July 18, 2017

Career Advice

Looking Outside the Talent Box

By: Claire Kittle Dixon

by Claire Kittle Dixon and Lauren Skiver

Have you caught yourself with a staff vacancy asking, “Why doesn’t a candidate with the perfect background and experience apply?”

It certainly would make your job (and ours) easier to find candidates whose backgrounds perfectly match our job openings. But, as a number of organizations we’ve partnered with have found, thinking outside of the talent box can prove incredibly fruitful—especially for openings that are challenging to fill. Not only can it expand your talent pool; it also can bring your organization a fresh perspective.

Thinking outside the box

This is exactly what Kory Swanson, president & CEO of John Locke Foundation, had in mind when he hired a senior fundraiser. “I decided to hire outside of the fundraising box. I wanted to go with someone who had a passion for freedom and free markets—someone who had been a successful entrepreneur and understood how the wealthy think about wealth. Jon Pritchett fit the bill.”

In the initial months since becoming JLF’s senior vice president, Jon has developed a comprehensive major gifts program, identified and pursued high net worth individuals, expanded JLF’s membership categories, and introduced a planned giving program. As a result, JLF’s donor retention rate, average gift size, and year-over year giving have seen impressive increases.

The Mackinac Center has approached hiring in a similar way. Mike Reitz, Mackinac’s Executive Vice President, put it this way: “We’re trying to save the country—why wouldn’t we look at other industries for the very best people we can find? Not only does this give us a wider recruiting network, this strategy helps us continually broaden our perspective and test our assumptions. New hires from outside the public policy world are good at identifying bubble thinking.”

This led Mackinac to hire John Mozena as their vice president for marketing and communications. His private sector PR experience brought fresh insights to their practices. Through his efforts, the organization started looking at their share of conversation, share of voice, tone, message inclusion, and other factors they hadn’t previously considered. They have now instituted new measurement practices that more accurately determine their impact on the media. Perhaps most impressively, John has expanded Mackinac’s outreach to progressive media and opened opportunities for Mackinac to preach beyond the choir.

The Empire Center pursued their director of development opening with a similar outside-the-box perspective when they hired Ann Hughes. Ann is a former broadcast journalist with no prior development experience. As Tim Hoefer, Empire’s executive director, said, “We’ve found great value in hiring people from varied backgrounds. A different and fresh perspective on reaching our goals has really helped us think outside the box and fine tune our processes.” In the interview process, Ann demonstrated she was committed to Empire’s cause, could translate her skill set to fundraising, and had the work ethic to succeed. Since joining Empire’s team in August, Ann has led them in an aggressive growth plan which has already achieved multiple benchmarks, including increasing their donor base.

That’s nice, but how does it work in reality?

Jon Pritchett at John Locke shared two tips for others joining the movement. First, take advantage of SPN’s training, mentoring, and expertise; and seek peers in similar organizations and share best practices. Second, respect the difference in how nonprofits are managed. Avoid being the bull in the china shop who constantly talks about how things are done in the for-profit world, but be willing to constructively share your ideas, learning, thoughts, and experiences from the private sector—especially if they might have a positive impact on the movement.

Mackinac’s John Mozena shares this tidbit of advice for newcomers in the free-market space: “It’s incredibly important for those coming in from the private sector to show they “get it” as quickly as possible, demonstrating an understanding of and passion for the principles of liberty and free markets.”

And Empire’s Ann Hughes’ advice for others in her shoes? “Ask a lot of questions, and ask for advice. Through SPN, you can turn to development peers from all over the country and take advantage of numerous training opportunities.”

But maybe the most valuable thing newcomers bring to our space is passion. Jon Pritchett perfectly summed it up: “After five months in the movement, I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about anything.”


Claire Kittle Dixon is the Executive Director of Talent Market. Lauren Skiver is the Talent Manager at Talent Market. This article appears in the July/August issue of SPN News.