do I have to fake passion to get a job?

A reader writes:

I’m getting so discouraged and wondering if I am missing some essential job hunting/interviewing skill. I have had three interviews in the last month (so I feel pretty good about the fact that my cover letter, resume, and networking are in good shape) but no job offer. The first interview I felt was not a great fit, the second one said they found someone with more similar experience (fair enough), but this last one really shook me up.

It was with a faith-based organization that is the faith that I practice, and I was completely and totally qualified. In fact, when I read the job description, I thought to myself: “That’s it!” I worked with a head hunter and went in for an interview. I thought it went really well. I felt comfortable and confident and qualified. The way the culture and values were described to me, in some detail, really got me jazzed. I really thought I had it in the bag.

The day after the interview, the recruiter called to say they were not going to offer me a job or pursue me as a candidate because I did not show enough interest in their mission. They felt I could have been interviewing for any old job, that I just wanted a job. That I seemed focused on what was in it for me, not that I was excited about or interested in their mission.

OK, so — is it my burning desire to work on their particular mission? No. It is my burning desire to use my skills to help an organization that does good, however, and this one seemed like a perfectly good cause, and, like I said, in my faith tradition, which I made perfectly clear in the interview. I talked about how lovely it would be to work for a place with a spiritual focus and faith-based values, how I know the culture and the language. But no, I did not say “I am totally psyched about your mission! I’ve been waiting my whole life to do this!!!”

I’ve been mulling this over and I can’t figure out if they are just a bit out there and asking too much, or if this is excellent feedback for me and something I really need to look at, especially since I am looking for a job in the nonprofit field. I am in communications, by the way. I always say, I’m not a doctor or a nurse or a social worker, but I want to use my communications skills to do good. I have 25 years of experience in health care and nonprofit. It’s what I do. But do I need to go to each interview as if that particular organization’s mission is central to my search? Isn’t it enough to present my skills?

Having said all that, I really do want a job and I am growing weary of the search, so maybe it simply showed. I just don’t know.

You don’t need to fake passion when you don’t feel it, but when you’re applying at cause-based or faith-based organizations, you often do need to show a strong interest in their mission. You don’t need to act as if it’s your life’s mission if it’s not, but you do want to appear particularly enthusiastic about what they do — more so than in other sectors. If they get the sense that you’d be just as happy working at a bank or a zoo as working with them, you’re signaling to them that you might not quite fit in with what they’re all about. Because what they’re all about is working toward some kind of change, and they want people on their team who are pumped about that.

It’s not just about passion, of course. Passion is no substitute for talent and a track record of results, and nonprofits run into serious trouble when they hire highly passionate candidates who aren’t actually well suited for the job. But it’s reasonable that they want people who think the work they’re doing is awesome. (And that’s especially true for positions that will be dealing directly with their mission, like communications. It’s generally less true for, say, I.T. jobs or accounting.)

So, how does all that affect you? Well, it’s possible that you displayed a completely appropriate amount of enthusiasm and excitement and these people are just unusual in how much of it they want to see. It’s also possible that you didn’t seem all that moved by what they’re doing. There’s a difference, after all, between “it would be nice to work here” and “what you’re doing is fantastic, and I’d be thrilled to be a part of it.”

I don’t know which it was, so I’d ask: Does their feedback ring true to you at all? Is it consistent with other things you know about yourself (that you’re very low-key, for instance, and that people often can’t tell how you’re feeling)? Can you talk it over with friends who might have a more objective perspective on you than you have of yourself? Can you experiment with being more openly enthusiastic in your next interview and see if it goes differently?

But beyond that, while you should certainly consider feedback with an open mind and not immediately disregard it as wrong, it’s also true if the feedback is only coming from one source and just doesn’t ring true to you, it’s entirely possible that it’s not on the mark.

And it’s also okay to decide that employers who require unusually intense displays of enthusiasm aren’t the right fit for you — no matter how good other aspects of the job sound — because that kind of thing doesn”t usually end at the interview.

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. BCW*

    I’ve worked at a couple of non-profits ( a couple were cultural organizations and one was a community outreach place) and I’ve noticed that a lot of managers do look for a crazy amount of enthusiasm. Luckily my managers didn’t, because while I liked their mission, it wasn’t like anything I was super passionate about it. If the manager is like that though, it probably isn’t the best fit for you

    1. Anonymous*

      Thanks for the only laugh I’ve had today. I’m sitting in a parking lot waiting another 15 minutes before entering for a part time job interview in a thunder storm with lightning. Very nasty weather & I so needed that laugh.

