• September 30, 2014

Hiring by Committee

Q. I'm looking for information on hiring with the help of a committee. Could you help me spell out a clear process for a nonprofit organization that guards against unfair influence and hiring preselected candidates?

A. Hiring by committee isn't new to nonprofit organizations, but it is becoming more and more common, says Mary N. Wong, president and managing partner of HRizen Solutions, a Houston company that helps nonprofit organizations design hiring-by-committee processes. Charities are natural environments for hiring committees, she says, because they "promote joint decision making. After all, people are not going to be working in silos."

The best way to guard against unfair influence is to put a clear plan into place, she says. If you're selecting a committee, rather than bringing candidates before a pre-established board such as a board of directors, make sure that it includes the people who are going to interact with your new hire on a daily basis. "Prepare the committee by giving them a preset list of questions that are geared toward the position," Ms. Wong advises. This consistency can help minimize personal biases, she says. Agree in advance on the criteria that you'll use to judge candidates, so that the choice is a smooth one.

If you're bringing candidates before a pre-established board, preparation is still key, says Ian K. Portnoy, a lawyer in Washington and board member of several charities, including Big Brothers Big Sisters International and WETA, a public-broadcasting station in Arlington, Va. He suggests giving committee members a "board book," which should include a description of the open position, the search process used to gather candidates, and the process that the organization has used to narrow down the field of applicants. As far as your concern about favoritism for "pre-selected" candidates, Lin Grensing-Pophal, a human-resources consultant in Chippewa Falls, Wis., who works with nonprofit health-care clients, says that a committee can actually help to reduce unfair influence and bias. "The hiring of 'pre-selected' candidates can happen in any type of hiring situation and, in my opinion, would be more likely to occur when there is only one interviewee and one person making a decision than when an entire group is involved," she says.

Hiring by committee is not only fair, she says, "but it's the best way to guard against inadvertent bias in the hiring process -- and to increase the chance that you'll hire outside your comfort zone. We all have a tendency to gravitate toward people who are 'like us.' Those people, though, aren't necessarily the best choices for a new hire because they may not bring in traits, experiences, or strengths that are different than ours." A committee ensures that a larger number of people are taking their biases into account.

You can read more about the team-interviewing process in Ms. Grensing-Pophal's new book, Human Resource Essentials (Society for Human Resource Management, $34.95), available through the society's Web site.

Q. Where would I find a list of nonprofit organizations in the Chicago area that use prospect researchers?

A. Your best bet is to check out the member directory of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement. This group's members conduct research on individuals and corporations to assess their potential as donors, says Kay Ellen Farison, executive director of the association, in Westmont, Ill. While the group's member directory doesn't include every charity that employs prospect researchers, it is one of the largest single listings of such organizations you will find. The association has 2,200 members, and Ms. Farison says about 80 percent of them are nonprofit organizations, and most have prospect researchers on their staffs. You can search their directory online by geographic location, type of institution, and alphabetically by member name.

Here's the hitch: You have to be a member of the association to have access to its member directory, at a cost of $150 per year for an individual. There's an application on the Web site, and there are no prerequisites for membership, says Ms. Farison. A cheaper option is to search the site's online job listings for prospect researchers, which you can do free.

Another good resource is the Donor's Forum of Chicago Library -- check out its Web site for directions and hours. The library offers directories of all the nonprofit organizations in Chicago, says Julie Yurko, director of major gifts at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Of course, you'll find that not every nonprofit group employs full-time prospect researchers, but if you are planning to approach a particular charity to offer your services, the library is a good place to start. There are other libraries in Chicago that have similar information, and there are similar libraries in other cities: The Foundation Center's Web site has a list that is organized by state.

Q. I have been a corporate-litigation lawyer for more than 20 years. I have substantial experience in corporate and employment law, and managed a firm of approximately 50 employees. I am now interested in changing careers entirely and wish to enter the nonprofit world, either as an executive of some sort or, less ideally, as a lawyer. Do you have any suggestions for the best approach?

A. Even with your impressive credentials and experience, you might find it difficult to make the case for a direct leap into a nonlegal, executive-level position at a nonprofit organization. As it is for anyone planning to make a transition from the for-profit world, it is important to realize that charities are not only looking for employees with specific skills but are also looking for people who have direct experience and knowledge of the nonprofit world.

