Interview Behavior for Interviewers and Interviewees Alike

A job interview is a negotiation, just like any other business transaction. It’s the best opportunity for two parties to develop knowledge and understanding about each other. What it is NOT is a one-sided negotiation, with one side having all the power and the other side playing the role of supplicant. These guidelines apply just as readily to interviews with prospective board members and other volunteers, who will have an important role to play in your organization.

The interviewer has to be looking for the right fit, which includes the right skills and the right outlook, so that the successful candidate will be appropriate for the new organization both in terms of providing the needed services and in terms of fitting into the existing culture.

The interviewee is essentially looking for the same: they want to make sure they’ve got the required expertise–and can grow their skills–and that they’ll feel comfortable in their new position.

For both parties, behavior before, during, and after the interview is telling–and should not be ignored. Pay attention to:

Communication: Are both parties timely in their communications? Thank-you notes tell you a lot, particularly in a nonprofit, about how the individual or organization will treat its staff and its volunteers. Organizations should keep candidates apprised of the progress of the search, and candidates should let organizations know immediately if they want to withdraw from the process.

Listening: It’s important for both sides, and important to read between the lines of the answers given.

Courtesy: Do both parties speak with respect, or with a tone that seems arrogant or patronizing? Is the interviewee offered hospitality, or made to feel uncomfortable in any way?

Truthfulness: Is either party trying to sell itself, downplaying or discounting challenges that have been faced? Every organization and every individual has and is facing both opportunities and threats; the most successful will be transparent in disclosure, face the issues head on, and find solutions.

We’ve all been on both sides of the table. The best interviews, I hope you’ll agree, are the ones where everyone walks away feeling as though they’ve learned a lot and want to learn more.


What Is a Sustainable Organization?

Back when I was teaching about sustainability in the context of green building programs, I used, as a definition of sustainability, “the most efficient use of resources over the lifetime of the building.” I called my consulting firm Sustainable Places, Sustainable Organizations because I believe the same principles apply to nonprofits as apply to any other system: that resources, which include time and people as well as money, must be wisely used, not just for the short term, but also for the long-term well being of the organization.

What makes a nonprofit organization sustainable? Here are a few areas of focus:

Comprehensive relationship management. This requires a single, unified database, that enables staff and volunteers to understand the complete relationship with individuals and organizations: recent and past donations, time given to volunteer projects, involvement with other organizations, participation in events. You should understand all of the ways people are involved and be in touch with them frequently, not just to ask for money, but to ask for advice and let them know what’s happening and how their participation is helping your organization grow. It’s so much easier to build on existing supporters than try to find new ones. I’ve written about CRM programs in the past; Salesforce is one. It’s free. Do make sure that, after taking the time to acquire the data, you use it.

Continual leadership development. Do you know who’ll be leading your organization for the next five years? Do you have a plan in the event the president-elect has to withdraw at the last minute? It’s not just about the next board chair, but about developing leadership strength and depth at all levels: board, committees, one-time volunteers. Don’t assume that everyone has the knowledge and skills to run the board or manage the event or serve on the finance committee just because they’ve offered to. Learning new skills is an important benefit of volunteering and equally important to retention. A leadership pipeline is critical to smooth operations.

The same is true for staff. Make sure you’re budgeting for professional development. In your annual review, find out if there are skills the ED would like an opportunity to develop. Are there clear job descriptions for each position? Should the ED decide to depart, is there a succession plan?

Annual review of systems. Are your systems efficient and up to date or is your staff spending unnecessary time trying to make outdated computer systems work? Does your phone system enable messages to be searched and archived? Do you have systems in place to update software? Does your accounting system need streamlining? Are there other areas that can be automated without “loss of human contact,” to enable your staff and volunteers to spend more time doing the things that only humans can do?

Review your space
. We’ve all visited nonprofit offices that are repositories of incredible amounts of “stuff”: table centerpieces from last year’s luncheon, flip charts from the last strategic planning session five years ago, leftover plates and napkins from dozens of board meetings, boxes of files no one’s looked at for years. Everyone is happier and more productive working in an organized environment and a lot of clutter makes it hard to find needed information. If your office is suffering from accretions from the last few decades, organize an ad hoc committee to spend several afternoons or evenings organizing. The volunteers will learn things they never knew and you may find that missing cd of photos you’ve been looking for for six months.

Document retention. Having important, regularly accessed documents in a central location will save huge amounts of time. Most contact relationship management programs enable digital document storage, including emails and voice mail messages, which can provide an alternative to retaining paper documents in the office. A document retention policy that is integrated into daily operations, with documentation of where documents are stored, will not only save time but also ensure items are available when leadership changes.

Make it easier. Can prospective volunteers find information about volunteer jobs and sign up online? Is the volunteer chair notified automatically and does the volunteer’s information automatically get added to the database? Can a donation be made with one click? Can your donors make donations in monthly or quarterly installments?

