Think about the most successful people in your nonprofit. What do they have in common? Now think about those who didn’t succeed and have left your organization. What caused the disconnect?

While it is natural to concentrate on experience and preparation when interviewing candidates, those hiring may overlook the importance of culture and values. I learned the fundamental significance these play in identifying the ideal candidate in my earlier life as an executive search consultant (prior to becoming an organizational development consultant with nonprofits).

In my experience, the best matches are made because the potential hire is a really good culture and values fit. Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to uncover this in an interview. However, if you are clear and sure of your organization’s culture and values, you have a better opportunity to know what to look for during the hiring process.


Try this exercise. Divide a page into two columns. On the left side, describe your organization’s culture and values – what are the guiding principles for how you interact with your clients and each other. If your organization has a set of values that are foundational for how you approach what you do, use these.

On the right side, describe the desirable, corresponding personal qualities and behaviors that all employees of your organization must possess in order to succeed in their individual roles and as contributors to fulfilling your mission.

How do these align? What are the basic values and personal qualities that everyone in your organization must possess? In one nonprofit I worked with, compassion was at the top of the list. In a workshop, the finance manager had trouble understanding why he needed to be compassionate because most of the work was with the budget and numbers. Other staff, when asked what they thought, noted that the finance manager was the person that clients interacted with when discussing scholarship needs.

As we developed and re-developed job descriptions for every position in the organization, there was a set of core values and qualities that everyone, no matter the job, needed to possess to be successful. Then, drilling down, we discussed and identified the particular characteristics for different positions within the nonprofit. So, while needing to be compassionate, the finance manager also needed to be comfortable with numbers, accurate, and detail oriented.


Within organizations that have articulated these essential qualities for all employees, I have observed a high level of mutual trust and respect. Even among staff with different and disparate duties and responsibilities, there is a deep-rooted understanding that everyone approaches his/her work from a common set of core values and also brings a set of discrete skills and qualities associated with their particular position.

When hiring, interview questions that serve to identify a candidate’s affinity for these values can lead to insights – going both ways – that move the hiring process along.

When introducing new staff to an existing team, the time it takes to acclimate and settle in, as well as be embraced by new co-workers, may be shortened because of the shared values. Long-standing staff may be more welcoming when they know that their new colleague “gets it.”


It’s a given that new employees should be well prepared for their new position. Gaps can be filled in later. For example, you can teach them about your programs and services. You can teach them how to use your database. But, you cannot teach them to embrace your nonprofit’s values. Through the interview process – through words and actions – you will come to know if a candidate exhibits qualities such as good judgment or compassion, or any of the other personal traits that embody the values that are part of your organization’s DNA. You can find this out through references, too.

The downside to hiring wrong is significant. There may be monetary loss for the upfront costs related to hiring, such as using job posting sites. There may be loss of time by those involved in the hiring process that would have been better spent focusing on their work. But perhaps the greatest cost is to staff morale. Hiring someone who isn’t a values fit takes a toll. In some instances, if the situation isn’t addressed quickly enough, other staff may become disillusioned and leave. The emotional energy expended to try to acclimate someone who isn’t a good fit may be overwhelming to individual staff and the organization. In the worst case scenario, there may be costs to ending the relationship.

Think twice before hiring someone whose values don’t align with those your organization holds dear. This could well be a decision you come to regret.