiring process.
Michael Vann, of the Aspen Leadership Group, interviewed the following individuals in connection with this article:
Jaime Porter, Associate Vice President, Campaign Director, Jefferson University and Jefferson Health
Brian J. Reddington, Executive Director, PBS Foundation
Ronald J. Schiller, Principal, Aspen Leadership Group
Laura C. Simic, Vice President for University Advancement, Boise State University