  2. ADE*

    I think it’s also possible that you are enthusiastic without proclaiming ENTHUSIASM with every step. In other words, your personality isn’t “Glee.” I worked in a field with a lot of Glee types, and they found it harder to understand how other people who didn’t sparkle rainbows could be into the work.

    Perhaps on a future interview you could spin this personality trait as a positive. Maybe something like “I tend to express my passion for the subject through my writing rather than in my speaking.”

    1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      I dunno, I kinda think that could backfire, especially in communications. While not all comm jobs require you to be a physical, verbal representation, I think enough do that I would be skeptical of hiring someone who didn’t even seem enthusiatic about the mission in the job interview, and if they tried to spin it as a writing versus verbal thing, I dunno… maybe it’s unfair of me to think that a communications person SHOULD be able to seem enthusiastic verbally as well as in writing, but it would seem so *limiting* to hire someone who was an awesome writer but you could never depend on to, say, be in front of a camera or give speeches. Limiting their promotion potential (and limiting your own pool of qualified comm professionals to promote from).

      (Maybe that’s it, by adding in that qualifier, the OP would be acknowledging the issue, which is good, but also implying that that’s just the way she is, which I thin would be bad.)

  3. J*

    “Is it consistent with other things you know about yourself (that you’re very low-key, for instance, and that people often can’t tell how you’re feeling)?”

    Does anyone have any thoughts on this point? This describes me perfectly, and I do feel like I can come across as apathetic when that’s not really the case. When I try to display more enthusiasm it makes me feel like I’m wearing a plastic mask that doesn’t fool anybody, which I wouldn’t think would be appealing either. I feel enthusiastic about things, I just have a weak connection between my emotions and my face.

    Anyone in a similar boat have strategies they’d like to share?

    1. Parcae*

      I’m very low-key, and it’s been an issue before at work. I’m in a nonprofit field and we’re generally expected to have PASSION for the work. I get a little bit of slack because I’m in finance, but I’ve still had to try to compensate.

      I haven’t had much success displaying more “enthusiasm.” Day-to-day, I’m fairly serious and focused, not giddy with excitement over our opportunity to Help People. What actually seems to work– in interviews and more casual conversations with others in the field– is to get *more* serious and stern. At the end of an interview, for example, when given the chance to ask questions, I’ll pause, take a deep breath, and ask very seriously if I can talk a little bit about what my work means to me. That usually gets people’s attention. Then I’ll give a little speech about my work– the difference we’ve made in our clients’ lives; how hard and how rewarding it is at the same time; the way I feel called to this work through my life experience and faith tradition– and blow their socks off not with how excited I am about the work, but how seriously I take our mission.

      I’ve developed a reputation for being serious and reserved, but in a way where my reserve is just a cover for the intense emotion I must be feeling all the time. I never need to fake “perky” or “bubbly” (shudder) but no one questions my commitment.

        1. Michele*

          This is great and it definitely would carry over into other industries and not just the non profit sector.

        2. Jamie*

          Me too – this is perfect. I’m also not comfortable expressing passion in a gregarious or overly excited way, so this would totally work for me too.

        3. Ella*

          I am an introvert, really low-key and reserved – I resonate with Parcae 100%. Furthermore interviews always represent for me a painful moment of the job hunting process.
          I’d love to be more extrovert and get “bubbly” to show all my enthusiasm for the position/company/mission, but that would require an overwhelming effort and upsurge beyond my reach. To counterbalance this weakness of mine I try and convey all my energy and passion into the cover letter.

      1. J*

        I really like this as well, and I think it would be more convincing than trying to pull off looking enthusiastic. One of my biggest frustrations though, is that even when I DO feel enthusiastic I apparently show it by smiling in a way that I feel is exaggerated, but apparently is just baseline straight-faced for other people.

      2. Marina*

        TOTALLY agree. If you’re not into the “bubbly” kind of enthusiasm, go with results-based enthusiasm. My cover letters for nonprofit jobs tend to be along the lines of “I have a deep commitment to your mission, as shown by my (related work success story/volunteer commitments/personal story).” This is honestly more impressive than the “perky” level of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is really most useful as a sign of potential commitment; if you can demonstrate the commitment, you don’t need to show off the enthusiasm.

      3. Ann O'Nemity*

        Parcae, thank you so much. Great advice like this keeps me reading the comments on this site!

