How to Research a Nonprofit During Your Job Search


Research: the job seeker’s best friend!

For several years, I led the nonprofit ethics program of the Cincinnati Better Business Bureau, where my job involved close examinations of nonprofit financial statements, annual reports, and fundraising materials, to evaluate whether local charities met national standards of accountability. If you’re considering a position at a nonprofit, here are some key documents and resources to include in your research, especially if you’re applying for a leadership role.

Note: These are primarily resources for researching 501(c)(3) organizations, which are the most common and most widely recognized type of nonprofit. Other groups, such as political, labor, or trade associations, will have some of these documents available. For churches, synagogues, mosques, and some religiously affiliated organizations, you’ll need to rely on their internal documents if you want to do this kind of research.

Annual Reports

Most established nonprofits put together an annual report of some kind. It might be nothing more than a special issue of their donor newsletter, or it could be 64-page glossy magazine expensively designed and produced. The annual report is often available on the organization’s website or by asking for a copy.[1] The annual report, if it’s done well, will contain several key pieces of information that will greatly help you in your research: Continue reading

The Best Cover Letter Tips Ever

Letter from Lyman Spencer

Nothing says “Hire me now!” like super-curly handwriting. (Or, in this case, “please send me some rulers!”)

When you’re approaching a company for employment, your cover letter is your opportunity to make a great first impression. These tips will guarantee that you get the attention you deserve.

Provide concrete examples of your qualifications for the job. By “concrete,” I mean “specific,” unless the job involves actual concrete, in which case I mean “concrete.”

Be brief and to the point. Cover letters longer than one page are suitable only for direct mail solicitation positions. For those, cover letters should be no shorter than five pages, with multiple inserts, sent to the hiring manager several times a week in differently colored envelopes to test open rates.

Specify the position for which you are applying. “Whatever you’ve got” is not specific enough.

Mention where you learned about the position. This is especially important for companies with many openings. It would be awfully embarrassing to be interviewed for a position with slightly different requirements!

Use LinkedIn and other websites to research the hiring manager and personalize your greeting. For example, “What up, Joe! How’s that hawt wife of yours?” would be suitable only if you can verify that his wife is indeed “hawt.”

If you have been referred by someone known to the hiring manager, mention his or her name. Be careful, though, because you don’t want to seen as a name-dropper.

Here’s an example of name-dropping:

Last night, at LeBron’s house, Kim Kardashian said I would be perfect for this job. Philip Roth and that little girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild agreed.

Here’s an example of using references well:

Dear Dad, Mom said you need to give me a job.

Don’t go into details about why you’re looking for work or how long you have been looking. That’s what your blog is for.

If you include URLs to online portfolios or resumes, make sure you have created a custom, personalized URL. Instead of a random string of letters and numbers, use something like “”

Cast yourself in the best possible light. Use words like “awesome,” “rocking,” and “superstar” multiple times in your letter.

Consider hand delivering your cover letter. Almost no one does that, mainly because it’s creepy. If you go this route, consider taping your cover letter to a rocking box of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Consider sending me a box, too, as thanks for this awesome advice. Then you’ll be a superstar.

Use a professional-looking font. Comic Sans is not professional, unless you’re applying to every freaking business in my town. What is up with these people?

A little dab of perfume never hurts.

Job Farming

The usual metaphor is job hunting, but I have been thinking lately how much finding a new job is like that other basic human work: farming.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed.

Planting: You have to till the soil and sow your seeds.


Should we use the term job “farming” instead of job hunting? (Photo credit: thegreenpages)

If we wanted to extend the metaphor into a full analogy, the “soil” would be your network of contacts and resources, while your “seeds” would be the applications, resumes, proposals, etc., that (you hope) will eventually grow into work. You have to sow these widely, but you also have to sow in the right places and prepare the soil ahead of time.

Unlike farming, of course, you never quite know what you’ll reap from your efforts. Missionaries often talk about “sowing the seed widely,” which means sharing the Gospel with as many people as you can, without predetermining who you think will respond and who won’t. There’s an element to this in the job search, though it’s also important to make sure you’re planting the right seeds in the right soil.

Preparing: You have to keep your tools sharp.

While farming has seasons, it doesn’t really have an “off” season. The same is true with the job search. Just because you’re still searching for the perfect job doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels (or lack thereof). You have to keep your job skills sharp so that you’ll be ready when the opportunity comes.

For example, here are a few things I’m doing to keep my tools sharp:

  • Writing for the Emerging Scholars Blog
  • Taking web development and design courses from Treehouse.
  • Working on some freelance and personal writing projects.

