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How to recruit, hire, and retain a development team
How to recruit, hire, and retain a development team

By Nakia James-Jenkins (she/her)

Building an excellent development team in a rapidly changing job market is a major challenge and pivotal to a nonprofit’s success. I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel featuring the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Associate Director of Development Operations Kathleen Burke and CCS Fundraising’s Chief Human Resources Officer Janine Triano to learn how they both do it. Here are my takeaways:

Hiring and Recruitment

1. Talk about culture and benefits 

In the past, interviews with candidates focused on how the candidate could benefit the organization. But in the current job market, the dynamics between interviewer and candidate have shifted. The pandemic has caused many candidates to rethink their priorities in terms of work-life balance, and the current job market allows them to put those priorities front and center during interviews. As a result, candidates today expect to learn how the organization can benefit them, not just how they can benefit the organization.

Although benefits may include financial considerations like salary or a retirement plan, candidates also want to hear about opportunities for professional growth at the organization, policies around hybrid or remote work, time-off policies, and company culture. They want a clear picture of how they fit into the organization and how the organization will fit into their life as the organization continues to grow. 

This means that organizations need to be prepared to court candidates, not just by saying the right things in an interview, but by being intentional about the benefits they offer. For example, CCS has focused on improving their PTO and mental health policies in response to the pandemic. They’ve lowered their employees’ copays for mental health-related visits and added two mental health days to their PTO system. They also noticed that employees wanted more opportunities to give back and connect with their communities, so they added two volunteer days to their calendar. These actions show candidates that CCS fosters a culture that prioritizes mental health and that they’re responsive to employee needs during crises like the pandemic. 

Kathleen, who joined the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) during the pandemic, brought up the importance of the interview process in her decision to accept the job. She shared how she’d used the first interview to decide if she wanted to continue pursuing an opportunity with BAM or end the interview process and stay at her current well-paying job. BAM’s ability to answer her questions about career growth and remote work during that first interview spurred her to continue the process and eventually join the BAM team. 

Whether a candidate is happy in their current role but interested in seeing what's out there (as was the case with Kathleen) or actively looking for new career opportunities, culture is what makes an organization stand out during the recruiting process. Having benefits that reflect that culture and being prepared to authentically talk about culture during an interview is essential to attracting top talent. 

2. Make everyone on your team a recruiter

The current job market requires that organizations take a more proactive approach to recruiting. It’s crucial they have access to a strong talent pool when they need to hire and, because excellent candidates are often moving through multiple recruiting processes at once, it's essential for organizations to be able to move quickly. As a result, many organizations are increasingly focused on networking and sourcing candidates (even when they’re not actively hiring) and expecting every employee to see themselves as part of the recruitment team, regardless of their role. 

For example, when BAM is hiring, Kathleen leverages her position as co-chair of WID’s Young Professionals task force to find people in her network who are qualified and interested in the role. She has also recommended that her employer post on job boards that are specifically curated for women and people of color. Even though she doesn’t work in HR or recruiting, she believes that drawing on her network within and outside of WID is one way she can help strengthen BAM and ensure that they’re hiring from a diverse pool of candidates.    

3. Eliminate bias by being willing to change practices

There are many practices in hiring and recruiting that are so widely used and accepted that we don’t often stop to consider how they may be promoting inequality. To eliminate bias in the hiring process and recruit effectively, organizations must be willing to dig deep, reflect, and listen to those with expertise in DEI. Some common practices that inadvertently reinforce bias include:

  • Referral recruiting
    One specific way organizations can reduce bias within their recruiting and hiring process is cutting back on their use of referral recruiting. Although many organizations still do referral recruiting and offer a referral bonus, it's important to invest in other recruitment avenues as well, especially where current leadership lacks diversity. We tend to bring people who look like us and come from similar backgrounds to us to the table, so relying solely on referrals from current employees limits an organization’s candidate pool and stymies progress towards diversity.
  • Subjective assessments
    As we’ve written previously, relying on structured, skill-based evaluations, rather than instincts or gut feelings, is essential to an equitable hiring process. Many organizations use a writing sample or mock strategic plan as a form of skill-based assessment. Both of these can be good tools for skill-based evaluations, but only if they are being considered anonymously against consistent rubric to avoid stylistic preferences or an existing opinion of a candidate influencing how the sample is assessed.

