When I interview

Just one thing is really going through my mind:  Am I energized by this conversation?

What’s energizing will differ depending on the role – its content, seniority, what skills and disposition it requires.

But at the end of the day, it’s visceral.

Your chance to shape a sector

Kevin Starr, who among other things runs the Mulago Foundation, penned a provocative, must-read series of posts on Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Problem with Impact investing (Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and Pt. 3).

He leads off his last post in the series with the sub-header “Real impact investing is not for the timid” and focuses most of his screed on the fact that our sector is horrendous at articulating and measuring impact.

This is hard stuff, these are long and rocky roads, and it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

At a minimum impact investors diverge radically in articulating what we mean by impact.  At our most timid, we claim that nearly any enterprise operating in the developing world by definition is creating impact (really?).  At the other end of the spectrum, even the most impact-focused investors are likely to screen heavily for impact but then have limited capacity (financial resources, time and attention) post-investment to really understand or accelerate impact.  At the recent ANDE metrics conference there was deep appreciation for the strong foundation we’ve created in our sector – the Pulse platform, IRIS standards and GIIRS ratings – as well as a generalized acknowledgment that these tools alone are not enough to bring the clarity and insights we need to create large-scale, lasting change.

As Kevin states, both clearly and provocatively:

While the philanthropy world is still pretty bad about measuring impact, the impacting investing world is worse. Real impact measurement is a drag on the financial bottom line and investors are usually willing to assume it’s there, so few feel compelled to do it. What’s weird to me is that while all impact investors know that you could never maximize profit without measuring it, they often fail to recognize that the same is true of impact.

If impact investing itself isn’t for the faint of heart, forging the way forward on the next chapter of understanding and accelerating impact in our space is for the bravest of the brave.  Yet we know that better answers are out there; we know that there is increased appetite to dig deeper and to find real lessons about what is and isn’t working and why; we know that both funders and entrepreneurs are looking for better measures so they can deliver real change.

I’m hiring someone who wants to lead this charge.  Full details here for new Acumen’s Head of Impact role.

The application process is unorthodox because we need someone unorthodox.  As you’ll see in the job description, the ideal candidate has lived and breathed the reality of building an operating company / social business in the developing world; she has the analytical background and curiosity to translate these experiences into broader conclusions; she is a natural at building relationships within and outside of Acumen; and she’s excited by a lot of travel because she knows to do this right she’ll need to get her hands dirty.

I truly believe this is one of the most exciting opportunities out there for the right person.  Can’t wait to see who applies.

Deadline is August 5th.

(Happy to answer questions in the comments if you have them)

What sets you apart

Not smarts or capacity or competence.

Not pedigree.

Not even accomplishments if they didn’t require putting yourself on the line.

Relentless passion? Courage? Going out on a limb? Refusal to give up? Yeah, now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s virtually impossible to lead if you’re not fully invested. It’s impossible to lead if the (potential) failure wouldn’t be personal. It’s impossible to lead without having something at stake.

What sets you apart is showing that you’ve done something that looks like that.

P.S. This all translates directly into questions to ask – and questions to skip – in interviews.

How do you find a great Head of Development?

I’ve been asked this question a lot, and was asked it again the other day by the CEO of a growing, successful nonprofit, so here are some thoughts.

First, let’s clarify who’s asking the question and what this means about what they’re looking for.

For a long time I’ve argued on this blog that the nonprofit sector has radically misunderstood what fundraising means, what fundraising jobs are, and, consequently, how to staff the fundraising (“development,” whatever) department.  To recap: it’s not separate from “the real work.”   It is core to your strategy, to who you are, and to how you deliver on your promise to the world.

There’s a lot of talk about what “traditional fundraising” is and isn’t, and whether in the brave new nonprofit world in which we live, we need to re-imagine fundraising (yes) and what a fundraiser looks like and does (probably).

I think part of the reason we’ve ended up walking down the wrong path is because professional fundraising was born in a university setting – which unfortunately is a poor model of what most nonprofit fundraising is really like.  Referring to the 2-by-2 matrix below, I’d describe university fundraising squarely in the bottom-left corner: “existing constituency” and “primarily execution.”  That is, there is an established constituency (alumni) with an existing ties to and strong relationships with the university, and the role of the professional university fundraiser is largely to execute on a set of giving targets for this constituency.  University fundraising for really big donations can certainly drift to the top left corner of the matrix – think new chairs, new fields of study, new departments – but by and large the ability of the Development team to regularly and significantly impact the overall university strategy in the short- to medium-term will, in most cases, be limited because of the sheer size and scope of the institution.

Contrast this with the world of the startup / growing nonprofit: it has no constituency and its strategy and aspirations are evolving, expanding, taking sharp turns.

