Recruiting Tips From 3 Entrepreneurial Nonprofits

May 21, 2015

Charity:Water, Venture for America, and the Kauffman Foundation aren’t like traditional nonprofits. Sharing a mission and vision to promote entrepreneurship, all three organizations identify as ‘startup-like,’ pay competitively, and actively source candidates with for-profit backgrounds—which means that they’re competing with the corporate world for talent.

Spend five minutes researching the people behind these organizations, and you’ll see alumni from companies like Google, Bain & Company, Bank of America, Citigroup, the Boston Consulting Group, Merrill Lynch, Edelman and Adobe—all employers that you’ll find on ‘best places to work’ lists. You’ll also find graduates from top MBA programs and employees with notable accomplishments in past roles.

We asked the three nonprofits for their best lessons learned in finding ambitious, mission-driven talent. Here’s what they shared.

1. Create job descriptions that speak to specific personalities

Tip nominated by: Amy Nelson, VP of External Relations at Venture for America.

At Venture for America (VFA), many new hires are recent graduates and career changers from corporate backgrounds. That’s why Nelson and her team have created candidate personas in order to filter through years of work experience, credentials, and skill sets and identify who the person actually is.

The ideal candidate at Venture for America is mission-driven, high energy, innovative, and committed to making a difference. This person could be at any stage of his or her career—right out of college or mid-career.

“At Venture for America, for instance, one of the most important personality traits is temperament that couples positivity with ambition,” says Nelson. “We also look for qualities that candidates embrace, including a passion for hard work, drive to make a difference, and appreciation for entrepreneurship.”

This laser-focused perspective has helped VFA create job descriptions that reach candidates on a personal level.

To candidates with a corporate background, a nonprofit career path may seem like an impractical dream. The thought of leaving a steady job for an ‘unknown’ future can be terrifying. Nelson explains that this mindset often poses major recruiting challenges for her organization.

“There is this bias that nonprofits are inefficient, bureaucratic, and slow-moving,” says Nelson.

So, how do nonprofits overcome this image? What Venture for America does is crush the stereotype before the candidate has a chance to think it. They do this by writing job descriptions that encourage audiences to imagine themselves as part of Venture for America’s mission and vision.

When writing these job descriptions, VFA’s recruiting team includes casual language, humor, fun allusions, and tangible examples of projects that candidates will tackle on-the-job.


“We’ve pushed past the bias of nonprofits being inefficient, bureaucratic, and slow-moving by focusing on the qualities about our organization that make us innovative,” says Nelson. “Our job descriptions and recruiting process show that we’re the opposite of just that, acting very much like a startup that happens to be legally incorporated as a nonprofit.”

2. Create an authentic, transparent brand image that’s worth talking about

Tip nominated by: Natalie Bybee, Head of People and Culture at Charity:Water.

Charity:Water grew to become a 70-person organization with no internal HR or recruiting resourced. Tasked with the challenge of creating a scalable people operations foundation, Natalie Bybee joined the team in October 2014.

Still early in her role, one of the biggest trends that Bybee has observed is that the majority of talent comes to Charity:Water through word of mouth—through the founder and other team member. Through internal research, she also uncovered that Charity:Water’s social media presence—on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter—played a role in every employee’s decision to join the company.

“We put a real focus on presenting a compelling visual experience to our candidates through storytelling and beautiful pictures,” says Bybee. “We try to inspire our entire audience, whether they are donors, supporters, or potential job candidates.”

charity-water-FBImage from Charity:Water's Facebook page.

Bybee explains that social media provides the most direct window into the organization’s work. Entrepreneurial engineers and designers—who are often in high demand for corporate roles—can directly see the work that they’d have a hand in creating.

“It takes a lot of intelligence, strategic insight, and resources to develop Charity:Water’s next big project,” says Bybee. “Through social media, top engineers, former management consultants, and in-demand designers can see the type of challenging work that Charity:Water offers as an organization.”

3. Tap into mission-aligned communities

Tip nominated by: Aaron North, VP of Education at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

At the Kauffman, Aaron North oversees the Foundation’s education programs and initiatives. Working to ensure access to high-quality public school options and post-secondary opportunities, he looks to hire experienced urban educators.

“We are educators-turned-grant-makers and have experience in the field dealing with the challenges that we now work to solve at a strategic level,” North.

North points out that qualified educators may not be aware of the roles available at Kauffman—not to mention, the organization finds it challenging to find talent close to its Kansas City headquarters. To solve this challenge, he finds creative ways to source talent through like-minded organizations and communities. Recently his team has done the following:

  • Launch a marketing campaign to feature senior-level leadership openings at the Kauffman Foundation, our charter school and local education organizations that we support
  • Place ads on Facebook targeting specific psychographic traits
  • Send job openings for mission-aligned organizations to feature in their blogs, newsletters and social media accounts
  • Identify search criteria and target those audiences through personal messages on LinkedIn

Through a combination of these tactics, Kauffman is able to reach candidates outside of its immediate circle.

“Our process begins with having a clear organizational and programmatic strategy and clear, measurable goals,” says North. “We break down our strategies to well-defined steps. The more granular we get, the better we can define the qualities and characteristics of the talent we need to carry out the strategies.”

Final thoughts

Mission driven and passionate, these three organizations know exactly what types of people they want to bring on board. This focus and vision have been instrumental in helping Venture for America, Charity:Water, and Kauffman, stand out in an otherwise competitive recruiting market. Their talent acquisition lessons hold true for any type of organization—for nonprofit and corporate groups, alike.

*Image from Charity:Water's Facebook page.

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