These aren’t just exercises, either. Last month, I spoke at Urbana 12, InterVarsity’s triennial student conference. This reminding me how much I enjoy speaking — and that I’m pretty good at it. This, in turn, has shaped the direction of job search in the new year.

Persevering: You need to learn how to wait well — and hope for favorable conditions.

As with actual farming, the eventual harvest is only partly under your control. Drought, flood, locusts, and such can destroy your hard work, but (more optimistically) good weather and the right conditions can make your effort far more productive than you ever expected. Unlike actual farming, however, you don’t know how long your season of waiting will be, which means that guarding against discouragement and complacency are crucial. All of this makes your planting and preparing even more important.

What do you think of this comparison? Do you have a better metaphor that you prefer?

The Worst Answers to Common Job Interview Questions

A bizarre job interview

What should you wear to an interview? “Something” is a good start.

There’s some great advice out there for doing well at job interviews. This is not that advice. These answers are guaranteed to remove you from further consideration.

Tell me about yourself.

Why? What have you heard?

Why did you leave your last job?

Security said I had to.

What is your greatest strength?

Optimism in the face of repeated failure.

What is your greatest weakness?

Fear of spiders. Wait, does this job involve spiders? Then I’m OK with spiders. Really — I swear I am. [shudders]

Tell me about a time you overcame adversity.

I once rolled three natural 20s to defeat a mountain troll in the Caves of Chaos. He was wielding a +2 vorpal sword, and all I had was leather armor and a Bag of Holding. But, with some imaginative footwork and a few lucky rolls of the dice, I defeated him soundly and earned an outrageous number of experience points. Booyah! Continue reading

Dealing with Discouragement During the Job Search

Searching for a new job can be an emotional roller coaster. Regardless of why you’re looking for a new job, you’ll likely encounter discouragement, frustration, anger, hope, elation…sometimes all in the same day!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I think this is a great list of things to do when you lose your job. Here are a few other ideas I’ve found helpful.

Remember That You Are Not Your Job

My wife and I have been watching Downton Abbey on PBS, and I’m extremely grateful that I wasn’t born in a time or place that judged a person’s worth on his heredity. In the US, though, a person’s worth is often judged by his salary, bank account, or material possessions. (Interestingly, among the aristocracy portrayed in Downton Abbey, working for money was considered shameful, as something beneath the dignity of the nobility.)

In reality, your value as a person has nothing to do what job you do, how much money you make, or how nice a car you drive. When I’m tempted to judge myself according to a false standard, I take some time to remind myself of God’s love for me and the love of my family and friends. I’ve also found some techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy to be helpful, such as keeping a journal of honest and encouraging thoughts. When you find your head full of discouraging voices, listen to encouraging voices instead.

Find Encouraging Voices

These encouraging voices are going to be different for everyone. Perhaps you have a close friend or two, and getting coffee with them or talking with them on the phone lifts your spirits. It could be your favorite author or musician. Some people are recharged by being outside, letting the “voice” of nature wash over them as they walk, run, or hike.

For me, there are a couple of podcasts I listen to when I need some encouragement. One has been Dan Benjamin’s new podcast QUIT!. I’ve found it very helpful to hear stories from people who’ve gone through difficult work experiences and made something new out of their lives. I also listen to the sermons podcast by my friend Kenny Benge of St. John’s Anglican Church when I need some perspective on life. I usually listen to these podcasts when I’m exercising, which brings me to my final suggestion.

Stay Active and Productive

When we’re fully employed, the needs of our supervisors and the company generally define the work we do. (That can actually be a trap, but that’s a topic for another day.) Human beings, though, were designed to work, and we can become discouraged and unmotivated when we don’t have clearly defined work to do. Also, if you were used to heading into an office or other workplace, your physical activity may decrease significantly when you’re unemployed. This also can have a negative effect on your emotions.

Find ways to stay physically and mentally active during your job search. Look for goals that you can set or small achievements that reward you for your efforts. For example, earlier this month, I began taking web development and design courses through Treehouse. I’m learning some new skills that could help me in a future job, but I also enjoy learning for the sake of learning. Something I like about Treehouse is that you earn badges for each online course you complete. Sure, that’s kind of silly, but it’s an easy and fun way for me to track my progress. I’ve also started a new exercise plan that has milestones connected to each workout, so I can clearly see the progress I’m making.

How do you deal with discouragement? What are some things that have worked for you