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Competency-Based Hiring and Transferable Skills

The term “core competency” is believed to have been introduced in 1990 by the Harvard Business Review to describe a specialized expertise that can be leveraged as a competitive advantage. Since then, the concept has been lent to a wide range of applications for defining key strengths and essential qualifications for performance. This article provides a brief overview of competency-based hiring and how
nonprofits can best use this technique in the hiring process.

What is Competency-Based Hiring?

An individual’s core competencies are generally grouped along two dimensions: (1) skills, knowledge and technical qualifications, and (2) behavioral characteristics, personality attributes and individual aptitudes. Traditional hiring practices have focused on systematically evaluating a candidate’s fit with the first type of qualifications, while relegating insights related to the second type to “color commentary” and “gut instincts.” A competency-based approach, however, includes a framework for analyzing a candidate’s behavioral attributes as well as their technical experience. This method has dominated the literature over the past ten years as the recognized preferred approach to hiring. The process starts by identifying a full range of competencies required for success in a position and then evaluating each candidate’s demonstration of those traits.

When considering the core competencies that might be required for success in a role, it is important to distinguish between position-specific and organizational competencies. Position-specific elients may include attributes of an individual’s work style as well as personal qualities like being analytical, resourceful, flexible, or creative. Organizational competencies refer to the qualities and attributes that characterize success across an entire organization. These include fit with the organization’s management style, risk tolerance, work pace and volume, employee demographics, and physical environment. Organizational competencies play a major role in determining what type of people will “fit” in an organization, regardless of their specific role. For example, a rigid and authoritarian manager is not likely to succeed in a highly entrepreneurial and collaborative nonprofit culture.

The following chart provides some further examples of position-specific and organizational competencies.

Competencies in Action

The first step in adopting a competency-based hiring model is to determine your organizational and position-specific competencies. To figure out organizational competencies, we recommend convening a focus group or implienting a survey to identify the top four or five characteristics and traits that typically make someone successful within the organization. Be sure to include all key stakeholders as appropriate, possibly including staff from all levels as well as board members, funders and other constituents. In order to determine position-specific competencies, you will want to employ a similar process, focusing on those who know the position best. Depending on your organization, it may also be helpful to define department-specific competencies for highly specialized departments such as finance or development.

After you have determined the competencies for a given position, use this information to inform all subsequent stages of your recruitment and hiring processes. For example, your job description should focus on the core competencies that successful candidates will demonstrate. In terms of recruitment, a focus on core competencies will lead to a broader candidate pool because you will be seeking professionals who possess the desired traits but who may come from a variety of non-traditional backgrounds.

Using core competencies to drive the screening and interviewing phases of the hiring process will provide valuable information on which to base hiring decisions. We recommend using behavioral interviewing, which refers to asking questions that require candidates to describe past experiences in which they were able to demonstrate specific competencies. Based on the premise that “past behavior predicts future behavior,” behavioral interviewing has proven to be one of the most effective means of determining how each candidate has performed in certain types of situations and therefore how successful each may be in a certain role.

The Softer Side of Skills

In the nonprofit sector, so-called “soft skills,” or personality-based competencies, play a big role in hiring decisions and management strategies. Knowing the soft skills that are most important to your organization allows you to consider candidates based directly on their personal qualities and abilities. Although desired soft skills vary between organizations, many nonprofits value:
• Being an entrepreneurial self-starter / self-manager
• Working effectively in a collaborative environment
• Being resourceful and creative in approaching projects
• Having a positive attitude and a sense of humor

To evaluate the presence of these or other transferable soft skills in potential hires, it may be helpful to follow two rules of thumb: stay open-minded and do your homework. Begin by thinking broadly about a candidate’s past experience in work, school, and civic life. Research the companies listed on candidates’ resumes to understand their past work environments. Many desirable soft skills are developed when working in start-up, fast-growing or highly creative work environments. When speaking with candidates, ask for specific examples of times they were called on to use a certain soft skill.

