30 Steps for Nonprofit Recruiting in the age of COVID-19

Recruiting a director is one of the main responsibilities of a nonprofit board. You can add a lot of quality into your process by being slightly tech savvy. Here´s one way to do it.

(Jussi Two Seven in Brighton. Image: Oula Paunonen/The Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland)

The Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland is one of Finland´s cultural institutes abroad. I have been fortunate to serve on its board now for nearly six years, the last couple of years as Chair.

Our Director, Emilie Gardberg, was appointed as Dean of Sibelius Academy, one of the world´s leading music universities. This meant we had to start recruiting for a new leader — to put it mildly, in challenging times. We have also streamlined our administration so the recruitment process needed to be carried out both efficiently and with excellence.

Our work focuses on all those things, which have become extremely difficult due to the pandemic: cultural relations, international mobility, the arts, festivals and events. Our office is in London. According to London City Hall, between 20–27 January, 33 904 Londoners have tested positive for COVID-19. The city is on lockdown right now. You should not leave your home in London unless you have a reasonable excuse.

And then there´s of course Brexit. There are multiple questions on what stays as it was and what things become much more difficult.

And we had just adopted a new strategy, changed the visual identity, were entering our 30th anniversary. Oh, and we had just renamed the organization from the Finnish Institute in London to the Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland in order to signal our broader commitment to the region.

New visual identity of the Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland (by Studio Emmi)

We realized we were doing this recruitment in the age of COVID-19, which limited us from meeting face-to-face. That meant that we had to make sure we had enough insight on the candidates using other means. It is clear that you lose a lot of information when you don´t meet people face-to-face.

We did not want to spend resources on additional administrative support and looked for lean, technology-enabled solutions. We were also painfully aware that without a special attention to empathy, digital tools actually create a technocratic and cold candidate experience.

We are just about to enter the last round of interviews with the entire board. We hope to choose the new Director this month.

We have been told our process is tougher than getting a job at an investment bank. II take that as a compliment. Simultaneously I have gotten positive feedback from many candidates on the process — even when my call to them did not come with the news they had wanted.

This is how we have carried it out.

New visual identity of the Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland (by Studio Emmi)

30 Steps into a Successful Recruitment

A. Preparations

  1. Have a board meeting to discuss the profile and process. Make the first draft on qualifications. Hear the views of the departing director but limit their role in the process to this — and answering inquiries from candidates. Appoint an interim director.
  2. Select a group of board members to prepare and carry out the process. Make sure your recruitment team brings together diverse views and experiences. When talking about recruiting a director, the Chair should lead the effort. Agree on communication with the rest of the board.
  3. In the first meeting of the recruiting team, set guidelines for the process, for instance how to deal with personal connections to the candidates. Choose competencies you look for in candidates. Talk them through so you understand them in the same way.
  4. Write the call for applications. Have several people look at it before publishing it. Make sure you have listed out the competencies you look for. Check your language for unconscious bias. Make sure you communicate your values. Make sure information on your strategy is easily available for possible candidates. We made a PowerPoint into an animation. We paid special attention to the video having a welcoming and warm vibe. We make a marketing plan for the call.
  5. Get an applicant tracking system. This saves a lot of time. This way you store candidates´ information in one system with equal access for all in the recruiting team. Do all communication with candidates through the system. We have used Finnish RecRight and been incredibly happy with it. An applicant tracking system saves time, meets GDPR standards and avoids files getting lost or information being shared with people who will not need it. Include a couple of questions in your application form you want the applicant to reflect upon in addition to a cover letter and a CV.
Screenshot from RecRight applicant tracking system.

B. Applications

  1. Publish the call for applications. Name 1–2 people who are available for quick chats with possible candidates. Use your network to encourage people to apply or nominate people who might be interested. Buy some visibility on social media platforms. Send a newsletter to your stakeholders.
  2. When the deadline has passed, send a message to all applicants thanking them for their application and laying out the entire timeline for the process with all the dates for interviews etc. Have someone read the message before sending it so that the tone is appreciative and encouraging.

C. First round: Pre-recorded videos

  1. Everyone in the recruiting team reviews the applications in the applicant tracking system individually, comments on them and rates them from 1 to 5. Encourage people to not pay attention to other people´s remarks before forming their own opinion on a candidate. Rating done individually helps at least a bit in tackling unconscious bias.
  2. Have a selection meeting where you choose people who are invited to record their answers to pre-recorded questions on the RecRight system. Make sure you have sufficient diversity of backgrounds and experience, of potential and experience, in your selection. Review each candidate first as themselves and only after that compare the candidates to others.
  3. Pre-record your questions to be answered by the candidates. Use several people from the recruiting team to ask different questions so that the candidate gets acquainted with everyone taking part in the decision. This makes the process feel more like a conversation.
    Don´t just shoot the questions but make your questions slightly conversational. Give a bit of context. Before jumping into the question, introduce yourself. Remember that this is also a great moment to build up your organization´s brand. Even if most of the people would not be selected, they are most likely your organization´s stakeholders.
    When choosing your questions, focus on understanding their thinking and their past experience. Ask the candidates to keep their answers under two minutes. Don´t test their knowledge of your organization yet.
  4. Use the applicant tracking system to sort the candidates and send a message both to the ones continuing the process and the ones who don´t.

