A position description that does the job

Because position descriptions are read by candidates and colleagues alike, they can serve many purposes. A good job description will excite candidates to apply, especially some who might not have responded to a few paragraphs of boilerplate. It also brings together a nonprofit around the central themes and challenges facing the new hire, which will be used when interviewing and weighing candidates, as well as evaluating performance for months and years to come.

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In other words, a good position description will sell the organization, serve as a miniature strategic planning session, and provide both the hire and their supervisor with performance evaluation criteria.

The components of an effective position description are:

Executive summary: Every position description should start with an executive summary: Your colleagues (who can provide ideas for candidates or outreach techniques) won’t always want to read the entire position description, and some outreach vehicles limit word count. The executive summary begins with a clear statement of purpose. (I.e., “Founded in 1978, Smallville Youth Services equips at-risk youth to become economically independent. We are currently seeking a Vice President of Development, who will…”) The summary finishes by describing what the rest of the document lays out in detail, including the organization’s current state of affairs and the particular challenges that will face the new hire.

Background: A nice way to ease into duties and challenges is with the inspirational story of the organization’s founding, providing the context for this hire’s work. A framework for imagining day-to-day activities and long-term projects helps candidates rule themselves in or out. More importantly, background information should elicit intelligent questions from candidates, helping you determine their relative strength. (The material needed for this section can likely be copied from an existing document.)

Position-specific challenges: Each role fulfills some basic need keeping the organization running smoothly, while (hopefully) raising it to a new level; these are the job’s challenges. A well-written challenge statement allows hiring managers and supervisors to measure each candidate’s track record and, later, a new hire’s on-the-job performance.

Qualifications: Professional qualifications include a candidate’s career track record, education, and training, tailored to the size and scope of the position, and drawing from the challenges listed above. Personal qualifications might include a candidate’s background, experience, character, personality, exposure, or outlook.

Conclusion: Finally, be sure to include any compensation, application deadlines, and contact information relevant to the position. One trick used by nonprofit executive recruiters when compensation is open is to ask applicants for a salary history, then determine what they need to pay for the level of talent they wish to hire; however, changing employment law may mean this tactic is on the way out. (Consult local statutes: For instance, salary history queries were recently outlawed throughout California.)

Gathering Information

As you write any position description, especially for middle- to senior-level roles, it is helpful to ask questions of key staff and stakeholders. Start by meeting with those who will surround the new hire; they will be able to answer many of the questions that define the organization and the position. This will also get them invested in the success of your newest staff member.

Interviewees may include the executive director, members of the senior management team, direct reports to this position, board members, and outside stakeholders such as consultants, clients, and funders. Make sure to ask about specific leads: candidates they know, online forums they read, or web pages they know about. These leads form the core outreach effort and will help increase organizational knowledge about future outreach methods.

Here’s a rundown of questions to answer through your discussions:

1. What is the context within which this person must work? What are the particular challenges facing the organization at this time, and which will this person be tackling? What is the timeline to meet these challenges? What tools will be at their disposal?

2. What fundamental differences do you see in this organization 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months after this person joins? What outcomes, subjective and objective, will be used to determine success?

3. Describe the ideal education and training background for this position. From what kinds of organizations might this person come? What types of roles might they have held?

4. Which activities, programs, and staff need to be sustained? Which need to be enhanced, initiated, diversified, recalibrated, reassessed, or eliminated?

5. Are there resources or advertising vehicles we should consider for reaching out to potential candidates, such as online discussion forums, newsgroups, publications, or websites? Are there any known candidates or other sources of candidates that ought to be tapped?

For an expanded version of this piece, you can find the original article among the employer resources provided by NPAG (Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group).

Laura Gassner Otting is the founder and former CEO of NPAG. She is also an in-demand speaker and the author of Mission Driven: Moving from Profit to Purpose, a guide for jobseekers. You can find her currently at limitlesspossibility.com.

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