Favorite Interview Questions of Nonprofit Employers

Are You Ready for These Questions?

Job candidate shaking hands with interviewer.
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Are the interview questions different for people who apply for nonprofit jobs? 

It's likely candidates hear pretty similar questions from employers whether for profit or nonprofit, but others might be different.

For instance, while mission statements do exist for businesses, they are likely to be taken much more seriously by nonprofits. The mission is everything for a charity.  If you don't know what that mission is, you're likely to be written off by nonprofit interviewers.

I decided to ask several nonprofit professionals what questions they like to ask 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?

"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 vision and how strongly they tie their values to those of the organization."
Stephanie Barnhizer, SEEDS RAP at the University of Colorado at Boulder

"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 employees (or volunteers)  now?
  • What were their key accomplishments under your leadership? How did people grow/evolve during your tenure?
  • How did your leadership help the organization and its people grow?"

Allison Black Cornelius, Blackfish Strategies

"'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 Writer

"Describe your passion for our mission."
Paul Konigstein, Metropolitan Opera in New York

"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

"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 nonprofit.

I have learned that questions about mission and passion do not always translate into good performance." Claudia Freed, Educational Assistance Ltd

"I would tailor the questions to the position. For example, for a database specialist, I always ask, 'What are two or three things you would change about [Product X]?'--X being whatever donor software 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 always to 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.

"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

"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 fundraiser, 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