The New Entry-Level: Hiring from Leadership Development Programs


Nonprofits hiring entry-level talent often face a difficult “Catch-22” situation as they need people looking to enter an organization on the ground floor, but also want candidates who bring relevant professional experience to the table. This reality is a frustration for first-time jobseekers as well.

For organizations seeking entry-level candidates who possess demonstrated experience, graduates of year-of-service and leadership development programs can present a well positioned talent pool. Candidates coming out of these programs have been tested in challenging environments and generally come out of their service impassioned and committed to the social sector. Because of the skills and experiences that participants in these programs gain, more organizations are looking to leadership development programs as “the new entry-level”.

This article will discuss a few of the major leadership development programs serving the social sector, as well as share some real-life examples and recommendations for how organizations can leverage this unique talent pool.

What’s Out There?

There are hundreds of nonprofit leadership development programs currently operating in the United States and they vary widely in their scope and programming. This article will focus on the programs that the team at Commongood Careers has found to be the most valuable talent sources for a range of nonprofit hiring needs. As illustrated in the chart below, these programs offer emerging nonprofit leaders practical experience in areas like community development, education, consulting and management while also providing organizations with talented candidates who are committed to the sector.


Achievement First: Tapping into Alumni Networks

Achievement First is a charter school management organization started in July 2003 by the leaders of Amistad Academy, a high-performing charter school in New Haven, Connecticut. As a nonprofit, Achievement First is creating a network of achievement-gap closing charter schools in Connecticut and New York to bring to scale the dramatic, life-changing student achievement results produced at Amistad Academy. Achievement First currently operates 12 schools and has plans to open 1-3 schools per year over the next several years. Over the next decade, Achievement First will support 25 schools serving over 7,000 students.

With such rapid and successful growth, Achievement First looks to hire high-performing individuals with experience in education. Achievement First recruits teachers and school leaders as well as internal management staff. Whether the position is school-based or in the management team, Achievement First actively recruits seeks out alumni from programs such as Teach For America, Education Pioneers and the New York Teaching Fellows program.

Maia H.M. Levner, Achievement First’s Vice President of Talent Development, strongly believes in the value of these programs. “Teach For America, the New York City Teaching Fellows, and other like-minded organizations bring in talented individuals who may not have been originally drawn to the field of education. We value the past leadership experience and accompanying results that these candidates bring, as well as their zeal and passion for closing the achievement gap in this country. Our Teach For America alums in particular come in hungry for a district that values data-driven instruction. They also hold themselves to a high bar of excellence for student success, and it comes out in every part of their interview process. In addition, Teach For America and alums of similar programs bring a passion for social justice, and they wholeheartedly believe that this is the most important work they could be doing for our country.”

To date, Achievement First has hired over 100 Teach For America alumni into teaching and leadership positions, and looks to tap into more leadership development alumni networks in their future recruiting efforts.

Life After Peace Corps: Thomas Peng’s Story

Thomas Peng joined College Summit, a nonprofit that prepares low-income students for the college admissions process, as a Senior Application Support Analyst. Three months before accepting this position, Peng was finishing two years of service with the Peace Corps in the Philippines as an Information Communications Technology volunteer. Peng views his Peace Corps experience as a powerful form of professional development.

“Professionally, I wanted to work in an unstructured environment and succeed despite the various challenges. I learned to develop assets in a community rather than focusing on its deficits. I also discovered that from an outsider’s perspective many things may seem broken, but you have to also focus on what works well. You should improve on the things that work well so that you can grow. If you stop to fix everything and make it perfect, you will stunt your growth. You must also listen to the people and get their thoughts and input and let them drive the change they want in their community. Patience, perseverance, careful observation, and the ability to truly listen to others are invaluable skills that I learned during my service as a volunteer.”

In Peng’s opinion, the Peace Corps was integral to his successful transition into the nonprofit sector. “My experience in the Peace Corps demonstrated to College Summit my commitment to working in the nonprofit world and gave me experience in education. I worked for four years in the private sector before joining the Peace Corps, and my Peace Corps experience demonstrated to nonprofits that I was serious about working in the sector. I had dedicated two and half years of my life to serving as a volunteer. Also, prior to Peace Corps, I had never worked in education. Because College Summit works with teachers and students, my ability to understand the challenges of teaching and common issues in education aid me in my daily work. With the experience and background from Peace Corps, few would doubt my dedication to this field.”

Recommendations to Hiring Organizations

In closing, the following are suggestions for how nonprofits can leverage leadership development programs to source talent:

(1) Seek out advice from others:

If your organization has not actively recruited talent from leadership development programs, chances are someone in your professional network has. Activate your network and speak with a contact at an organization with connections to alumni from leadership development programs. Ask them what is unique about these alumni and how they go about sourcing these candidates.

(2) Gain access to alumni networks:

Gaining access to a database of program alumni can be an extremely effective tool for candidate mining. For example, Teach For America keeps extensive databases of Teach For America alumni in an effort to track their career progressions and communicate with them about job opportunities. Building an organizational relationship between your organization and a leadership development program can lead to a stronger flow of talented applicants. At the very least, many of the larger programs are now allowing hiring organizations to post jobs to their alumni through newsletters and websites.

(3) Partner with local programs:

Look to local programs that offer leadership development fellowships and place participants directly at hiring organizations. For example, New Sector Alliance in Boston operates a year-long fellowship with a dual mission “to accelerate social change by strengthening organizations today, while developing leaders for tomorrow.” In particular New Sector’s Residency in Social Enterprise offers the skills and talents of twenty young professionals to twenty local organizations for a year-long fellowship. According to Kristi Komendant, a Program Manager at New Sector Alliance, “the value proposition for nonprofits is that they find the talented individuals who will help forward their work. It is an effective program because it gives them the opportunity to hire on a specific initiative that they might not have the capacity to hire for more than one year.” Additionally, a report by Nonprofit Congress entitled “Nonprofit Leadership: A Sample of Networks, Fellowships and Workshops” is a great resource for regional leadership development programs operating in a wide range of communities across the country.

(4) Devise guaranteed placement programs:

The Presidential Management Fellowship program has been providing career development for emerging professionals in the public sector for over 30 years. One of the reasons why the Presidential Management Fellowship received 4,000 applicants in 2007 is because upon completion of the program, fellows are guaranteed employment in governmental departments at a pay grade above entry-level. In the nonprofit sector, organizations with similar missions could band together and create coalitions of guaranteed placements. Removing the question of “what next” for program alumni could result in an influx of talent to the sector.


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org