The Importance of a Good Hire for Your Nonprofit Team

What is the most creative work-related idea you have had?  Tell me about a conflict you had with a fellow-worker. How was it resolved?  If I call your previous employer, what comments will I get?  Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new on the job. What created that situation?

These are just some of the excellent questions suggested in The Nonprofit Times article “4 Categories of Interview Questions“.

As a manager, nothing is worse than a bad hire.  So, it was no surprise when I read in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

When I am helping nonprofits with strategic planning, I sometimes ask the executive director what past decision made them wish they could take a mulligan. The answer in the vast majority of cases is a bad hiring decision.


You wouldn’t expect this answer if what you knew about nonprofit leadership was gleaned solely from the sector’s journals, blogs, and conferences, where the secret of success seems to be about determining the best theory of change, scaling and funding models, vision, or other, sexier topics.

eq Q6 website integrationClick on the link for the complete article “Three Nonprofit Hiring Mistakes to Avoid“.

Asking great interview questions and not signaling the answer that you want – was a great piece of advice that was given to me during my career.  I had made a couple bad hires in the preceding years and didn’t want to do it again – the hours spent listening to others on the team complaining about “co-worker X,” the hours spent trying to get “co-worker X” to change, the hours spent praying that “co-worker X” would leave on his/her own.

Step one was to let the job candidate know that I would be taking very detailed notes of their answers to my questions.  This would mean that I wouldn’t have much eye contact with them, and I would apologize for that in advance.  Beyond the the questions and follow up questions, I didn’t do much conversing.  It sounds gamey, I know.  But I wanted to shift things so that rehearsed answers wouldn’t work.  It would be hard to make things up on the fly and therefore I would get to the truth of the person, and therefore make the best hire that I could.

Some of my favorite questions/prompts included the questions included in The Nonprofit Times article above as well as a few others:

Tell me about a time when you failed.  Alarms went off if the candidate had never failed, or worse, they failed…but it wasn’t their fault.  When someone told me about an actual failure, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it wasn’t something that I held against them, but rather noted their honesty and, further, how it changed them.

What is your weakness with regard to this position?  What is your strength with regard to this position?  It’s actually the weakness question that I’m most interested in.  Not so much that they have a weakness…but later I will ask the question, what would your current manager say is a weakness of yours?  And I’m interested in whether and how that answer to that question differs with their self assessment.

Tell me about a time when you were asked to do something you knew nothing about.  Here I’m interested in their ability to do research, interact with other team members, etc.  Also, if the candidate got really energized telling me about some challenge that they were able to overcome, I knew they were a natural problem solver.

Tell me about a manager or co-worker that helped you grow professionally.  This gives me some insight on how coachable the candidate is and their recognition of how other have helped them become a better team member.

The goal is to find someone who can contribute to the mission and work with the team – and never hire under duress but rather exercise the patience required to find the best possible candidate.