to Write an Effective Position Description
by Laura Gassner Otting,
President, Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group
(This article was originally published by
as part of their NonprofitOyster Pearls series.)
Volume 1 /
Issue 1 / March 12, 2003
5 PEARLS OF
WISDOM: WRITING MORE ENGAGING POSITION DESCRIPTIONS
Before you sit down to write a position description, take time to do your
research, asking key staff, funders, community members or other stakeholders
these important questions:
What is the
context within which this person must work? What are the particular
challenges facing the organization at this time? Which will the new person
be faced with tackling? What is the timeline to meet these challenges?
What tools will they have at their disposal?
differences do you see in this organization 12 months, 18 months and 24
months after this person is on board? What outcomes, subjective and
objective, will be used to determine success?
education and training background ideal for this position. From what kinds
of organizations might this person come? What types of roles might they
have held in the past?
programs, staff need to be sustained? Which need to be enhanced,
initiated, diversified, recalibrated, reassessed or eliminated?
resources or advertising vehicles that should be considered, such as
online discussion forums, newsgroups, publications or websites that are
organized to assist nonprofit organizations reach out to potential
candidates? In addition, are there any candidates or other sources of
candidates that ought to be tapped?
HOW TO WRITE AN EFFECTIVE POSITION DESCRIPTION
The departure of a key employee causes a great deal of consternation in most
nonprofits. The first worry-driven thought that runs through many managers'
minds is "How can I find someone who combines the skills and experiences of
this person, as well as the knowledge of and connections to our
constituents?" Yet, instead of just filling the shoes of the former worker,
the replacement of an employee, or the creation and filling of a new
position, can provide an opportunity for strategic reflection and
redirection and therefore deserves serious thought.
Components of a Well-Written Position Description
Position descriptions are read by candidates and colleagues alike and may
serve many purposes. A good job description will excite candidates to apply,
especially some that might not have after reading only a few paragraphs of
boilerplate information. According to Joyce Lapenn, a Vice President with
DRG in New York City and the former Executive Director of Graham Windham, a
major family and children's services agency, "Crafting an attractive
position description to generate genuine interest comes after a very
thoughtful assessment of the needs of the organization and how the open
position relates to these needs. The employer should put some real effort
into this document and exclude, for example, such usual 'pat' phrases such
as 'good interpersonal skills.' How and to whom this position relates is
more fundamental and ultimately more meaningful for potential candidates."
A good position description will also bring together a nonprofit around the
central themes and challenges facing the new hire, many of which will be
used in both the interview and weighing of candidates as well as their
performance evaluation in the months and years to come. In other words, a
good position description will sell the organization, serve as a
mini-strategic planning session, and provide performance evaluation clear to
the hire and the supervisor. Becky Klein, partner with The Phillips
Oppenheim Group whose position descriptions are often six or seven pages
long, states that "position descriptions really become marketing tools for
both the position and the client itself and include a detailed (and
hopefully enticing) description of the organization, an overview of the
basic function, lists of key responsibilities, experience required and
personal characteristics, and, most importantly, a section listing the
priorities for the successful candidate in the first year."
Every position description should start with an executive summary. Not all
of your colleagues (those people who provide helpful ideas for candidates
or outreach techniques) will want to read the entire position description.
Further, some outreach vehicles will only let you post a paragraph or two,
and having this summary done ahead of time will make you more efficient
The executive summary begins with a clear statement of purpose, i.e.,
"Founded in 1978, YouthBuild USA is a comprehensive youth and community
development program committed to giving at-risk youth life and job skills
that lead to economic independence, while helping them rebuild their
communities. We are currently seeking a Vice President of XYZ who
will...." It finishes by describing that the rest of the document lays out
some information about the current state of affairs at YouthBuild, as well
as the particular challenges facing the VP of XYZ.