    CCS takes these precautions even further, having a minimum of three people assess each writing sample and having separate writing sample assessors and interviewers.
  • Superfluous educational requirements
    It’s become somewhat standard to include requirements for level of education in a job description, when in reality the skill set needed for the position doesn’t actually require a college or advanced degree. Adding superfluous educational requirements creates a barrier for candidates from marginalized backgrounds. When crafting a job description, organizations need to ask themselves what skills are they looking for, if any, that the candidate would have acquired specifically through a degree program? If the answer is none, then they don’t need to include an educational requirement. 

    Organizations should apply this same logic to each aspect of their job marketing materials, including the job description, website, employment page, to ensure that they haven’t inadvertently created unnecessary barriers that may deter BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, or otherwise marginalized candidates.    

4. Be honest about DEI goals—and limitations

Knowing that an organization is actively working to advance DEI is essential for many candidates. For Kathleen, herself a woman of color, interviewing with BAM’s Director of HR and VP of Development, both women of color in leadership positions, and hearing the Director of HR speak passionately about BAM's racial equity work before the 2020 uprisings and how that work continues to advance, convinced her to accept her current position.

Highlighting where your organization has made progress towards realizing DEI commitments can be a great way to attract candidates. However, it's also important for organizations to be honest about the barriers they still face to advancing equity, especially if those barriers aren't going away anytime soon.

For example, when Janine interviews a candidate, she always gets right to the elephant in the room: most of CCS’s senior leaders are white men. A change in senior leadership is going to take time, potentially years. By acknowledging this challenge off the bat, Janine shows candidates that CCS is aware of where they fall short in terms of DEI and that they value transparency. She’s then able to highlight all the progress that CCS has made and continues to make, such as hiring a VP of DEI and a DEI Manager.


1. Highlight paths for advancement

One reason really valuable employees leave is because they feel that there isn’t room for advancement within the organization. While it’s not always possible to offer a promotion due to limited staffing capacity, there are skills that managers can intentionally help that employee develop so that they’re still moving in the direction of their career goals. 

Many managers already work to upskill their team members and prepare them for more senior positions. But often, they don’t tell their team members that that’s what they’re doing. It’s important to not only help team members develop those skills, but to say to them, “I know you want to be a CDO one day, here are the skill sets that are necessary regardless of what organization you’re working at. Let’s work on those skills together while you’re here.”

2. Ask employees what they want

Supporting an employee’s professional development isn’t just about teaching them new skills, but rather finding out what skills they actually want to learn. To make employees feel heard and valued, and to help them excel at the organization, managers need to proactively ask employees about their interests and goals. Whether it's getting involved in recruitment or moving from major giving to corporate sponsorship, employees need to know that they don’t need to leave the organization to explore and learn about different areas. Employees won’t always voice their goals, or even be sure of what those goals are, so managers need to actively start those conversations.  

3. Set the tone around mental health

Prioritizing health as an organization makes employees feel valued and prevents burn out. As discussed previously, many organizations are adding designated mental health days or adjusting their healthcare plans to make mental health resources more accessible. On-Ramps has also previously written about designing benefits with healthcare in mind

But even with policies designed to make mental health care accessible, one barrier often remains—stigma. Although talking about mental health has become much less stigmatized over the years, employees may still struggle to take full advantage of these benefits because they’re afraid of how it will look to others or because of internalized stigma. It is the responsibility of managers and leadership at an organization to set the tone around mental health. 

As a Partner at On-Ramps, both my calendar and email autoresponder will specifically note that I’m taking a mental health day when that’s my reason for being out of the office. I want to be very public about the fact that I am taking care of and prioritizing myself because as a leader, I have the power to set the tone for the organization. As leaders, it's our job to set that tone, even if it's just through an out of office notice. 

The Takeaway

Attracting and retaining top development talent requires transparency and intentionality. In a job market that favors job seekers, mission-driven employers must evaluate how their hiring practices and internal policies align with their DEI commitments and support employees' career development, wellness, and individual growth. And, when those practices and policies fall short, they must be willing to make substantive changes.



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