D. Second round: Online live interviews

  1. Everyone in the recruiting team reviews the videos individually, comments on them and rates them from 1 to 5.
  2. Have a selection meeting where you choose people who are invited to a Google Meet interview with the recruiting team. Decide on an assignment you ask the applicants to prepare for the interview. We decided to test how they would approach a complex new strategic theme during their first 100 days.
  3. Use the applicant tracking system to sort the candidates and send a message both to the ones continuing the process and the ones who don´t. Use a booking software like Calendly to open your calendar for the candidates to book the interview time, which best works for them. You need to have some extra time slots so that you demonstrate that you understand that the candidates have prior commitments. Using a booking software avoids going back and forth with emails and getting dates and times wrong. Calendly adds the interview automatically into your calendar and adds a Google Meet link to to the appointment.
  4. Use GoogleDocs to jointly draft a list of questions for the interview and agree with your interview team on who asks what. Our interviews were 45 minutes, which consisted of their 7-minute presentation and five themes.
    Here were our questions:
    - We want to know more about your leadership skills.
    Q Please tell us about a time when you led a team that was not functioning particularly well. What did you do to improve this? What did you learn from the experience?
    - Some years back the board decided to increase the share of the budget that is allocated to programming, whilst decreasing the share used for fixed costs such as staff and rent. We digitized our financial administration, outsourced most of it to an accounting firm in Helsinki and we no longer need an administrator in the office. An intern helps with administration but a lot of the financial planning, budget control and good governance rests on the shoulders of the director.
    Q Please reflect on this, and tell us a bit about how you would approach this situation?
    - The institute works on the cultural connections between several countries.
    Q What would you say are the key differences between the cultural scenes of Finland, Ireland and the United Kingdom, which the institute needs to take into account in order to be successful in its work?
    - Developing partnerships and networking is an important part of the job. It should lead to increased impact, and should help you stretch resources too.
    Q Please tell us how you have developed partnerships in the past which have led to new resources and please include an example of fundraising in your response.
    - The institute is committed to promoting antiracism. This is a stronger statement than in many Finnish cultural organizations.
    Q What do you see this meaning in practice?
  5. Meet with the interview team for 15 minutes before the first interview.
  6. Carry out the interviews. Stress that this is a conversation, not a test. Start with their presentation so they feel confident and prepared. Focus on their vision and how they link their background to it. Pay attention if they have done their homework. React to their answers with short comments to demonstrate you are hearing them right and also to create a more relaxed environment. Be strict on time. Use at least one of the themes in the interview to see how they react to new information, to uncertainty, to thinking on their feet. Ask for references if they have not provided them yet.
  7. After each interview, take 5–10 minutes of individual time to write down your notes on a candidate. Pay attention to the descriptive terms you use for men and women. We have a tendency to unconsciously enforce stereotypes.

E. Third round: Interviews with the board

  1. After carrying out all the interviews, meet with your recruitment team and go through all candidates. Don´t compare them yet. Alternate who starts with feedback. Make sure you first evaluate all candidates individually before comparing them to each other. Talk openly about unconscious bias and whether you judge men and women differently or older and younger people differently. Choose the candidates who continue in the process.
  2. Call first the candidates who continue in the process. Give them some feedback both on what you liked and what you are left thinking. Stress that now it is not about whether they are competent but whether there´s the right fit. Remind them that when they meet the entire board, some of the board members are meeting them for the first time.
  3. If you have five or less candidates, call also the ones who do not continue. Read the situation if they want to talk about the experience or not. Make sure you have feedback to all of them. Don´t call on a Friday with bad news.
  4. Sort the candidates in the applicant tracking system and send written instructions and a Calendly link to the final candidates.
  5. Check references by calling 1–2 references for the final candidates..
  6. Carry out the interview with the entire board. Don´t bombard them with questions but do it out more as a discussion. Remember that the situation is as much about you finding the right candidate as them finding the perfect job. It is about building a possible relationship and finding the right person to execute the organization´s strategy, not a one-sided test of a person´s abilities. Pay attention to how they link their comments to other people and how they do or don´t pay attention to everyone.
  7. After carrying out all the interviews, meet with your board and go through all candidates. Don´t compare them immediately. Alternate who starts with feedback. Make sure you first evaluate all candidates individually before comparing them to each other. Make a preliminary decision.
  8. Sleep on it, maybe a couple of nights.
  9. Meet with the decision makers. Share the original call for applications with everyone. Compare it to the final candidates. Do a round to hear everyone´s thoughts.
  10. Make a decision.
Vieno Motors. (Aino-Sofia Niklas-Salminen)

F. After

  1. Call final candidates. Make sure you have feedback to all of them, also to the one who was selected.
  2. Sign the contract. Agree on starting date. Make preliminary decisions on on-boarding. Meet with the new director and the team. Make your choice public.

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