Ask Amber: Tips for starting your nonprofit career

By Amber Alarid, JVA Consulting

As a young nonprofit professional and recent college grad, I find myself with a seemingly ceaseless stream of questions about advancing my career and on-the-job etiquette. When I turn to other young professionals with these questions, I find lots of support. More often, however, they have questions of their own. After examining the wealth of knowledge at my disposal in the form of my own life experiences, candid conversations with coworkers, mentors and friends, and a stack of books and articles about career and organizational advancement, I unveil to you a forum for advice about how to kick-start your nonprofit career, a place to get your career questions answered.

Throughout this series I will tackle questions from young professionals and those new to nonprofits with honesty, sincerity and, of course, a little help from my friends. This week, I’ll be tackling the topic of interviews:

I think nonprofits get a rep for being less formal than the corporate world. How do I present myself in interviews? I wore a suit to my first interview even though I knew no one else would, is that appropriate?

Time and time again I have been given the sage advice that it is always better to be overdressed than underdressed, especially when it comes to interviews. Dress for the job you want as the saying goes. Clichéd? Maybe, but it’s true.

That being said, you want to keep in mind the specific organization and job you are applying for. Wendy Silveira-Steinway, Recruitment/Staff Development Manager at JVA Consulting, advises checking out the standard dress ahead of time. If you have a chance to meet someone from the company ahead of time, try to match his or her dress. If you don’t have the opportunity to check out the dress code before your interview, go to the company’s website and look for photos with staff bios. Notice how staff members are dressed and plan your outfit accordingly.

Should the previous two steps turn out to be impossible, just remember that you should always dress in business casual, at the very least. Never wear jeans to an interview, even if that is the dress code around the office. There is never a second chance to make a first impression, and you are more likely to offend or offset an employer by being underdressed.

By the way, if you got the job it’s safe to assume your attire was appropriate/impressive.

What questions should I be asking at my first interview?

The key here is research, research, research! As Wendy Silveira-Steinway says, your answers should never be “canned.” In other words, asking generic questions for the sake of asking questions is not impressive. Make sure that every question you ask is specific to the job and the company. Don’t underestimate the power of a well-thought-out question, it shows that you are both genuinely interested in the position and that you are knowledgeable about the organization.

With the help of some friends and coworkers, I have compiled a list of questions to get you thinking, but make sure to adapt these questions to the organization and job:

(These questions were taken from a US News article)

How would I be evaluated? What does success look like for this role?

Knowing the evaluation process sets a standard of clear expectations that you can consciously follow.

What sort of organizational structure is in place? Who will I be working with and who will I be reporting to? How often would we meet?

By asking about how you would interact with others around the office, you are evaluating the work environment and whether or not it’s right for you. If you like working with a team, it’s good to find out before you accept the job that you will be mostly working alone (or the opposite).

Is there room for movement/promotion within the organization?

Forward thinking like this allows you to have a career path in mind with this particular organization. It also shows the employer that you are thinking about their company as a long-term investment of your time, rather than merely a jumping-off point.

What is your orientation process?

From this answer you will get a sense of how new team members are incorporated into the team and how quickly you will jump into your position’s roles and responsibilities.

Now, if you are like me and you turn to your good old friend Google for some advice, you probably found some lists of top questions to ask an interview from publications like Forbes, US News and on Career Builder. These lists give some great advice, but beware that you must identify questions that are appropriate to the stage you are at in your career. (Some questions below have been adapted).

In what area could your company/department be improved? How could this position help with that?

When trying to identify the needs of the company it is important to always be mindful of how you can fill that need.

What can I do for you as follow up to this interview?

By following up with the company you reaffirm your interest in the job and your commitment to the organization.

What happened to the last person who held this job?

WARNING: This question was found on Google, and is not advised for those still early in their career. Your interview is a time to sell yourself, especially if the organization doesn’t know much about you going into it. There may be personal reasons for the previous person leaving or other such circumstances that the employer does not wish to discuss. Without the experience or clout to warrant a question like this, you may put an interviewer off. Focus on selling yourself for the position as it currently stands.

To put a more positive spin on this question, ask: After meeting with me, what do you see that I could bring to your organization? This question gets the interviewer thinking seriously about what needs the organization has and how you could fill those needs and less about why the last person left the job.

First interviews can certainly be intimidating, but a little preparation can make a big difference. In tough economic times, when there are numerous well-qualified applicants, the right outfit, well-thought-out-questions and a positive attitude can make all the difference.

Whether you are off to another interview or you’ve already got the job, there is always room to improve upon your career-building skills. Need help with some of your career questions?  Email your questions to and you could see a response in JVA 411.


This entry was posted in Commentary, Generations, Human resources, Millenials and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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