Updated: Dec 8, 2021
Charity Entrepreneurship recently organized an online chat about early-stage hiring for new nonprofit start-ups. Our discussion ranged from initial reflections on whether or not to hire, all the way through to best practices for management and remote working. For every aspect of early-stage hiring, here are the top tips from our entrepreneur attendees.
Deciding to hire
“But I’ve already decided to hire – that’s why I’m reading this article!” Before you scroll past this section, don’t. The first step to a successful hiring process is making double-triple-sure you need a new hire. Lots of tasks can be done by volunteers or freelancers, which is why it’s worth building up a volunteer bank and exploring sites like Upwork rather than jumping into hiring. As an early-stage nonprofit you’re still testing things out; learning which model works best to maximize your impact. Maybe you make the perfect hire for establishing government partnerships in Ghana. But if fresh evidence appears suggesting you’d save more lives working with community health workers in Senegal, what then? Adding to your team means lower flexibility, but also higher costs. It’s not just the paycheck. It’s the taxes you pay; the time for management and operations staff; training and retention and office supplies, and all those other hidden costs. Don’t forget the short term costs, too. As an early-stage org, you have a million things on your to-do list, so think really carefully before adding the millionth-and-oneth chore of going through the hiring process. On the fence? Your mantra as an early-stage org: hire late, fire early. Firing is an unpleasant experience for all parties. Being circumspect and hiring slowly will minimize the need for that conversation by making sure your first employee is right for your org. So before you block out an afternoon to draft your job ad, dig deep into whether you really need a new hire. How does this step fit with your theory of change? What bottlenecks are you facing, and how will a new hire fix them?
Finding the best candidates
Once you’re confident that a new hire is the best decision, the first challenge you face is tapping into the available talent. As remote working becomes more common and workplace habits and expectations adjust accordingly, recruit internationally to open up a bigger talent pool. (And for advice on how to manage a remote team, we’ve got you covered.) If you’re looking to hire in a specific country, spend some time getting a sense of the hiring landscape. It may be tempting to offer a higher salary to help with branding and attract more talent, but initially it’s better to stick to the going rate. Ask a local organization who has good staff for their recommendations. Our entrepreneurs have found that the best candidates often come from word of mouth recommendations (but, of course, still go through the full application process). When you’re looking for top talent, don’t forget about imposter syndrome. Encourage the best people personally, especially minorities who may experience additional pressures in the workplace.
Your application process comprises at least three parts: an initial application form, a test task, and an interview. Use the initial form to filter out candidates who wouldn’t fit as early as possible. Being honest you are about what your org is like and what you’re looking for might mean fewer applicants, but they’ll be better suited to the role. You don’t want to waste your time or theirs finding out at the last step that a candidate is looking for a six-figure salary. So make sure your first-step application form covers the unglamorous logistical questions like start date, other commitments, and salary expectations. Asking for salary expectations can also help you get a feel for average wages in that country for that role – particularly useful information if you lack cultural fluency in the region you’re hiring in. For important questions (e.g. ascertaining a candidate’s values to see if they align with your org’s), it can be worth asking a couple of times in different ways – throughout the process but also even in a single interview. Along with value alignment, the test task is the most important aspect of the hiring process. It gives you a chance to see how a candidate thinks and works. Create a test task that assesses a range of skills, plus the candidate’s readiness to step outside their comfort zone. First hires need an all-hands-on-deck mindset, willing and able to muck in on tasks beyond their remit. Beware of overvaluing a candidate’s energy or your personal affinity for them at the expense of the quality of their work. This trap is especially easy to fall into during an interview. Maybe you have a great conversation: the candidate is enthusiastic and fun to talk to. But if their test task comes back rushed and rough around the edges, don’t brush it aside. At the end of the day, you’re looking for an employee, not a friend.
Choosing who to hire
As decision time approaches, you’ll run into the explore/exploit dilemma. How long should you spend scoping out the pool of talent versus acting on what you know to make a decision? Here it’s worth remembering that for a young start-up without an established track record, the hiring pool tends to be quite small. Exploring yields fewer gems. So, who to pick? Start with the obvious yet eminently forgettable fact that the best candidate is the best fit. Superstar hires might chafe in a position not commensurate with their talents, so if you don’t have a senior position for them, they’re probably not right for your org. Often the best fit is someone who shares your organization’s values. Passion is another trait to look out for. This can be passion for the day-to-day tasks of the job or for the broader mission – if the latter, make sure it’s the right mission, especially for senior hires. At CE, for example, being excited about research is less important than being excited about our core aim: starting impactful new charities. Research is one of the channels through which we reach that goal, but it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Due to the wide-ranging tasks that come up at an early-stage org, it’s usually best to opt for a generalist. That said, the choice depends what kind of hurdles you’re facing. If a specialist hire could help you clear a major stumbling block, go for the specialist (or ideally, a specialist with a generalist mindset). And if you do go for a generalist, don’t push all your open activities onto them. An accountant might not be the best fundraiser! Your best candidates might get another offer during the hiring process, so make sure you’re giving thought to a couple of top choices, not just the one. This is also a point in favor of being speedy (although there’s a balance to strike between quick and rushed). Competition for talent is an issue with volunteers, too. Be prepared to lose your best volunteers as they get snapped up after a few months. Like all best-made schemes of mice and men, sometimes even the most carefully designed hiring process can go awry. Where possible, start a new hire with a brief trial period by hiring them as a contractor rather than an employee. This gives both you and the hire another chance to figure out your fit. If things don’t work out, the person is still able to put on their CV that they acted as an advisor to your org.
Working well together
All of the work you put into hiring the best fit lays the groundwork for a great working relationship. So if you’ve made it this far attention span intact, congrats! You’re off to a good start. Onto the next set of challenges: check out our articles on management and remote working to hit the ground running with your new hire.