      4. Jennifer*

        In my unfortunate experience in having to fake Perky! And Smiling! at my job, I honestly don’t think most people notice or care if it is plastic as hell. My coworkers know better, obviously due to knowing me for years, but the general random person who doesn’t know me well doesn’t seem to care if it’s fake. And I think I’m a terrible actress, so…. Much as I hate faking it, most people seem to take Perky! at face value. And then it’s less complaining about how my voice perpetually sounds angry (honestly, I don’t know how it sounds “angry” when it is high pitched and squeaking) and crap like that.

    2. Joey*

      Say it. If you don’t show it you have to tell them about your excitement.

      I make it a point to say I’m truly excited because of xyz.

      It also helps to act happy. For me that’s smiling or saying something like “that sounds wonderful ” when I hear something particularly appealing.

      1. Vicki*

        I read the original letter and my thought is, if “. I felt comfortable and confident and qualified. The way the culture and values were described to me, in some detail, really got me jazzed. ” wasn’t sufficient “passion”, then this is one of those jobs you didn’t want, because working with these people would cause you stress.

    3. Josh S*

      Yeah, what Parcae said is awesome to keep in mind. “Passion” doesn’t have to be “swooning with excitement and bubbly fire”–it can mean taking things VERY seriously, or doing whatever it takes, or, or, or…

      The key thing is figuring a way to communicate this that is authentic to you.

      If you’re low key, it might be to simply take a moment toward the end and say, “I’m aware that I don’t always wear my emotions on my sleeve, so I want to be sure to say it plainly–I’m excited about the mission of this organization because of ____ and ____. And I’m particularly excited for this position because I’ll be able to contribute to that mission by doing _____ and ____.”

      There are ways to offset an apparent lack of passion.

    4. Labratnomore*

      I feel the same way. If I try to act excited or enthusiastic it just looks fake because that is not who I am. But because I don’t act that way I look like I don’t care, even if I am really passionate about something. It does make interviewing and showing my interest in jobs difficult. Some interviewers just don’t believe it when you say you are excited if they don’t see it in your actions and expressions. Maybe I need some acting classes to learn to act like I actually feel!

    5. Observer*

      Say what you are thinking / feeling. People who know you will understand what’s happening. In a case where you are in the “getting to know you” phase, and not just in interviews, you could point out that your enthusiasm doesn’t generally the typical verbal or visual cues.

      Please, though, don’t use phrases “glee types”. It will almost certainly come off as extremely condescending.

    6. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      I think some of the strategies others have proposed could be good, but I want to advocate for something else. The choices aren’t just between “faking it” and “tell don’t show.” Connecting your emotions with your expressions is something you can learn, if you try.

      I had the same issue for a long time, and still do to a large extent. But what was key for me was studying the faces that others make an imitating them. Especially watching from TV or live theatre, as opposed to just everyday people (many of which may have the same issue you do).

      This is different from faking it, where you put on a face to out of the situation. This is about learning how to make your face do the normal things that other peoples’ faces do. A lot of it is simply practicing, because you don’t have the muscle memory for this stuff that others have.

      When something makes you happy, consciously will yourself to smile. It’s not faking it, because you actually ARE happy, you’re just expressing it. Learning to frown is a weird one, but super useful. Eyebrows are really important, too; when you feel suprised, try to be exaggerated in widening your eyes or raising your eyebrows. Try making the Mckayla Maroney face when you’re just standing around bored.

      Learn specific facial movements that tip YOU off to how others are feeling, then start imitating them when you feel those ways. Eventually, they become instinctive, because your face knows how to make those movements and is familiar with how they work. Over time, I’ve managed to significantly improve my projection of emotion via expression.

      Like anything else in life, if it doesn’t come naturally, you have to learn it. But it CAN be learned.

  4. Lisa*

    Is there anything you’ve encountered in your pre-interview research that got you excited about working at their organization that you could mention? I used to work at a disease research foundation and while I wasn’t personally affected or connected to the disease like some of my co-workers, I was inspired by the personal stories and testimonials I read about on their website. I’m not a wildly enthusiastic, crazy contagious personality either- but I think you can demonstrate enthusiasm just by showing you’ve done your research and can connect to the org’s mission somehow.

  5. Ethyl*

    ” Passion is no substitute for talent and a track record of results, and nonprofits run into serious trouble when they hire highly passionate candidates who aren’t actually well suited for the job. ”

    See also: the person who previously held my job. I made it clear when I was interviewing (it was a temp-to-hire situation) that I was much more about making our programs run smoothly and increasing attendance than I was about doing the “ministry” work, and every single person I interviewed with got all awkward and were like “yeah……we really need that right now based off of past results…..” So it’s possible, as a non-demonstrative, non-crapping-rainbows person, to find a good cause in a great organization without being all rah-rah-rah all the time. Good luck, OP!!!! Being out of work long-term is the WORST.

