Questions to ask before taking that job at a social change organisation

If you are considering working for a social change organisation, it is unlikely that you are doing it for the money. It is more likely that you are following a sense of purpose to make the world a better place. And you are likely a hard worker willing to put in the extra effort.  It’s fair to say that extra effort will be expected.

The most important thing to ask yourself ahead of time is, do you know what you want to get out of the job? Will it provide you with valuable experiences you can’t get elsewhere? Do you feel deeply passionate about the work? Is this a starting point?

You may have different considerations if you are further along your career, such as having the opportunity or freedom to lead a project. You may need to consider if you are willing to take a pay cut and how many hours ‘extra’ you are willing to work.

You’ll want alignment with the values, mission, and initiatives of any organisation you are considering. Remember, you are uniting in forces, rather than just applying your skills to receive a pay-check. Do you have respect for the leadership and people on the team?

Consider the organisation’s maturity and size. A smaller organisation that is in ‘start-up’ mode can be a very dynamic place, and you will likely have more ability to give input on and influence the direction of strategies and outputs. It will also be less likely to have much of what we list below. However, if the organisation has been around for a few years and is starting to grow, it should be starting to prioritise the sustainability of its employees.

One recurring conversation I find myself having with colleagues is what did you wish you knew before you took a job? The following is a compilation of those questions.

At a minimum, consider the organisation’s benefits package. Essential things to check:

  • Annual Holiday Leave
  • Health Insurance
  • Maternity/Paternity Leave
  • Sick Leave
  • Cost of Living Raises
  • Time off in lieu (toil) for extra days worked
  • Routine staff evaluation/reviews/appraisals and professional development
  • Staff Policies/Handbook

Interviews are not meant to be a one-way assessment. Remember that you should be determining for yourself if the position and organisation will be a good fit. Some key things you may want to clarify during the interview:

  • What values lead their work?
  • How do they make decisions about taking on new projects?
  • How do they make decisions about funding?
  • What is your exact role and what are your responsibilities? Is there a written job description?
  • How will you be evaluated?
  • Where do you fit into the organisational hierarchy? Who will be your line manager?
  • Some other things that might be important for you to clarify before you start:
  • Will you be on the payroll or are you freelancing?
  • Is there flexible working hours?
  • Will they provide you with a computer or laptop?
  • Are staff policies in an accessible handbook?
  • Is there a grievance procedure?
  • Do they have travel policies? Are you expected to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed?
  • Is there guidance on digital/physical security?
  • Will you get appropriate credit for your contribution on organisational outputs?

Many of the points below may not be appropriate to raise during an interview, and it might be worth doing some research and talking with other people you have access to that know the organisation well. Here are some indicators to consider investigating:

  • Is there diversity in Senior Management? The Board?
  • How many staff are on payroll vs freelancing contracts?
  • What is the longevity of the staff? What does leadership development look like in the organisation?
  • Are the founders on staff? Do they have an exit strategy?
  • Is there a sound ‘theory of change’ with an understandable organisational strategy to support it?
  • Do staff understand their role in implementing the strategy?
  • Do they measure success against their organisational strategy and theory of change?
  • Do they debrief after milestones and capture learnings to refine the strategy?
  • How have funders influenced the theory of change and organisational strategy?
  • Is there clarity on roles and responsibilities?
  • Do staff have accurate job descriptions that are updated routinely?
  • Is there transparency and accountability in decision making?
  • What is organisational sustainability like – what is the funding outlook? How diverse are the sources of funding? Do they have reserves?
  • How is employee sustainability? Do they encourage vacations/breaks/breathers or do they expect everyone to work overtime?
  • Do they collaborate well with other organisations?
  • Do they have a reputation for being territorial?
  • Are their fee for service rates in line with other orgs?
  • Do they share appropriate credit with partners on projects?

Try and befriend people who know the organisation well, ideally before you have to make any final decisions – so you can trust them to give you honest answers when you need them And again, remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.

Remember, a younger organisation may still be learning how to best support their staff. Think about how you can advance the organisation in a funding environment that often doesn’t encourage staff sustainability. If it’s an older organisation is the leadership open to suggestions for improvement?


Credits: This blog post has been brewing for quite some time.  I’m particularly grateful for initial input from Kristin Antin, Misty Avila, Lucy Chambers, Maya Ganesh, Sasha Kinney, Heather Leson, Tom Longley, Chris Michael, andZara Rahman. Friedhelm Weinberg, from Huridocs, and Andrew Lowenthal, from Engage Media, provided invaluable feedback from an Executive Director’s perspective (go work for them!)Lena Z Gunn and Tomas Krag helped refine the list of questions at an #NPDev session.