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The New Entry Level: Hiring Talent from Leadership Development Programs

Nonprofit organizations hiring entry-level talent often face a difficult catch-22. Organizations search for candidates looking to enter on the ground floor, but they also want applicants who bring relevant professional experience. This reality creates frustration for first-time job seekers and nonprofit organizations alike.

For organizations seeking entry-level candidates who also possess demonstrated experience, leadership development programs can open up a vast talent pool. Nonprofits that rely on these programs as sources for talent find candidates who have been tested in challenging environments and who have come out of their years of service impassioned and committed to the social sector. Because of the skills and experiences that participants in these programs gain, more organizations are looking to leadership development programs as "the new entry level."

This article will discuss a few of the major leadership development programs serving the social sector as well as share some real-life examples and recommendations for how organizations can leverage this unique talent pool.

What's Out There?

There are hundreds of nonprofit leadership development programs currently operating in the United States; they vary widely in scope and programming. This article will focus on the programs that the team at Commongood Careers has found to be the most valuable talent sources for a range of nonprofit hiring needs. As illustrated in the chart below, these programs offer emerging nonprofit leaders practical experience in areas such as community development, education, consulting, and management while subsequently providing hiring organizations with talented candidates who are committed to the sector.

Program Name Description Duration
Teach For America Teach For America corps members are a talented group of recent college graduates and professionals who are placed as teachers in the nation's most poverty-stricken school districts. Corps members come from diverse academic disciplines and backgrounds. 2 Years
City Year City Year offers young people aged 17 to 24 a year of full-time service in the community. City Year corps members serve in 1 of 17 cities around the country. 1 Year
Coro Coro offers recent college graduates an experiential approach to leadership development. Coro Fellows are placed in a series of internships in government agencies, media outlets, labor organizations, and nonprofit community-based organizations. Participants also participate in group training and problem-solving projects to develop interpersonal and decision-making skills. 1 Year
AmeriCorps AmeriCorps is a year-long opportunity for adults of all ages and backgrounds to serve through a network of partnerships with local and national nonprofit groups. Participants volunteer in one of three programs: AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps VISTA, and AmericCorps NCCC. Although the programs vary in scope and reach, each aims to build practical leadership skills while serving the community. 10 Months-1 Year (depending on the program)
New Sector Alliance New Sector Alliance is a social enterprise consulting firm with a dual mission: "to accelerate social change by strengthening organizations today, while developing leaders for tomorrow." New Sector offers full-time, part-time, and summer opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. 3 Months-1 Year (depending on the program)
Peace Corps Serving in 74 countries, Peace Corp volunteers work with local communities on projects in education, youth outreach, community development, the environment, and information technology. 2 Years

Tapping into Program Alumni Networks: Achievement First's Story

Achievement First is a charter school management organization started in July 2003 by the leaders of Amistad Academy, a high-performing charter school in New Haven, Connecticut. A nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, Achievement First is creating a network of achievement-gap-closing charter schools in Connecticut and New York to bring to scale the dramatic, life-changing student achievement results produced at Amistad Academy. Achievement First currently operates 12 schools and has plans to open 1 to 3 schools per year over the next several years. Over the next decade, Achievement First will support 25 schools serving more than 7,000 students in New York and Connecticut.

With such rapid and successful growth, Achievement First looks to hire high-performing individuals with experience in education. Achievement First actively recruits teachers and school leaders as well as internal management staff. Whether the position is school-based or an internal placement in the management team, Achievement First actively recruits recent alumni from such programs as Teach For America, Education Pioneers, and the New York Teaching Fellows program.

Maia Heyck-Merlin, Achievement First's vice president of talent development, strongly believes in the value of these programs.
Teach For America, the New York City Teaching Fellows, and other like-minded organizations bring in talented individuals who may not have been originally drawn to the field of education. We value the past leadership experience and accompanying results that these candidates bring, as well as their zeal and passion for closing the achievement gap in this country. Our Teach For America alums in particular come in hungry for a district that values data-driven instruction. They also hold themselves to a high bar of excellence for student success, and it comes out in every part of their interview process. In addition, Teach For America and alums of similar programs bring a passion for social justice, and they wholeheartedly believe that this is the most important work they could be doing for our country.
To date, Achievement First has hired more than 100 Teach For America alumni into teaching and leadership positions and looks to tap into more leadership development alumni networks in their future recruiting efforts.

