10 Favorite Interview Questions of Nonprofit Employers

Are You Ready for These Questions?

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I asked nonprofit professionals, "What question is your favorite for nonprofit job candidates?"

I got a lot of answers, ranging from the obvious to the unexpected. But the questions these professionals want to ask job candidates reveal what nonprofit employers think is important, and what questions will help them get to the heart of whether a candidate is a good fit. Are you ready for these questions?

  1. As a nonprofit job candidate, I have frequently been asked this: "Where do you see yourself in five years?" I also ask this of applicants, to get a sense of their personal vision and how strongly they tie their personal values to those of the organization.
    Stephanie Barnhizer, SEEDS RAP at the University of Colorado at Boulder
  2. "If you were to leave your current employer, what would your supervisor and your peers say about you once you were gone?"
    John E. Vitali, Brooklyn Public Library

The questions I would pose are unique to the position of a nonprofit leader, such as Executive Director or CEO, VP of Development, etc., and include:

  • --In your last position, who were you responsible for leading?
  • --Where are those board members, employees now?
  • --What were their key accomplishments under your leadership?
  • --How did the board grow/evolve during your tenure?
  • --What was the board's greatest accomplishment during your leadership?

    These occurred to me when I was present at a candidate interview, and the interviewer asked the candidate about their leadership style, experience, skills, etc... typical questions. And the candidate stated, "I can tell you my style and my experience - but I would like to start by saying that three of the people I worked with and developed on my leadership team worked for me for several years and went on to land key positions with Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, President _____..." and so on.

    It was a very different approach to the answer, and of course, he got the job.
    Allison Black Cornelius, Blackfish Strategies

    1. What are you looking for in a new position that you did not have in your previous job? I think this is important to know because if you are providing what the applicant is looking for, you have a much better chance of keeping them with you for a longer term. It also lets you know what is important to them.
      Joseph Mayerhoff, Neighborhood Networks New York Consortium and Grant Write
    2. Describe your passion for our mission.
      Paul Konigstein, Metropolitan Opera in New York
    3. I inform the candidate that the interview is a conversation and his/her chance to shine. If the candidate is interviewing for line staff, I ask what triggers his desire to help in a nonprofit?

      For program managers, I ask them to give their best example of rallying the troops to go "above and beyond."

      For officers, I have asked (1) How important is cultural sensitivity for you as an executive officer? (2) Give me two accomplishments that can be attributed to you by former colleagues and employees.

      Carlos M. Zepeda, MPM, Organizational Management Advisors

    4. I ask the same questions I would ask if the candidate was applying for a job in the private sector. In fact, my best results have come from hiring decisions I have made in transitioning a candidate from a Fortune 500 company to our small non-profit. I have learned that questions about mission and passion do not always translate into good performance.
      Claudia Freed, Educational Assistance Ltd
    1. I would tailor the questions to the position. For example, for a database specialist, I always ask, "What are 2 or 3 things you would change about [Product X]?"--X being whatever fundraising package the person is claiming expertise in. The answers tell me a lot about both the depth of the person's knowledge and what kinds of things annoy her!

      For frontline solicitors, I tend to always ask, "Describe for me--without using names or other identifying details--the most difficult solicitation you ever conducted and tell me what made it more challenging than most."

      One possibly useful all-purpose question (especially for smaller, less visible organizations) is "Before you decided to apply for this job here at XYZ, what had you heard about us?" It's perfectly fine if the applicant had never heard of XYZ--it's all in how she frames her discovery.

      Susan Ruderman, Boston area philanthropy consultant.

    1. I enjoy using a story question where a donor is very upset. The person interviewing is then asked to solve the problem. You can learn a lot from the way that they respond. This is what I look for: Do they apologize? Do they go above and beyond to keep the donor happy? Does it matter how large the donation is, and does the size of the donation change the way that they solve the problem?
      Kyle Buchmann, UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Wisconsin
    2. I ask how the applicant can help the organization achieve its goals. I don't expect this to be their dream job and I don't care if they have "passion" for the cause. They should have a passion for their role - ED, development, marketing, etc. They can learn the issues of the organization far more easily than they can learn how to be a good executive, or fund-raiser, or marketer. I care more about why they want to do "this work" than why they would want to work for "this organization."
      David M. Patt, CAE, Association Executive Management