There are few experiences more humbling (and sometimes frustrating) than reducing your life’s work and experience to the few pieces of paper known as cover letter and resume. Furthermore, after boiling down who you are to a handful of pages, the person making an organization’s initial hiring decisions will spend, on average, 15 seconds perusing your effort before placing you in the “yes”, “maybe”, or “no” pile. While presenting yourself through a resume and cover letter is a challenge, there are several useful tactics that will genuinely make you and your potential value to the organization stand out.
Each time you sit down to prepare a cover letter and resume, take a moment to get inside the head of the person doing the first screening. There are ultimately only three things this person asks during those crucial seconds of analysis:
1. Can you do the job?
In other words: do you have the skills, experience, and education to be able to fulfill all the requirements listed in the job description? Have you demonstrated that you were able to succeed in a similar role or under similar circumstances?
Don’t expect the employer to figure out how your past experience can be applicable to the position in question. Every bullet point on your resume should demonstrate what you could do if you were hired. For example, you may know that your Peace Corps work overseeing a village well-digging project shows management skills, but few hiring managers have time to sit and figure out that connection. Spell out how your experience directly relates to the job for which you’re applying—be explicit about how your management of the well digging exemplified your ability to organize, motivate, and stay on schedule, and list the leadership skills you developed while leading the project. And highlight other positive aspects of your work: did you finish early or under budget, or recruit new partners? But remember to mention only the qualities that are relevant—you can leave out your dexterity with a shovel if it’s not explicitly asked for in the job description.
Remember that your resume isn’t merely a way to show what you have accomplished in the past—it’s also one of your best tools to demonstrate what you could accomplish for each particular organization in each particular role in the future.
2. Will you do the job?
Are you committed to the mission and/or central issue of the organization? Have you already demonstrated the work ethic necessary to succeed in this specific line of work? To nonprofit employers, your demonstrated commitment to and passion for the cause is important to your credibility.
To help your case, emphasize any previous experience you’ve had with the mission or central issue of the organization, whether through volunteer service, work, or education. Highlight your commitment to other issues if you think it’ll describe other relevant skills you have, but concentrate when possible on the focus of the org in question.
3. Will you fit in?
Do you speak the language of nonprofits (i.e., do you know when to say “organization” rather than “company”)? Do you exhibit enthusiasm for this particular job at this particular agency? Do you use language that reveals your familiarity with the organization’s mission? Does your sense of humor resonate with the prospective workplace? Employers want to know that you will feel comfortable working in the organization and that your colleagues will get along with you. By the same token, you want to find out if you would like to work among the staff here, and if you’d be happy coming to work in this office every day.
Your ability to fit in with any organization’s culture is not something you have a lot of control over. It’s like dating—you and your date either have the chemistry to continue, or you don’t. It’s never advisable to try to be someone you aren’t in order to get the job. If you are passed up for a job that seemed perfect for your skill set, have faith that another job will come along that will be a better organizational fit for you.
Other points to keep in mind:
- Be patient. According to Idealist’s 2012 Voices From the Sector survey for organizations, 84% of hiring managers at nonprofits have responsibilities in at least one other area, most often in program management, communications, or office management. Lack of time is the biggest reason they say it can take awhile to get back to you.
- Pay attention to detail. Because they have to juggle multiple responsibilities, hiring managers place emphasis on potential employees following instructions in order to move through the hiring process as quickly and efficiently as possible. If the application instructions request that you include your name and the title of the position you’re applying for on the upper right corner of every page of your submission, make sure you do it.
- Don’t call them, they’ll call you. Also because of their limited time and resources, 40% of hiring managers prefer that you not follow up about your job application status. (This doesn’t mean that 60% like it! Just that 40% made a point of saying they don’t.)
- Show your passion. 86% of hiring managers say that understanding their organization’s mission is a very important quality in an applicant; 88% say they consider candidates’ previous volunteer or internship experience with a nonprofit either “somewhat important” or “very important” when making hiring decisions.
Remember that your cover letter and resume are meant to attract hiring managers’ attention and entice them to invite you (and not the other 100 applicants) in to get to know you better. Your application materials are not meant to tell your life story, nor could they. There will be lots more time for that—first in your interviews and then around the water cooler.