    1. Emily K*

      Yes, it’s a very delicate balance. At the other end of the spectrum are people like my former boss, who had lots of nonprofit fundraising experience but told me on my first day at the Teapotist Organization, “I’m not a Teapotist. I’m a fundraiser.”

      I worked under her for just under a year. It was obvious that she had talent and skills but her interest in the mission was so lacking that she couldn’t motivate herself to perform to a high standard, she phoned everything in, missed deadlines, took a lot of sick days or days “working” from home, and just shy of my one-year anniversary with the org she was let go.

      When I screened resumes, I looked for people who had both qualities at minimum. Exceptional passion + modest skill would have been competitive with modest passion + exceptional skill. Exceptional passion+ no skill and exceptional skill + no passion were both nonstarters. The minimum passion required was “connected enough to something particular about our mission that they won’t 1) lose motivation and slack off or 2) be lured away a short time later to another org who they also don’t really care about but who has deeper pockets than ours.”

      1. Bwmn*

        As someone who’s worked with different nonprofits over the years – I think that this kind of balance is so important.

        I think this also fits in with the subject of “know your field” and if necessary “learn the fields of where you’re applying”. I worked for an organization overseas on a “difficult” cause. By working for that organization it meant that I faced a degree of being ostracized by segments of the population where I lived and definitely being more on the fringes of mainstream society. For organizations in my sector, it was pretty common for interviews to include “tests” to measure enthusiasm, seriousness, commitment to the cause. Basically, no one wanted to waste their time hiring someone who wasn’t genuinely aware of the larger context and committed to the issue. I’ve also worked for some pretty mainstream organizations where I’d say there’s a general assumption that “everyone” supports the cause (in my case a children’s hospital) therefore there’s no need to see a cheerleading routine.

        Based on the OP’s letter, switching from healthcare – particularly more mainstream healthcare – to more cause/faith based issues, a bit more research could be helpful. There are definitely some nonprofits that want to see their mission on nearly every aspect of your life. Obviously, if that’s not a good fit – good to know ahead of time, but being aware is helpful.

        I’ve recently been hired for a new position, and during my interview they said that given my willingness to work on x issue at my old job, that showed a great deal of passion and commitment and that was the end of that. So it’s not always necessary to bring on the emotional speech – but I’d be aware that it may be necessary and that other candidates are probably going to give them something to convey strong emotion (whether their seriousness, enthusiasm, sob story etc).

  6. Sunflower*

    I know a particular for profit, retail organization who’s staff has been described as ‘cult-like’. I applied for a store associate job there and it was hands down the most bizarre application I have ever filled out. Lots of questions that did not relate at all to the job. I even knew several store managers so i thought I would definitely get an interview and probably job. I didn’t get an interview and I know it was because there are certain values and passions they believe you must have in order to help the organization. Mind you, my job would be to sell clothes to people. Not sure how my passions had anything to do with that? But anyway, at the end of the day i decided I was happy to not work there because it would have been very difficult, day in and day out, pretending I cared a lot about something that I felt ehh about.

    I’ve applied at non-profits who don’t care if you care about their mission, they just want you to get the job done- given these were non-profits that were more of networking organizations so it was a little different. Guess it just depends on the company.

    If you feel you just need to show the passion to get the job and then maybe over play that a bit. But if you are going to have to demonstrate being dedicated to the mission every day, all day, and it’s something you only feel ehh about, it probably isn’t where you want to be anyway

      1. Sunflower*

        Possibly… I guess you need your employees to be pretty dedicated to your mission when your workout pants costs $100 though

        1. Michele*

          I almost sent my resume to them and then when I saw the application process I quickly changed my mind.

    1. Labratnomore*

      I applied for a higher level position at a quick serve food chain. The majority of the interview focused on what I know about their products and my passion for their products. You would think things like leadership and business experience would be the main focus of an interview at that level, but they were hardly mentioned.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      I applied to a trendy food store for a part time cashier position when I was in grad school. During the brief in-store interview, they noticed I had a college degree and wanted me to consider management training. I told them that due to school, I was only interested in part time work currently, and they totally didn’t hire me because of that!

    3. Jennifer*

      I agree, if you have to fake enthusiasm on that high of a level every single day in the job, maybe it’s a blessing to have not gotten it.

