How to Excel in A Phone Interview with A Nonprofit Recruiter

Mar. 30, 2017

DRG staff


If you want to move to the next level of the hiring process for a position in nonprofit, one of the most important things you can do is leave a positive first impression in a phone interview with a nonprofit recruiter.

Associate recruiters are usually the first to begin reaching out to potential candidates during a search about the role, their qualifications and personal leadership style. These preliminary screenings often occur before the senior recruiter and the hiring managers of the organization interview the candidates.

Here are some insider tips from our associates for an effective phone interview.

Don’t ignore qualifications

Meeting the requirements or qualifications for a position is a critical way that recruiters determine whether a candidate will be able to accomplish the goals that are outlined in the job description. While there are certain skills that can be learned or coached, such as the ability to work with a nonprofit board, others are non-negotiable. If you’re a career-changer with transferable skills, it’s important to understand that you will be competing against qualified senior-level professionals who have a track record in the things that the organization is actually seeking. Be upfront with the recruiter if you are underqualified and be prepared to discuss what you will be able to bring to the table in spite of your skills deficiencies.

Manage your emotions

Emotional intelligence is essential in an interview. In addition to being expressive and alert, be aware of your tone and vocal delivery. The recruiter will take note if you seem tired, irritated, distracted or have low-energy. Using hand gestures, sitting up straight and smiling—things that you would normally do in a face-to-face interview—can help you convey elation and maintain a professional tone.

Provide accurate information about salary, achievements and shortcomings

You need to be open and honest about your skills (or lack thereof), salary requirements and history in order for the recruiter to provide a fair assessment. Telling white lies or fudging the truth about the things you have achieved or failed to achieve in your role will not get you closer to the job. According to a study conducted by researchers at the London Business School and the University of North Carolina, results “tend to be better for both employee and employer for those applicants who were honest in their job interviews.” If the recruitment firm discovers that you gave them misleading information or lied in an interview, they may not want to work with you in the future.

Present outcomes, metrics and specific examples of your success

 Your ability to quantify your success can have an impact on your standing in a search. Did you help the organization grow its staff? Diversify revenue streams? Increase media placements? Be prepared to discuss important stats and examples of organizational growth. If you are a director of development or senior-level fundraiser, you should be armed with basic campaign figures as well as data about your organization’s fundraising goals and how much money you raised. Major gifts work, in particular, is also measurable so an inability to recall or share basic fundraising information might be a deal breaker.

Convey an understanding of the search through research

 Relying solely on a previous, informal phone call or initial email exchanges about the role can translate to disinterest to the recruiter. Spend time reviewing the job description, the organization’s website and their Form 990 to gain insights beyond the organization’s mission. Doing your homework also means understanding the recruiter’s role as a mediator in the search. Don’t assume that it is the recruiter’s job to help you get the position. The recruiter’s job is to identify the best candidate for the role and ensure that his or her client is satisfied. It’s your job to prove that you not only should be included in the talent pool, but also are the best candidate for the role.

Maintain a professional demeanor

 Though scheduled phone interviews are usually formal, your recruiter may try to build rapport to make you feel comfortable during the conversation. This doesn’t mean that you should be cavalier or less professional. The recruiter might not be able to scrutinize your behavior face-to-face, but he or she is paying attention to the language you use and how you are expressing yourself. To maintain professionalism, act as if you’re talking to the client. Behave the way you would if you were actually meeting with hiring managers or higher-ups from the organization.

Listen and provide clear, coherent and concise answers

 When a candidate rambles in a phone interview it may suggest that he or she is unfocused or doesn’t have the experience the recruiter is asking about. For leadership positions, where a CEO is a spokesperson for an organization’s work, the ability to speak succinctly is paramount. Avoid wordy responses or stories that have the potential to drag on. Impart information that will help the recruiter better understand your strengths, and not information that overwhelms the recruiter. A great way to ensure that you have actually answered a recruiter’s question is to simply ask, “Have I answered your question?” after a minute of speaking.


Since phone interviews are normally not as long as face-to-face interviews, you have a short amount of time to persuade the recruiter that you are a candidate that should be invited for in person interview. You can advance to that level by highlighting your qualifications, managing your emotions, being prepared with key figures that support your success, exhibiting professionalism, and providing coherent responses that validate your potential.