A nice way to ease into the duties, responsibilities, challenges and
potential problems facing the next hire is to describe the inspirational
story of the founding of the organization and the context in which this
hire will have to work. Providing a framework in which the candidate can
imagine day-to-day activities and long term projects helps candidates rule
themselves in or out of a search before wasting your time. More
importantly, the background elicits intelligent questions and
conversations from your candidates, helping you to determine which
candidates are stronger than others.
The background section of a job description for Share Our Strength, for
example, starts with the story of Billy Shore corralling a few local chefs
in the basement of a Capitol Hill row house, and follows by describing the
$70 million Share Our Strength has invested in more than 1,000 local,
state, national and international hunger and poverty organizations over
the past 18 years. This information, like most of the other material
needed for this section, has probably already been written in one of the
following documents, and should be kept handy for exercises like this:
publicity materials, web content, brochures, annual reports, grants,
financial statements, department budgets, mission statement, a
predecessor's position description, board presentations, articles,
biographies, or anything public from a recent strategic planning session.
Finally, this section, once written, can be cut and pasted into other
position descriptions as much of it centers around general historical
facts of an organization and not the specifics of any one particular job.
Each role in an organization fulfills some basic need that keeps that
organization running smoothly as well as, hopefully, raises it to a new
level. These are the challenges set forth in a particular job. Challenges
allow the realities of an organization's past to meet the hopes for its
future. A well-written challenge statement can be measured during the
interview process against the candidate's past track record, and then
later against his or her performance on the job. When challenges are met,
they allow hiring managers and supervisors to measure fundamental
differences in an organization such as whether difficulties have been
abated or new opportunities opened.
From the challenges facing this job, a clearer picture will appear
regarding the specific professional and personal qualifications needed for
success. Professional qualifications include a candidate's career track
record, education and training; further, these qualifications can be
tailored to the size and scope of the position at hand. Personal
qualifications might include a candidate's background, experience,
character, personality, exposure or outlook. Continues Phillips Oppenheim
Group Partner Klein, "Spelling out qualifications not only gives a
prospective candidate an understanding of the needs, but helps to ensure
that the client organization is clear about what is going to be required
of the individual hired and how to measure that individual's performance.
The more specific a position description is, the more targeted the
response from appropriate candidates should be."
Finally, be sure to include any compensation, application deadlines and
contact information relevant to the position. A trick used by nonprofit
executive recruiters when the compensation is open or when they want to
survey the field is to avoid listing the compensation and, instead, ask
for a salary history from applicants. From there, a nonprofit can
determine what they need to pay for the level of talent they wish to hire
without upsetting or offending potential applicants.
As you write any position description, it is helpful to garner information
not just from written materials circulating around the office and throughout
your constituents, but by asking questions of key staff and stakeholders.
Some of these questions are difficult; some of them are not. Each will
inform the challenges section of the position description, and in turn, the
interviewing and evaluation process both presently and in months and years
At the beginning of any new search for a middle- to senior-level position,
start by meeting with those who will surround the new hire. These
stakeholders will be able to answer many of the questions that define and
individualize an organization. Meeting with them early will also increase
the likelihood that they will become invested in the process and the success
of your newest staff member.
Those to be interviewed include but may not be limited to the Executive
Director, members of the senior management team, direct reports to this
position, outside stakeholders such as consultants, clients and funders and
board members as relevant. In discussing the details of the position with
each of these stakeholders, make sure to ask questions about specific
candidates they might know, online discussion forums or newsgroups they
might read, or web pages they visit or have heard about. These will form the
core of a nonprofit's outreach and will help a nonprofit increase its
knowledge base about outreach methods for the future.
By putting forth a strong effort at the beginning of a search to quantify
and assess an organization's needs, nonprofit managers can assure a more
strategic search, a broader candidate pool and a smarter hire.
Laura Gassner Otting is founder and president of
Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a niche consulting firm dedicated to
strengthening the capacity of nonprofits and their staff,
and specializes in
helping nonprofit organizations nationwide with their hiring processes.
capacity of nonprofits and their staff.