Recruiting with a Mission

How nonprofits can leverage their mission to compete for talent

By Amy Gulati Sep 8, 2016
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​Anna Cowell. Photo courtesy of Catholic Relief Services.

As any recruiter will tell you, the market for highly skilled talent is tight right now. High-quality employees with marketable skills have options, and it can be difficult to figure out how to differentiate yourself as an employer of choice.

SHRM Online spoke with Anna Cowell, a talent acquisition specialist with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a humanitarian agency based in Baltimore, to learn how she overcomes some of the challenges of recruiting for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) conducting relief work and development abroad. In her role for about two years, Cowell has had the opportunity to travel the globe and recruit onsite for emergency response efforts. She was previously a recruiter for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and served two years with the Peace Corps in Rwanda.

SHRM Online: What's the biggest challenge that you face recruiting in your field?

Cowell: Definitely emergency recruiting. I'm still new to emergency response recruiting, and it's challenging because you have to go in without the context. You don't know the local labor market, employment laws or cultural traditions. CRS has developed tools over the years to support emergency operations, but if it's a new country program, you may not have local staff to rely on and you have to figure things out on your own.

SHRM Online: Sounds a lot like common global mobility issues or challenges expanding into any new country.

Cowell: Yes, international development recruiting is very niche, and it can be a very small talent community. You need people with specific skills. Then you also need candidates who are open to an unaccompanied assignment, with the right language skills, and a deep knowledge of their technical subject matter. These candidates exist, but you have to work to find them and the timing has to be right for them to accept your offer.

SHRM Online: How do you overcome that challenge?

Cowell: Recruiting for a well-known organization is a benefit when it comes to getting people in the door because the brand is known. If you're in international development, you didn't get into it for the money or the glamour. Instead, you're drawn to the mission. Good international development recruiting is just good recruiting across the board. You have to keep in contact with people because maybe they know someone to refer or maybe you'll see them again. You also have to be open to people who don't have exactly the perfect background. The constant relocation in international development can affect candidates' career paths, and you have to be understanding. Working in this kind of environment also demands flexibility. In working across time zones, you have to get up early or stay up late and show a willingness to meet people where they are in developing lasting relationships.

SHRM Online: Was anything about your role unexpected?

Cowell: I have always been interested in job searching and helping people figure out what they want to do. I really enjoy learning about people and how they got where they are while I help them figure out what they're going to do next. With CRS, I've been able to match people with jobs even if they're not the right initial fit because I build long-term relationships. I wish I had known what a small world international development is. I'm always seeing people I know from the many connections I've made. I didn't realize at the start the extent to which reputations matter. You always have to treat people well, because you never know when you'll see them again. 

SHRM Online: Is it important to your success as a recruiter that you've done international development work yourself?

Cowell: Anybody who comes in with an open mind and a willingness to ask questions can succeed in this field. You need to have the humility to say, "I don't know. Please explain it to me." My background lends itself to my job because I understand the day-to-day work. On the other hand, people have moved into recruitment from field work while others have come from the private sector. I have a colleague with a staffing background and she has brought a bias for action into her role at CRS. She's had to learn patience but can still be successful. 

SHRM Online: What do new HR professionals need to know about the nonprofit/NGO field?

Cowell: You would want to really understand the organization's mission to provide good support. I think everyone who is recruiting needs to spend a week with the field programs to hear how the staff talk about the work they do. Then you'll be best positioned to understand and convey that mission to candidates.

Amy Gulati, SHRM-SCP, is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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