Suddenly it’s obvious that you’re looking for a different set of skills than what’s needed in a big, established institution.  An organization in the top-right corner is mobilizing resources against an idea with no defined constituency in place, and it is going through a period of its evolution in which there will be a constant interplay between the financial resources that can be mobilized, the promises made to funders and the overall organizational strategy.

So how do you find a successful top-right corner fundraiser?  There are no simple answers, but I think that this role is different enough from the traditional nonprofit fundraising path that you don’t need to put “demonstrated track record” on the top three list of things you have to see (great if it’s on the list, but you have to decide in advance if the absence of that disqualifies folks.  I’d say it doesn’t).

This is a terrifying notion if you don’t know what you are looking for, so I put together this list of things I’d be on the lookout for when scouring those non-traditional resumes:

  • You want someone you want to be with, someone who has both the gumption and drive to get the first meeting and who is consistently interesting, personable and engaged enough that he’ll consistently get the second meeting.
  • You want someone who cares deeply about your organization’s mission, who has a personal reason for being there
  • You want someone who can tell the whole story of the organization, who can dive in and across the organization and get into the weeds with folks, but who naturally thinks in and talks in terms of narrative.  The person absolutely doesn’t need to be (and won’t be) an expert in everything you do, but they have to have the intellectual facility and curiosity to get their hands dirty.
  • Inevitably you will want someone systematic, because when you have a few people (your team) managing a lot of donor relationships, you’ll need to build some sort of systems to make the whole thing work.  The level of sophistication of these systems will vary, but if you want to build something lasting for your organization, you’ll need to build more than your funding base and your funds raised – you’ll need to build out HOW you do this in the long term.
  • Gumption (whoops I’ve said that twice now…maybe I should say it a third time), fearlessness, drive and passion go a long way
  • Obviously they have to be articulate
  • And finally, if you’re looking for nontraditional cues that might indicate success, you might look for people who have an element of performance / “it’s showtime” in their background.  This could be artistic, athletic or even military, but some element of: “the lights are on…now go!”

Who are you looking for?

The James Caird is the 23 foot-(8m-)long whaler in which Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions made the epic open boat voyage of 800m (l,300 km) from Elephant Island, 500 miles (800 km) south of Cape Horn, to South Georgia during the Antarctic winter of l9l6. Source: http://www.jamescairdsociety.com/

What do your job postings look like?  Do they look anything like this one placed in a British newspaper by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, looking to hire crew for his Nimrod expedition to reach the South Pole (he never succeeded):


Pretty clear what you’re signing up for, huh?

Everything we do is a function of who is on the bus, the hands we have pulling together towards our common goal.  We may not be attempting to reach the South Pole, but we’re going somewhere important, and we need the right people to get us there.  People who share our values.  People who share our commitment.  People who are there because they are meant to be one of us – we just haven’t found them yet, nor they us.

Yet we punt on the opportunity to state who we are from the get-go.  We write bland, generic job postings, copying and pasting from the one we used last time and the time before that and the time before that.  We say things like “we are looking for self-starters who work well in teams, with strong attention to detail and a collaborative mindset.”

Huh?  It’s the hiring equivalent of mission statement blah-blah-blah: “we deliver excellence to our customers through uncompromising pursuit of top quality and belief in our stated values of trust, performance, and team.”

Please, please, please, stand for something in everything you do – especially in how you hire.  Instead of being afraid of writing something that some people won’t like, make SURE you write something that some people won’t like – because that way you’ll communicate something about who you are and what you stand for to the people who love that edgy, provocative thing you’re communicating.

Say things that only you would say, as a first step towards attracting only the right people to work alongside you for the next five or ten years.  What could be more important?

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p.s. for those who noticed/didn’t like the two grammatical mistakes in the title of this blog post, I was being ironical.

Run and hide! (nonprofit hiring)

File under: you can’t make this stuff up.

I was asked to fill out a survey about salaries and hiring trends in the nonprofit sector, and one of the questions is:

What is the determining factor in hiring staff for your organization?

a. Budget

b. Filling vacancies

c. Grant requirements

d. Organizational strategy

Other (please specify)_______

Help!! Is our sector really this broken?

Is hiring due to “organizational strategy” fourth on a list of four?

Does the fact that “grant requirements” beats it out make you more worried about our ability to fundraise successfully (so that strategy and business needs can drive our actions) OR about the fact that you would be required to hire someone because you got a grant?

When oh when will we get out of the echo chamber?

Gumption and conviction

Some interview questions to get at the important stuff:

“What grounds you?”

“What are you best at?”

“Tell me about at time you changed someone’s mind.”

“At your core, what makes you tick?”

“What does generosity mean to you?”

Degrees and smarts are nice, but they’re almost easy to come by.   Being the kind of person who drives and leads (no matter what your job title) is much more compelling.