In addition to evaluating a candidate’s transferable soft skills, probe on personal qualities that demonstrate a mission-fit with your organization. Not all candidates are going to come to you with extensive work or volunteer experience in your specific field, but that does not mean they do not possess the personal qualities required to connect with and embrace your organization’s mission. Share as much information as you can (including brochures, videos, or other collateral) with strong candidates in order to give them a sense of the importance of your organization’s mission and culture.

Transferable Hard Skills

Many career counselors advise nonprofit jobseekers, especially sector switchers and recent graduates, to identify and market their “transferable skills.” But how open-minded are nonprofits when it comes to looking at candidates who offer skills and experiences gained in other sectors or environments? Organizations that consider themselves entrepreneurial are generally more open to hiring talent from other sectors or nontraditional backgrounds. For many organizations, candidates with transferable skills are welcome in some job functions, such as operations, management, and finance, but not in others, such as fundraising and program management.

It’s common for nonprofit hiring managers to have a very specific picture of the hard skills required for a given role. A grant writer needs to have written grants before. Someone working in community affairs must have experience with the community being served. But what candidates might you be missing out on by not considering candidates with demonstrated success from different work environments? Some often overlooked skills that can be successfully transferred to nonprofit roles are:

Sales and Marketing:

Skills learned and honed in these fields of the private sector can be easily transferred to the field of nonprofit development and fundraising. These candidates may be able to exhibit hard skills in building high-touch relationships, producing collateral, giving presentations and making pitches. People with sales experience, particularly those with a background in identifying prospects and cultivating relationships, can often make a smooth transition into fundraising with some basic support and guidance.

Writing and Research:

Individuals with experience in journalism, corporate communications, and other fields that require strong analytical and writing skills can often leverage their transferable skills into other types of development and fundraising roles. Additionally, recent graduates from master of public administration (MPA) or master of public health (MPH) programs typically possess the research and writing experience needed to break into development.


Management consulting experience is sought after in the nonprofit sector because of the analytical, research, project management, and client management skills that people with this kind of experience bring. Consulting experience transfers extremely well to roles in which professional services are provided to other nonprofit clients. Corporate partnerships, community outreach, and board relations are other roles in which consulting experience can be valuable. One challenge of transitioning from a management consulting (or other corporate) background to a nonprofit role is the shift from working for an internal client to an external one. For example, some management consultants work in the trenches of customer research but do not interact with clients face-to-face. When considering these candidates, probe their knowledge of and experience in client-focused environments and be prepared to connect these hires with mentors or other internal staff to support their transition.

Information Technology (IT):

Thinking creatively about IT staff can yield great results for nonprofits. Administrative or operational professionals who have been responsible for technology and systems management in past jobs can easily transfer these skills to a nonprofit environment. Similarly, technology professionals who have been specialists in a large department or corporation, but who are seeking more autonomy and ownership of their work, also transfer well to the nonprofit sector. In addition to technology skills, look for customer service, teamwork, communication and soft skills.


Adopting a competency-based hiring model requires an investment of time and effort up front, but that investment is well worth the effort when you are making more appropriate and sophisticated hiring decisions. After the hire is made, core competencies continue to be useful in setting goals and positioning new hires for success, identifying areas for professional development, and making appropriate decisions about future promotions and raises.

Additionally, a candidate’s past success using a specific set of skills and competencies is the best indicator of how he or she will perform in a new role. Whether a hire is new to a job function or to the sector, remember that this person’s ability to call upon his or her soft and hard skills in a new role is what most ensures success. By considering candidates with a variety of transferable skills, you will diversify your staff and increase the impact of your organization.

For more information on competency-based hiring, we suggest the following helpful resources:

Hiring and Keeping the Best People (Harvard Business School Press)

How to Compete in the War for Talent (Hacker)

The Talent Edge (Cohen)

The War for Talent (Axelrod, Michaels)

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

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