Reducing Bias When Screening for Nonprofit Members, Volunteers, or Board Members

With the growing pressures of the Great Reshuffle, where there are more vacant positions than ever, nonprofit recruiters must find innovative ways to draw in quality nonprofit employees, volunteers, or board members. In the midst of the reshuffle, however, it’s important to address unconscious bias and how it can negatively impact your nonprofit’s hiring practices.

Unconscious bias happens when recruiters associate certain candidates with a preconceived, often discriminatory stereotype while being completely unaware they are doing it. This subconscious yet harmful practice can greatly affect your nonprofit’s work culture and diversity.

The first step to rooting out unconscious bias is to sit in the discomfort of acknowledgement. Accepting that you have harmful biases is difficult and requires humility. But it’s important to note that everyone carries unconscious biases, starting from a young age — after all, it’s a normal way for our brains to categorize and try to make sense of the world around us.

With that said, recruiters must still actively uncover and unlearn the biases that they identify within themselves. It may feel like a long, difficult process to weed out certain thoughts and notions, but it’s a necessary step to take. Candidates deserve to be screened by a recruiter who doesn’t judge them for their background, but values and recognizes them for their skill set and talent. Unlearning unconscious biases is constant and ongoing. But as long as you have proper accountability and the intention to be fair in your hiring decisions, your candidates will appreciate you for it.

Here are just a few of the ways you can reduce bias in your nonprofit’s screening process.

1. Anonymize your prospective candidates

Blind recruitment is the act of removing all personal details from a person’s resume or job application. This includes revealing information like an applicant’s name, race, gender, and age. With the absence of identification, you and your nonprofit board will be able to focus solely on their skills, experience, and qualifications. There is less opportunity for your unconscious biases to influence hiring decisions, as you will not be able to focus on a candidate’s personal background and make underlying assumptions.

Although there are resources and platforms available that help you with blind recruitment, you can also just ask your candidates to submit their job applications without their names or any personal information. Make sure to post role descriptions that are gender and age neutral so that candidates do not accidentally reveal information about themselves that can potentially encourage unconscious biases.

2. Prioritize diversity within your nonprofit’s board

If you find that your nonprofit’s board is homogeneous, you may want to consider making a change and elevating more diverse voices. An ideal board may consist of a group of people who all come from varying backgrounds and have their own lived experiences. Do your board members reflect the different communities that you serve? Are they diverse in gender, race, culture, and age? 

It’s important to note that board members are also a direct representation of your nonprofit body. They are leaders who are responsible for critical decisions that not only affect your organization’s future operations, but also solidifies a certain work culture within your staff. Having multiple voices from diverse people groups will encourage your nonprofit to usher in inclusivity, which is an integral facet of a healthy community. 

3. Consider alternative screening practices

Abandoning resumes or cover letters doesn’t necessarily mean you’re compromising quality. If anything, it creates opportunities for you to know your applicants and their experiences more creatively. At first glance, it might seem intimidating to think of a hiring practice that doesn’t involve reviewing a candidate’s resume — but it’s possible, and can even be effective in retaining highly qualified, committed nonprofit members. Instead of having candidates explain the contents of their resume with you, consider asking them alternative questions that allow them to share their accomplishments authentically.

You can also assign short projects or assignments that candidates have to complete. Based on the quality and depth of their responses, you can then discuss with your nonprofit which of them you would want to contact for an initial interview.

4. Delay background checks

Background checks are a necessary part of hiring. However, they can lead to discrimination if employers wrongfully judge a candidate for qualities that are irrevelant to a job description. For example, if employers reject a candidate simply because of their older age, they are making unfair judgments upon that individual and dismissing their credentials. Unfortunately, this form of discrimination is not unusual. According to an experiment done by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, their fictional pool of younger candidates received a significantly higher amount of callbacks than older candidates. Furthermore, their results suggested that older women may face more age discrimination than men.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep background checks, but consider running them after your prospective employee accepts their offer and consents to the background check. Age should not be a concern when hiring people for your nonprofit, as older members are just as capable of being successful in their roles — whether that’s as a volunteer or board member.

5. Foster a safe space for all of your nonprofit members

Officially onboarding people to your nonprofit is the first step, but investing in retainment is the next. Reducing bias starts with prioritizing diversity and equity, not just amongst the staff and volunteers, but especially amongst the board members. In order for your nonprofit to truly be a safe space that actively works against unconscious bias, you need to have all types of people who are comfortable with accountability and are more than willing to tackle conflicts with a growth mindset.

When your nonprofit thrives, your immediate network and your target communities will feel the difference. It’s an inspiration — and a path to a better future — when people of varying backgrounds, identities, and beliefs come together to pursue and fulfill a mission. 


This post was inspired by Laura Hilgers article, 5 Ways to Reduce Bias When Screening Candidates—and Find More Talent.

Take your nonprofit to the next level and develop your team, your organization, and your own skills with these LinkedIn’s free nonprofit resources.