    1. Laura*

      I work at a nonprofit, and with a lot of them, and there are in fact a lot of nonprofits who really care that you have (or can fake effectively) a strong passion for the cause. I don’t agree with it myself — I’d take someone who is passionate about doing quality work over someone with a passion for changing the world any day — but this isn’t an unusual thing. If you’re interviewing with a nonprofit or faith based org, I’d say it’s worth reading up on the cause and being ready to say how it impacts you and why it’s important to you in a convincing way. And ideally it’s even true.

      1. Marina*

        If you’re in an outward facing position at a nonprofit, such as development or outreach, you do need to be able to have or fake enthusiasm to get your job done. I don’t think it’s technically necessary to do internal work like IT, but I think a lot of nonprofits look for enthusiasm because the pay tends to be lower than industry standard. If you’re not enthusiastic about the cause, you’ll probably be gone in three months for somewhere that pays better.

        1. Bwmn*

          The pay issue is why even if you’re doing IT or accounting, they want to be assured that you’re not going to bolt the second you get a better offer. Because financially, there will likely be a better offer if you start looking.

          It’s always going to depend on what kind of nonprofit you work for. There are loads of large, very mainstream organizations that I think operate under the assumption that everyone supports their cause, so it won’t feature as prominently. However, when you get into political causes, less mainstream issues, faith based orgs – these issues are possible to become far more prominent.

        2. Observer*

          It’s not just that pay tends to be on a lower scale, although that’s a very real issue. It’s also that you deal with a lot of stuff that tends not to crop up in reasonably well run private businesses, especially if you are in an organization that gets government funding.

          I recently had to replace three computers for our staff – the computers were old and slow and it was having a real negative impact on people’s ability to get the work done. In a normal business, you make the case to your boss, you provide the budget, the boss authorizes it and you make the purchase. Some companies as more bureaucratic than others about it, but in a reasonably well run place it’s a relatively straightforward process. However, with most government funded programs, you go through the “make the case, present the budget, and figure out how you are paying for it” and THEN you have to get permission from the government agency to actually make the purchase. Depending on the agency, this process can take weeks, to months. This kind of craziness affects EVERYONE – both the outward facing and back end staff like IT. In this case, it meant months where the staff was suffering for needless procedures, and hours of extra work on my part and the people who have to approve and submit the paperwork, and interface directly with the government agency.

          This is just one example of the kind of issue that hits many organizations. And, on the other hand, non-profits often cannot provide other types of things that help retention, for a number of reasons. So, you need dedication to help offset these issues.

  7. Anonie*

    So many nonprofits put in their ads that you have to have a passion for their mission. Everytime I see that statement it makes me cringe a little because I know there are people out there who may not have a passion for a mission but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a passion for doing good work and being a great employee. I work in the non-profit field. I once worked for an organization that served the developmentally disabled. I didn’t have a passion for the developmentally disabled but I wanted to work as a Grant Writer because I liked writing grants. I didn’t think I would last 3 months at the organizations because of the constant disruptions of the clients who were allowed to roam free and visit us anytime they wanted. I ended up staying there six years. I can honestly say I still don’t have a passion for serving the developmentally disabled but what I did have a passion for was helping the staff who did have a passion for serving the DD population. When I saw how much the staff cared about the client, I wanted to help get all the money I could so that they had what they needed to take care of the clients. Of course there were clients who stole my heart at times but when it was time to move on to another job, I had no problems doing that. I have learned that my passion is helping people who really care about the work they are doing. All organizations are important and have a reason for their existence. I can get behind any organization who is doing good work that doesn’t mean I have a passion for their cause (at least not in the beginning).

    I think employers need to look at the bigger picture sometimes. I hear it all the time, art nonprofits wants grant writers who have experience writing for the arts; health wants health; etc., but a good grant writer can write for any field. Passion is relative……. to me. I don’t smile all the time but it doesn’t mean I am unhappy. I just don’t smile constantly.

    I have worked with a lot of so called passionate people and they may be outgoing but they never accomplish anything. It is the quiet ones who are actually getting the work done!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it also depends on your definition of passion.

      For example, I worked on marijuana policy reform for six years. That’s not my #1 passion in life. It’s not even in my top 10 issues. But I do feel strongly about civil liberties and privacy rights and my right to do what I want with my own body and brain, and I think it’s reprehensible that the government is arresting and jailing people for what they do in the privacy of their own homes (let alone sick patients using marijuana on the advice of their doctors), and I can talk about that sincerely. And that reads as sufficient passion, because it’s sincere and deeply held belief. It’s different than just “yeah, what you’re saying in your mission makes sense.”