So, when you are applying for a position, you'll definitely want to show that you know what you're getting yourself into. For example, you'll want to make it clear that you are not expecting a slower pace of life as a result of your career change, says Dave Kaus, business manager at the National Endowment for Financial Education, in Greenwood Village, Colo. "The workload just does not decrease in a nonprofit-organization environment," says Mr. Kaus, who previously worked in the for-profit field. Compared with the corporate world, "there's fewer support staff, and the work time for an individual is about the same or even longer than in a for-profit environment."

To gather more perspective, talk to people who have made the switch from for-profit to nonprofit, advises Gordon Garrett, division manager at the Lions Clubs International Foundation, in Oak Brook, Ill. Mr. Garrett went to work for the Lions Clubs after a career in corporate sales, and says he was struck by the differences in the two working environments' cultures. "I was used to being driven by quarterly profits. I don't miss that," he says. At a nonprofit group, he says, a sense of urgency is spread out throughout the year, rather than intensifying as the end of a quarter approaches.

Although you have indicated that working as a lawyer is not your first choice, you might find it easier to seek a legal position at a nonprofit organization. Your corporate-litigation experience may not directly correlate with the skills required in many executive nonprofit positions, such as fund raising, says Virginia Strull, cofounder and vice president at Professionals for NonProfits Inc., a New York recruiter. But once you have gained charity experience, says Ms. Strull, you'll have a far easier time making your case for a nonlegal executive position. If you're seeking a legal position at a nonprofit organization, you should probably concentrate your search on larger nonprofit groups -- many smaller to midsize organizations tend to hire lawyers rather than maintain one on the staff, says Mr. Kaus.

If you can't stomach the idea of working as a lawyer for another second, you can also build your experience and knowledge of the nonprofit world by volunteering or taking a course in nonprofit management. Also check out What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer's Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law, by Deborah Arron, which covers nonprofit jobs (Niche Press, $29.95) and The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook: More Than 300 Things You Can Do With a Law Degree, by Hindi Greenberg (Avon, $14).

Q. As a retired nonprofit executive director, I receive inquiries about freelancing as a grant-proposal writer. I do not know how to charge for such services. Is it usually done by the hour, by completed project, or by successful submission?

A. For a freelance grant-proposal writer, the decision on how much to charge can be very complicated, says Phyllis Renninger, of Jacksonville, Fla., who has been a freelance grant-proposal writer for 10 years. (She is also vice president of the American Association of Grant Professionals.) She says that the two most common ways to charge clients are by the hour and by the project, though her clients prefer a flat rate. To calculate her rate, she still sets an hourly fee, and then estimates how much time she will need to complete the project.

Your hourly fee, she says, is "going to vary according to the area of the country that you're in and the experience you have, and it's an extremely wide range: from $35 to $100 an hour." It also may vary depending on the size of your clients. The National Writers Union surveyed its members in 1999, and found that freelance grant-proposal writers for large nonprofit groups were earning an average of $51 per hour, while writers for small charities were earning an average of $45 per hour. (The union did not define "large" and "small" groups in its survey.)

The best way to find out what is standard in your area is to ask other freelance grant-proposal writers, whom you might find by joining the American Association of Grant Professionals (membership costs $75 per year). The association will hold its next conference November 7-9 in Portland, Ore. Registration for the meeting costs $150 for members and $175 for nonmembers, if you register before September 15.

The one thing you certainly don't want to do, says Ms. Renninger, is to charge by successful submission. It's unethical, according to the American Association of Grant Professionals, and can result in the writer not being fairly paid for his or her labor. "You can be the very best grant writer in the world and have your grant [application] turned down. You can be the very worst grant writer and it might get funded. You are performing a service, and the fee should be paid," she says, regardless of the outcome.

For more information, check out the article "Consulting Fees for Grant Proposal Writing" on the Grantsmanship Center's Web site. To learn more about breaking in to grant-proposal writing, see this previous edition of Hotline.

Got a question about job hunting, recruiting, or managing in the nonprofit world? Send it to us at hotline@philanthropy.com.

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