Life after Peace Corps: Thomas Peng's Story

Thomas Peng recently started a position as a senior application support analyst at College Summit, a nonprofit organization that prepares low-income students for the college admissions process. Three months before accepting this position, Peng was finishing up two years of service in the Philippines as a Basic Education and Technical Assistance (BETA) information communications technology volunteer. Peng views his Peace Corps experience as great professional development.
Professionally, I wanted to work in an unstructured environment and succeed despite the various challenges. I learned to develop assets in a community rather than focusing on the deficits. I also discovered that from an outsider's perspective many things may seem broken, but you have to also focus on what works well. You should improve upon the things that work well so that you can grow. If you stop to fix everything and make it perfect, you will stunt your growth. You must also listen to the people and get their thoughts and input and let them drive the change they want in their community. Patience, perseverance, careful observation, and the ability to truly listen to others are invaluable skills that I learned during my service as a volunteer.
In Peng's opinion, the Peace Corps was integral to his successful transition into the nonprofit sector.
My experience in the Peace Corps demonstrated [to College Summit] my commitment to working in the nonprofit world and gave me experience in education. I worked for four years in the private sector before joining the Peace Corps. My Peace Corps experience demonstrated to nonprofits that I was serious about working in the sector; I had dedicated two and one-half years of my life to serving as a volunteer. Also, prior to Peace Corps, I had never worked in education. Because College Summit works with teachers and students, my ability to understand the challenges of teaching and common issues in education aids me in my daily work. With the experience and background that I got from the Peace Corps, few would doubt my dedication to this field.

Recommendations to Hiring Organizations

We have four suggestions for how nonprofits can leverage leadership development programs to find talent:

  1. Collaborate with leaders in other nonprofit organizations.

    If your organization has not actively recruited talent from leadership development programs, chances are someone in your professional network has. Speak with contacts at organizations with connections to alumni from leadership development programs. Ask them what is unique about these alumni and how they go about finding these candidates.

  2. Gain access to program databases.

    Gaining access to a database of program alumni can be an extremely effective tool for candidate mining. For example, Teach For America keeps extensive databases of Teach For America alumni in an effort to track their career progressions and communicate with them about job opportunities. Building a relationship between your organization and a leadership development program can lead to a stronger flow of talented applicants.

  3. Partner with local leadership development programs.

    Look to local programs that offer leadership development fellowships and place participants directly at hiring organizations. For example, New Sector Alliance operates a year-long fellowship with a dual mission "to accelerate social change by strengthening organizations today, while developing leaders for tomorrow." In particular New Sector's Residency in Social Enterprise offers the skills and talents of 20 young professionals to 20 local organizations in the Boston area for a year-long fellowship. According to Kristi Komendant, a program manager at New Sector Alliance, "The value proposition for [nonprofit] organizations is that they find the talent that will help forward their work. It is an effective program because it gives them the opportunity to hire on a specific initiative that they might not have the capacity to hire for more than one year."

    Additionally, a report by the Nonprofit Congress, Nonprofit Leadership: A Sample of Networks, Fellowships and Workshops, is another resource for regional leadership development programs operating in a wide range of communities across the country.

  4. Devise guaranteed placement programs to provide incentives to alumni.

    The Presidential Management Fellowship program has been providing career development for emerging professionals in the public sector for 31 years. One of the reasons the Presidential Management Fellowship received 4,000 applicants in 2007 is that, upon completion of the program, fellows are guaranteed employment in government departments at a pay grade above entry level. In the nonprofit sector, organizations with similar missions could band together and create coalitions of guaranteed placements. Removing the question of "what next" for program alumni could result in an influx of talent to the sector.

Kevin Kovaleski, Commongood Careers
© 2008, Commongood Careers

Kevin Kovaleski is a service manager at Commongood Careers, a national nonprofit search firm dedicated to helping today's most effective social entrepreneurs hire the best talent. Founded by nonprofit professionals, Commongood Careers offers personalized, engaged services to job seekers and organizations throughout the hiring process as well as access to a wealth of knowledge about careers in the social sector.
Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice