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For many nonprofit founders, managers and employees, their work in the organization is their baby—you don’t trust just anyone to take care of it. Whether you’re looking to hire new employees or contract for services, you want to make sure that whoever you bring into the fold shares your goals and interests in moving the organization and issue forward. Here are a few tips about what to look for and what to ask to see who may be the right fit:
Identify what’s in it for them—other than good feelings
Anyone who wants your business can paint a rosy picture about why they’re the best fit for you. But the real question is, how are you the right fit for them? Lots of companies can wax poetic about how they share your values or care about your cause. That all may be true, but that’s rarely ever the whole story. Many law firms, for instance, require their employees to do pro bono hours, which helps with their branding. A public relations firm may offer a nonprofit discount, but with the assumption that they’ll get to rub noses with other high-profile supporters at your annual gala.
These aren’t reasons not to work with a vendor. In fact, many of the best partnerships work precisely because both entities can scratch each other’s backs. But it’s important to have a frank conversation about expectations. Don’t be afraid to ask what they get from the deal. You may not mind helping their socially responsible branding, but not if they need you in order to recover from a scandal. The better you understand their end game, the easier it will be to decide if you want to help them get there.
Look at their other clients
Unless you’re really in on the ground floor, you’re not anyone’s only client. Before entering an agreement, it helps to do a little intel on the other businesses paying their bills. Start by figuring out whether you’re an ideological match. A PR firm that works with urban planning companies and affordable housing builders is a natural fit for a nonprofit working on community development. They likely know your issues and can facilitate connections among their network. But a family planning organization probably shouldn’t work with the same firm that Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign uses.
You also want to know where you fit among their clientele. Is your contract large or small? Are you the only nonprofit? Are their other clients Sierra Club-sized or more like the local library? This matters more than you think. Time, energy and money are limited. If you and another client conflict, how likely are they to put your needs first?
Look at the skills they have and the skills they want
Often, the first criterion we think of when hiring employees is their passion for the issue. Does this person love animals enough to show up at all the Saturday adoption events in good spirits? Does he have a personal connection to cancer or diabetes that would help him write compelling fundraising appeals? The truth is that passion doesn’t guarantee competence.
Instead, look at what they bring to the table and what they want to get out of the work. Someone who’s worked weddings may be great at organizing adoption events. She may not have a pet, but the events will grow her management experience. Someone who wrote for a science trade publication may be great at explaining health issues to non-experts. He may not want to stay in health advocacy, but will learn to write persuasively.
Ask their opinion on a touchstone issue
That’s not to say that caring about your issue is unimportant. Though it’s largely faded from the news, for several years (and multiple hiring cycles at my company), the Keystone XL pipeline was among the hottest issues in environment and climate activism and a great way to get a sense of where potential new hires stand. Your stance on the pipeline was not a litmus test, but if a candidate was a strong supporter, how happy would they really be in a job where you had to advocate against it? It was a sign that they may not be the best fit.
Nearly every nonprofit can find their version of Keystone XL. You don’t have to be a rabid lifelong supporter to be a great nonprofit employee, but you do have to align enough to get excited about your work.
Then ask about something more obscure
Your employees don’t all have to be experts on all your issues, but it helps to understand the limits of their knowledge and how they deal with it. Asking people about Keystone XL was great because everyone had heard of it. The relative value of using biomass fuel? Not such common knowledge. If folks know about it—great! They’re clearly engaged on your issues. If not, it’s an opportunity to show poise and see how much they’re willing to learn. Do they ask you questions back? Do they follow up after the interview?
Bringing people into your organization, whether as partners, service providers or employees, can be hard. But with a little research, you can find folks whose interest aligns and can help your organization grow and increase its positive influence.
Eric is the Vice President of Business Development at Care2 and the ThePetitionSite where he advises on donor lead acquisition and multichannel conversion strategies. He has contributed to integrated conversion efforts on behalf of nonprofits in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and over 100 other countries.