How to Hire Your First Staff Person

When you start a nonprofit organization it might be that you need no staff because it runs solely on volunteer labor. In these types of organizations, the board of directors usually takes a very hands on approach, and the work is accomplished before or after your day jobs. These organizations can be very effective at a small scale, but if your nonprofit needs to scale up to get its work done, you’ll be hiring staff people sooner or later, and not every nonprofit founder has done that. So what I’m offering here is essentially a recipe for making your first hire.

Hiring your first staff person can be a challenge if your whole experience with hiring people has been you applying for jobs and hoping to be hired. Now the tables are turned. How do you do this? Where do you begin?

This isn’t necessarily the only right way, so help me out by sending me your suggestions for improvement. This recipe outlines a basic process, but there are clearly more steps that come before (like deciding what jobs you need to hire for) and after (like getting your first hire fully onboard with your organization’s work). I’m assuming you’ve already decided that you need to hire someone and that you know what the person’s basic job will be.

So let’s begin.

Make a good job description

A good job descriptions includes a job title that communicates a general idea of what the job is about, a list of the job duties, the “must have” qualifications, some “nice to have” qualifications, and instructions about how to apply. Think about when you want to stop taking resumes, when you want to interview people, when you’re thinking you’ll hire, and when you’d like someone to start. Include as much of this as possible, but allow yourself some flexibility.

It’s also important to include the wage or salary or at least a range that you’re able to pay. I really want to emphasize that listing a salary range can save a lot of time, especially if you’re unfortunately unable to pay a market rate. This is respectful of other people’s time as well.

To get an idea of what to include for a title, duties, and qualifications, look at several other job descriptions as if you were applying for a similar job. The job duties drive what qualifications you will need to list, and the list of qualifications will be used a lot later on in the process. Get a few others to take a look at this important document before moving on. Take some time on this step, since it’s the basis for everything else.

Pay special attention to the basic contact information and logistics. Do you want a resume? A cover letter? Do you want it in a specific format (for example Microsoft Word or PDF)? Check any links you include before posting.

Advertise that job

Plan on leaving the advertisement up for long enough that enough people will see it. You want  a good pool of candidates to choose from. Check with your local nonprofit association to see where the best places are to advertise. This could depend on the type of job you’re posting. In some cases, you might host the full job description, instructions, and such on your own website, and only post a paragraph elsewhere, pointing to the official post. This allows you to tweak the instructions in a single place if you need to. (But please, try to think everything through and post a complete and appropriate job ad on the first try.)

Define your method of ranking applicants

Take a good hard look at the qualifications you’re asking for. This is the basis of how you’ll decide who is the best candidate. The qualifications should be based on your ideal candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. This could include things like college degrees or certifications, but think about if these are really necessary. Including a degree or certification that is unnecessary puts up barriers that might exclude someone who is actually qualified but hasn’t had the good fortune to be able to achieve those degrees.

Start a spreadsheet where you list each of the qualities you’ll be considering. These should all come from the job description you’ve already worked out.

Collect applicants

As you receive applications add them to your spreadsheet. Also keep a paper or electronic copy of their cover letters and resumes.

It’s time to start applying your criteria. I like giving each candidate a 1-5 rating for each of the criteria listed. If you’ve posted a deadline, you may want to wait until then to evaluate all the candidates at the same time. If you are expecting a lot of candidates, you might want to do them as they come in.

Once you’ve got a critical mass of candidates, you can look at the numbers and begin to sort the people into three categories: Nope, Maybe, and Interviewee. This should get added to the spreadsheet.

Nopes are people you’ve decided you would not hire based on a lack of qualifications. It’s good to communicate with these folks as soon as you’ve made this decision. Send them a nice “Thanks for applying” email where you tell them you’re moving ahead with other candidates.

Interviewees are people you want to interview, because they stand out based on your criteria. I like numerically ranking each applicant on each of the criteria, calculating a score for each, and flagging those with the highest marks as Interviewee.

Maybes are in between. You’d interview them if your first picks drop out, but only if that were to happen. Aim for the fewest number of maybes as possible, but avoid interviewing more people than you can manage.

Schedule the Interviews.

Don’t schedule more interviews than you can handle. This affects where you draw the line between Interviewees and Maybes.

Try to reach everyone you want to interview. When you contact them some candidates may no longer be interested. Perhaps they found another job in the meantime. Change their category to Nope and note they withdrew. Thank them for their time and move on.

If you run short of people, take a second look at your Maybes and promote some of them to Interviewee. One of my best hires started out as a Maybe, showing that my initial ranking is imperfect.

Conduct the Interviews

Try to be consistent in which questions you ask (generally). Feel free to follow up based on their answers. There are certain questions you should avoid in order to avoid unintentionally breaking the law by discriminating on age, race, sex, etc. After the interview, do a second ranking. Note strengths and weaknesses of each candidate.

It’s good to have someone sit in on the interview with you. This gives you a more rounded perspective on each candidate. Ideally, your hiring team is two or maybe three people that attend all the interviews. Too many people can be intimidating to the candidates, but you may want a few more people involved for a higher level job.

Re-classify, Select, and Check References

After the interviews, select your first choice, second choice, and so on. Only pick people who will actually be able to do the job. Anyone else should be converted to a Nope at this point. Record your final rankings in the spreadsheet. After re-classifying someone as a Nope, send a polite rejection letter (as above). The sooner you tell someone they are out of the running the sooner they can get on with their life. You should never have a Maybe that you have interviewed. You should only have Nopes and First Choice, Second Choice, etc.


The order in which you notify people can help you avoid some serious missteps.

  1. Call your first choice with a job offer. If they need time to think over it, agree to a specific timeline, and wait that out.
  2. Only after receiving confirmation from your first choice, notify everyone else. This leaves second place people in the running in case something doesn’t work out with your first choice.
  3. If they don’t accept the offer, move on to the second choice, and work your way down the list, offering each person the job (as above) until you get an acceptance or run out of options.
  4. If you’ve exhausted all your choices, look at who is left on your Maybe list. Take the best of these and schedule interviews. Start the process over from there.
  5. If you find yourself with no hires, and all you have left is Nopes, it’s time to re-think the job, perhaps tweak it, perhaps advertise in different venues, perhaps work with a professional HR consultant or recruiter.
  6. When you’re all done, double check to ensure that everyone who applied gets a brief, professional, and polite email making it clear that they are no longer in the running for that job. Any remaining Maybes will not have been contacted until this point, but do communicate with them.

This process is one that has worked for me in the past. Ask another seasoned nonprofit hiring veteran, and you’ll get a different process. If you’ve been through this and have suggestions for improvement, please leave a comment on the blog or send me an email. I’ll try to incorporate suggestions into future versions of this post.

This process seems like a long and complicated one, but it’s worth it to do the job well. It’s way more efficient and effective than hiring the wrong person for the job and dealing with that mistake for a long time.

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