In my experience, time is the resource most frequently squandered by nonprofit organizations. But donors and volunteers have little patience for misuse of that resource particularly. Remember that there’s a lot of competition for support of all kinds. By making all of your activities easier and more streamlined, you’ll be making the best use of your donors’ and your volunteers’ time–and they will love you for it.

Using time, money and people effectively will ensure that your organization will better weather the vagaries of the economy and survive for the long term, and that is what sustainability is all about.



Does Your Board Know What It Needs to Know?

One of the most important jobs of organizational leadership is to ensure that board members have the right amount of information to ensure that they can–and will–carry out their fiduciary responsibilities and make the best contribution they can. Summertime, when many organizations begin a new fiscal year but perhaps scale back their activities, is the perfect time to make that happen.

Although in general I support providing documents digitally wherever possible, I’m a big fan of the comprehensive board notebook. This gives trustees a place to organize their information, adding documents as needed, taking notes at meetings, and using as a reference during and between meetings. The notebook should be issued immediately after the individual is elected so that they will have time to review and bring their questions to the board orientation. Going through the notebook page-by-page at the orientation is a real buzzkill at a time you want to generate excitement for their service.

The orientation is the point at which the organization has the best opportunity to tell new board members exactly what the group needs from them–and also to learn what the newbie wants out of their board tenure. Interactivity and getting to know one another is key! Critically, each individual must come away with a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, particularly the legal requirements of board membership.

Here’s some further reading on effective orientations. Do it–a little time invested now will make a huge difference in the long run.

When It’s Time to Say Goodbye…

Finishing up my time at NCJW, and I’ve been trying to make sure they have all the information they need for a reasonably seamless transition.

I haven’t been there long, but because I was their first executive director the organization hasn’t had to deal with this type of transition in the past. In addition, almost all of their administrative systems have been modified over the course of the past year, and NCJW will also have to hire a new administrative manager–the only other staff position. Lots of change for a small organization.

To ease the transition, we first made sure that the organization’s operations manual was up to date. It’s a physical document, kept in a secure spot, with information about all of the office systems: computers, printers, passwords, etc. Every group should have one. We updated vendor information, which is kept in our CRM database (Salesforce, in this case), along with many other documents, so that our successors would know where to find it–and where to find help when they need it.

Then I met informally with every program or project chair and every vice president I could squeeze in, to talk about where to find their information, goals and strategies for their programs, and possibilities and recommendations for next steps.

It’s important to recognize, as is pointed out in this article, that invariably there is conjecture about the “real reason” for the departure; that can be forestalled by a straightforward letter of resignation that is distributed to all board members and other key stakeholders. Along with mine, I attached a series of general recommendations for the board, so that even if I hadn’t had a chance to meet one-on-one with them, everyone would have the opportunity to benefit from what I’d learned over the past year.

In the end, everyone’s happy and I feel as though I’ve given them the best preparation I could for the future. Ultimately, that’s the job!



What a Difference a Volunteer Can Make

As I look back over my year at NCJW Greater Dallas, I can point to a number of organizational achievements of which I am very proud. The project I was most proud to be associated with, though, was one that perhaps I had the least influence over: NCJW’s Aid to Immigrant Families program.

In the summer of 2014, Dallas County faced the possibility of an influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children. Social service organizations all over the county tried to understand the problem and came up with all sorts of potential ways to help. NCJW did what it always does: took a hard look, assessed existing resources for the kids, and found the place where it could best make a difference..

Early on, volunteers realized that our immigration courts were working hard to expedite children through the process. This might have served the court, but certainly didn’t serve the children, many of whom were being deported without having the benefit of legal representation.

NCJW volunteers organized themselves to monitor the court and collect data about the so-called “rocket docket,” which information was eventually used in a national class-action suit on behalf of the kids. The court took notice and began to take a more thoughtful approach.

Later, these same volunteers helped develop workshops to teach immigrant families how to apply for asylum, to avoid returning to dangerous situations in their home countries.

We’ll never really know how many children were ultimately helped. One thing we do know: if even one life was saved, it was certainly worth the effort.

The Necessary Leadership

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what enables an executive director to be successful.

I’ve had both good and not-so-good experiences serving as CEO of nonprofits, and it seems to me that the most important element–the sine qua non of nonprofit success–is accountability, both of the volunteers and of the staff.

The relationship between the board chair and the ED is a microcosm of the larger relationship. While the ED may be leading the organization as a whole, the board chair is responsible for guiding. motivating, and holding accountable the board of trustees.

I’m a big fan of fairly detailed job descriptions for volunteers as well as paid staff. Increasingly, I’m also a fan of asking board members to sign their job description, as a way of acknowledging the responsibility they’re taking on. But I’ve had board leadership tell me, “These are volunteers–you can’t hold them accountable.” I couldn’t disagree more.

Sometimes an organization can weather a period of weak leadership, but in times of significant change, the board and staff MUST have a shared vision and a shared sense of what has to be accomplished to make that vision a reality, and everyone has to be accountable for their part of it–otherwise, it’s just not happening.