A Recession-Era Nonprofit Job Search Success Story
The following is my final guest blog post for Idealist’s 2009 Nonprofit Career Month, wrapping up this week. For dozens of posts from a range of fabulous nonprofiteers, visit the Nonprofit Career Month Blog.
Once upon a time, there was a securely employed nonprofit staff member, drawing a good salary and benefits doing things she loved to do for an organization she adored with colleagues she would have given a kidney to, gladly, had any of them needed one. But something was missing: her family. She knew that she would never be truly happy as long as she was separated from them by thousands of miles. So she journeyed back to her homeland…unemployed.
It’s a true story—namely mine. And as Nonprofit Career Month wraps up, it occurred to me that my job search might serve as an encouraging fable—or a cautionary tale—to other nonprofit job seekers, whether first-timers, sector-switchers, or just hardy fools like me who say “recession be damned, I quit.”
I can’t promise that my experience is at all typical or replicable. But caveats aside, here’s the advice that worked for me…and what didn’t.
Some background: During college and grad school, I completed 5 internships in various nonprofits, worked abroad full-time for a few months, put in a few summers at a candy shop, and had logged only 15 months of continuous, full-time employment before beginning my job search. That put me solidly in the “entry-level” category. My experience: communications and fundraising. My passions: animal welfare and fundraising. My timeline: it’s been two months since I landed in Seattle. My goal: to get a job that I could live on, without backsliding too much in terms of salary or title.
What didn’t work
1. Long-distance job searching.
I started applying for jobs in Seattle before I got here. I submitted at least 10 applications…and got zero interviews. There are some tricks to it, but ultimately I decided I was better off relocating first and then looking.
2. “It’s a numbers game.”
We’ve all heard stories of job-seekers who applied for hundreds of jobs without scoring a single interview. And we’ve all heard that “it doesn’t matter how many other people apply if you’re the one who gets hired.” I confess: once in Seattle, I applied for 8 jobs. Of those 8, I landed interviews with 4. That’s a 50% interview rate. Yet if I had applied to 100 jobs, I would not have gotten 50 interviews. In the nonprofit sector, jobs are wildly diverse, and passion matters. So if you find 100 jobs you’re passionate about, either you don’t understand the job…or you’re starting to confuse passion with desperation.
3. “If you build up your personal brand right, employers will be calling you.”
Applications themselves took up only a few hours of my job search each week. I spent easily twice as much time on Twitter, my new blog, Brazen Careerist, LinkedIn, and other sites, building up my “personal brand” and trying to become a recognizable face in the sea of job candidates. One prospective employer said in an interview that he’d found my Twitter feed…and liked it. But no one fanned a contract in my face just because I tweeted something witty. (In fact, I believed before this, and still do, that personal branding is a lie.)
1. “If you find the perfect job, make yourself the perfect candidate.”
I found a new résumé format that made my application more readable and attractive. I was selective about the jobs I applied to, even if it meant going a week with no new applications. And even if I didn’t prepare every application as meticulously as I should have, I carefully customized the cover letter and résumé for each. And once I began doing all that, I actually started landing interviews. If I had to bet on anything that made the difference in my job search, it was that trifecta of readability, selectivity, and customization.
2. Dumb luck.
My first interview came about because I stayed up all night to finish and submit the application. There wasn’t even a deadline mentioned in the Craigslist ad. I was just crazy about the job. But it turned out that the organization had a 24-hour-on-call mentality, and the hiring manager was impressed with the 6 AM time stamp on my email. I would say this is another score for passion, which I mentioned above. But had the hiring manager not cared about my all-nighter, I would have been passed over for someone with more experience. I was told as much in the interview.
Another interview came about because I included a cover letter with my web form application, which apparently no one else did. I did this because I was taught always to include a cover letter. Again, I would say this means “always go above and beyond what’s asked for,” or even “always include a cover letter,” but if the hiring manager had been the type to be annoyed by extra materials in the application, mine would probably have been tossed. Instead, my surprise cover letter conveyed passion, which led to an interview…and a second…and a third.
The wild card
1. “It’s all about who you know.”
I’m not a networking fan. I passed up networking events when I arrived in Seattle; I neglected to set up informational interviews; I forgot to call my aunt’s friend who used to work at Microsoft. But after my third interview mentioned above, my dad suggested I send him my résumé to email to his colleague’s wife, who used to work at the organization.
I balked. “Dad,” I said, “this isn’t the era of patronage anymore. I got the interviews because of my own merit. I don’t want it to look like I need insider help to be a strong candidate. Plus, she doesn’t even know me! What would she possibly say that could help?”
My dad shrugged. “Well, think about it,” he said.”
So I gnashed my teeth over it a little more and finally sent him my (customized) résumé. I figured that was it.
But when I got the call a few days later with the job offer, one of the first things the HR person said to me was, “We received a very impressive letter from [Dad’s colleague’s wife] about you.” I can’t say for sure whether it made a difference in my being hired. But if I had to do it again, I’d use that connection in a heartbeat.
My story has an idyllic ending (or is it a beginning?). I’m back with my family in the region I love. And after seven weeks of job-hunting, I was offered a position that draws on my fundraising experience, with a more-than-livable salary and impressive title, for a compelling cause, in a highly-regarded organization whose employees sing the praises of their workplace.
In the recession-era job search, I know I’m luckier than most. But since two friends have both landed their dream jobs in the past two months, I also know I’m not alone in my luck. So if I can share it with you in the form of advice, thoughts, or a glance at your résumé (I’ll even send you the format I scored with), please let me know: Elizabeth dot clawson at gmail dot com. After all, a cautionary tale does no good if it goes unheeded, and a success story isn’t really one until it creates success for someone else.