How to Identify and Engage Active and Hidden Candidates

Nonprofit Recruitment Strategies During COVID-19

by Bill Weber


Posted November 16, 2020

Recruiting during COVID-19 comes with its own set of challenges. Many candidates are feeling anxious about the future and are thus more prone to ‘window shopping,’ slower to commit, or even unwilling to risk making a change at all. At the same time, organizations are navigating budgetary constraints, which can weaken their hiring infrastructure. This leads to less preparation, more miscommunication, and inconsistent decision making. And while just about everyone is more comfortable with video technology, judging chemistry and body language while virtual can be difficult.  

In this context, a unique situation emerges:

  • There is an abundance of highly talented, senior-level candidates in the market, and…
  • With fewer organizations currently recruiting, there is less competition for rockstar talent. For nonprofits that have both a need and the financial resources to recruit strategic positions, there’s no reason to wait.
  • Yet, a ‘business as usual’ approach to recruitment will not be as effective as it was pre-COVID.

So how do you take these challenges and opportunities into account and effectively engage candidates during the pandemic? Well first, you need to understand what kinds of candidates are currently out there.

Active Candidates

There is a significant number of senior-level candidates in every nonprofit sector who are actively looking or just about ready to do so. Some may have been laid off and others expect they may be soon. Right now, most active candidates are coming from higher education, healthcare, and the arts, or leaving financially challenged programs.

The typical active candidate has sharpened their talking points around why COVID has eliminated their jobs and/or why they want to focus on more meaningful missions. They are usually more available to speak, more likely to respond to online advertising, social medical posts, and word of mouth networking, and would comprise the bulk of most nonprofits’ recruitment pools.

Here’s a sampling of the ‘types’ of active candidates you may encounter:

Sector Explorers

You may notice that candidates who were laid off during the pandemic are now more open to a variety of roles and sectors. In the past, this could have been seen as candidates being non-committal or unfocused in their search, but the pandemic has caused some to be justifiably more “flexible” when it comes to their next step. Many of these candidates will possess solid transferable skills, and while they may need some training specific to your organizational culture, they could bring certain experience to your team that you would’ve had a harder time attracting pre-pandemic. Just be sure to have thorough conversations about their abilities, expectations, and connection to your mission, and make sure to seek clarity around whether COVID was the sole reason for their lay-off. 

New to Nonprofits Career Changers

The pandemic disruption has inspired some for-profit professionals, seeking to do “more good,” to consider opportunities in the nonprofit word. This is a spike we saw after 9/11 and the Great Recession, as well. If you speak with such a candidate, be sure to communicate the high demands and standards of a role at a nonprofit. Their desire to “give back” may be sincere, but perceptions of nonprofit work being “easy” may need to be addressed, along with expectations around compensation ranges and available resources. Like the sector explorers, their transferable skills may be very relevant, but these candidates are not likely to hit the ground running.

Conventional Job Seekers (yes, they still exist!)

These candidates were planning to find new roles prior to the pandemic and that remains true now. They may feel like they have fulfilled all of their objectives in their current roles and are ready for the next career step. Occasionally, these job seekers make the false assumption that the increased salary they desired pre-pandemic is still relevant – as if the pandemic did not exist! Be ready to engage in honest and open conversation when this is the case. Also, keep in mind that those candidates who began looking in early 2020 may now be feeling weary, as their job search was derailed by the pandemic. They may be hoping for a shortened—and highly thoughtful and transparent—interview process.  

Hidden Candidates

Meanwhile, there are many exceptional candidates who are not actively “looking” but will be key to the composition of a pandemic-era pool. A vast majority of professionals would consider switching roles if the right opportunity came along – so don’t hesitate to consider or proactively contact someone you suspect is qualified but appears to be satisfied in their current role. Hidden candidates can come from anywhere; ask your board and volunteer leadership, former employees, and the networks of current employees for referrals.

Because these hidden candidates are often content in their current roles, they’re unlikely to have an updated resume. Keep in mind that these candidates will require more conversations about the role and your organization, and you will likely have to customize the offer more than planned to outpace their current compensation and benefit package. Hidden candidates are also more likely to withdraw from the process or turn down an offer; after all, they weren’t really looking to begin with and may decide they prefer the security of their current roles. Nonetheless, opening your search strategy to include hidden candidates can broaden and strengthen your pool dramatically and uncover a hidden gem. Best of all, if you are able to engage these candidates, you’re less likely to compete against other organizations for their attention.

Now that we understand what candidates are out there, how do we recruit them?

Consider this advice…

Cast a wide net.

The best way to take advantage of the influx candidates in the market—and to safeguard against varying candidate motivations and needs and a heightened sense of cautiousness —is to cast a wide net. And be sure to recognize the value in transferrable skills; this can prove especially important when hoping to create a strong, diverse pool.

Rethink performance metrics.

When it comes to setting performance targets, historical baselines are less relevant due to uncertainty about what the future will bring. Instead of setting misleading fixed annual goals, engage the new hire in establishing metrics that are flexible, and track progress to goal with transparency and ongoing flexibility as the financial situation changes.

Recently, I encouraged a nonprofit’s hiring manger to state their aspirational goals for the new role, as well as the conditions in place to make that plausible. But here’s the key: I also recommended reviewing the goals after three months, so the hiring manager and new hire could adjust them together, as appropriate. It’s been working well!

Plan for the best – and the worst.

These are turbulent and unpredictable times. So, while you might successfully cast a wide net and craft flexible, appropriate goals, factors outside of your control could still thwart your search for new staff. You may not find the right candidate for many months, or the right candidate may accept your offer but can’t start when you’d like, or perhaps the pandemic has increased the value of the right candidate’s experience, thus requiring a much higher salary that would impact internal pay equity. And so on. So, while you may plan for the best, you should also begin with contingency plans. Consider, for instance, who you could promote from within, or whether you could hire temporary workers or vendors to bridge gaps. Think also about how you could adapt and/or bypass aspects of your standard hiring process should the perfect candidate come along. All of this will strengthen your ability to make the right decision at the right time, even if it’s not the original scenario way you first imagined.

A final note

I am just scratching the surface on assessing the candidate marketplace during the pandemic and its implications for the overall search process. As I prepare to write follow-up articles on the topic, I would appreciate your feedback, questions and topic suggestions!   

Bill Weber

Co-Founder, Development Guild



We pride ourselves on our rigorous, fair, and transparent executive search process. Learn more about our nonprofit executive search services or how to become a candidate.


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