Favorite Interview Questions of Nonprofit Employers

Are You Ready for These Questions?

Job candidate shaking hands with interviewer.
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How Different are Nonprofit Job Interviews from other Types of Interviews?

Are the interview questions different for people who apply for nonprofit jobs

It's likely candidates hear pretty similar questions from employers whether for profit or nonprofit, but others might be different.

For instance, while mission statements do exist for businesses, they are likely to be taken much more seriously by nonprofits. The mission is everything for a charity. If you don't know what that mission is, you're likely to be written off by nonprofit interviewers.

Also, group interviews are quite common for nonprofits. That is because nonprofit organizations tend to be entirely collaborative. There may be a hiring committee assigned to screen resumes and conduct interviews. Often, representatives from each constituency or department the candidate will likely interact with will get a crack at asking some questions.

Given these parameters, a nonprofit job candidate likely needs to better prepared than most for their interviews.

While it's impossible to predict precisely what might be asked of a candidate, I decided to ask several nonprofit professionals what questions they like to ask nonprofit job candidates.

I got a lot of answers, ranging from the obvious to the unexpected. But the questions these professionals want to ask job candidates reveal what nonprofit employers think is important, and what questions will help them get to the heart of whether a candidate is a good fit.

Are You Ready for These Questions?

"As a nonprofit job candidate, I have frequently been asked this: 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' I also ask this of applicants, to get a sense of their vision and how firmly they tie their values to those of the organization."
Stephanie Barnhizer, SEEDS RAP at the University of Colorado at Boulder

"If you were to leave your current employer, what would your supervisor and your peers say about you once you were gone?"
John E. Vitali, Brooklyn Public Library

"The questions I would pose are unique to the position of a nonprofit leader, such as Executive Director or CEO, VP of Development, etc., and include:

  • In your last job, who were you responsible for leading?
  • Where are those employees (or volunteers) now?
  • What were their key accomplishments under your leadership? How did people grow/evolve during your tenure?
  • How did your leadership help the organization and its people grow?"

Allison Black Cornelius, Blackfish Strategies

"'What are you looking for in a new position that you did not have in your previous job?' I think this is important to know because if you are providing what the applicant is looking for, you have a much better chance of keeping them with you for a longer term. It also lets you know what is important to them."
Joseph Mayerhoff, Neighborhood Networks New York Consortium and Grant Writer

"Describe your passion for our mission."
Paul Konigstein, Metropolitan Opera in New York

"I inform the candidate that the interview is a conversation and his/her chance to shine. If the candidate is interviewing for line staff, I ask what triggers his desire to help in a nonprofit?

"For program managers, I ask them to give their best example of rallying the troops to go "above and beyond."

"For officers, I have asked (1) How important is cultural sensitivity for you as an executive officer? (2) Give me two accomplishments that can be attributed to you by former colleagues and employees. Carlos M. Zepeda, MPM, Organizational Management Advisors

"I ask the same questions I would ask if the candidate was applying for a job in the private sector. My best results have come from hiring decisions I have made in transitioning a candidate from a Fortune 500 company to our small nonprofit. I have learned that questions about mission and passion do not always translate into good performance."
Claudia Freed, Educational Assistance Ltd

"I would tailor the questions to the position. For example, for a database specialist, I always ask, 'What are two or three things you would change about [Product X]?'--X being whatever donor software the person is claiming expertise in. The answers tell me a lot about both the depth of the person's knowledge and what kinds of things annoy her!

"For frontline solicitors (fundraisers), I tend always to ask, "Describe for me--without using names or other identifying details--the most challenging solicitation you ever conducted and tell me what made it more challenging than most.

"One possibly useful all-purpose question (especially for smaller, less visible organizations) is 'Before you decided to apply for this job here at XYZ, what had you heard about us?' It's perfectly fine if the applicant had never heard of XYZ--it's all in how she frames her discovery.​ Susan Ruderman, Boston area philanthropy consultant.

"I enjoy using a story question where a donor is very upset. The person interviewing is then asked to solve the problem. You can learn a lot from the way that they respond. This is what I look for: do they apologize? Do they go above and beyond to keep the donor happy? Does it matter how large the donation is, and does the size of the donation change the way that they solve the problem?"
Kyle Buchmann, UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Wisconsin

"I ask how the applicant can help the organization achieve its goals. I don't expect this to be their dream job, and I don't care if they have 'passion' for the cause. They should have a passion for their role - ED, development, marketing, etc. They can learn the issues of the organization far more easily than they can learn how to be a good executive, or fundraiser, or marketer. I care more about why they want to do this work than why they would want to work for this organization."
David M. Patt, CAE, Association Executive Management 

Are You Ready for the Interview?

You'll be able to handle all of these questions better when you're prepared and ready.

Nonprofit HR, a career site specializing in nonprofit human resources, suggests several ways to ace an interview with a nonprofit. The most important may be:

  • Do your research. Work your way through the organization's website, study its mission, and get familiar with the issues it addresses.
  • Show your enthusiasm. Nonprofits are interested in people who have a passion for their cause. If you don't give a hoot about this nonprofit's mission, you probably shouldn't be there.
  • Show your interest by asking questions. Being passive in a job interview is never a good idea. After you've done your research, you should have several questions. Usually, in every interview, there is an opportunity to ask these questions, Do so in a way that shows you are informed and genuinely engaged.