      That difference can be sufficient, I think, as long as you’re reasonably articulate about it.

        1. Anonie*

          Lol! You do sound passionate about it! That would make me want to write the grant for you even though I don’t have that same passion. My thing is I know that if you care that much you are not going to squander or misuse the grant money that I secure and to me that is important. I guess my passion is helping people who are passionate about what they are doing as long as it is not illegal or morally wrong.

          1. MissDisplaced*

            Off topic Anonie, but how did you learn grant writing?
            Unfortunately, it wasn’t offered as part of my communications degree. Can you recommend any online classes?

            1. Bwmn*

              As someone who’s done a lot of grant writing – taking any kind of grant writing class without being tied to a specific organization is a bit of a crap shoot. My degree did offer a fundraising course that had a section on grant writing – and given all the grants, letters of intent, and proposals I’ve written since – that class did nothing for me.

              What did help me was when I was either working for or volunteering for an organization, and then taking courses or workshops held by donors about how they want grants to look. That helped me a lot with things like logical frame works, piecing together objectives/outputs/impact, etc. However, without having a specific organization or project in mind, I find that the terms end up very jargon-y and difficult to understand.

              Volunteering with an organization specifically on their grant writing I imagine to be the best way to learn rather than a course or being hired to grant write.

            2. Al Lo*

              If there’s an opportunity to be involved as a jury member for a granting organization, that’s the best way to learn.

              The arts granting organizations in my area are typically peer-reviewed panels that are facilitated by the (government-funded, usually) funding agency — the particular organization that I worked with had panels for community arts organizations (music organizations in one category; all others in a separate category), professional presenting organizations (visual, literary, and film), professional performing organizations (dance, music, and theatre), festivals, and large organizations (the dozen or so non-profit arts orgs in my city with operating budgets of over $3M).

              The panels were a volunteer opportunity, open by application or nomination to anyone working in the specific disciplines represented.

              I learned more about granting by sitting in on those panels (as a staff member, so I was in on all of them) than I ever did in a grant-writing class — although the classes and books formed a great foundation.

              All that to say — I don’t know what sector you’re in or what the grant juries look like in your area, but if there’s a chance to be involved on the granting side, as opposed to the grant-writing side, you’ll get a great sense of what well- vs. poorly-written grants look like, what information is prioritized, how the money is distributed (i.e. our funding model was for stable year-to-year funding, but increases were very difficult to get because the annual pool might increase by 3%, and that had to accommodate new applicants + increases to current clients), and so on.

            3. Anonymous*

              Hi MissDisplaced,

              I kind of fell into grant writing. I started helping a friend who had her own grant writing business and was getting behind with all of her grant writing work. I knew about grants because I managed a community grant program (we granted money for community programs) for an affiliate of a major national nonprofit so I knew my way around a grant but had never written them. This friend needed help so I offered to help her write sections of grants (I had a technical writing certificate at the time) so I could write parts of the grants for her. I really liked it so I took a grant writing and grants management certificate program at the university close to my house. I live in California.
              I have never taken an online grant writing class so I am not sure how effective they are. I think Foundation Center offers online classes. Depending on where you live you may be able to take a class in person. For instance in California, the Center for Nonprofit Management offers grant writing classes all the time. The is also a Professional Grant Writers Association now that has resources for classes.

              As some of the other commenters have said the best way to get experience and build credibility as a grant writer is to volunteer to write grants for a non-profit. The classes will give you a foundation but you really need to prove you know your way around a grant and that you can write grants that get funded. I volunteered to write grants for a nonprofit near my home before I made the transition into full-time grant writing.

              There are some good books out their as well. I like a book called The Only Grant Writing Book You Will Ever Need.

              I agree with Bwmm it will be a lot easier if you write for an actual nonprofit. Nonprofits are wary of taking on newbies with no funding track record.

              1. Bwmn*

                Another thought is that if you’re already working for a nonprofit – talk to your supervisor/executive director about how you’d like to learn about grant writing and try to get some experience within your own organization. You’ll have the benefit of knowing how the organization functions, and then you’ll be able to see how the organization’s language is manipulated into a grant.

                I know that whenever attorneys at my old organization would read part of my grants, they would get really irritated because I cut out too much “incredibly important” (their opinion) detail. It wasn’t what would work for the grant, and a huge part of my job was being able to say “this is unnecessary to the donor or will be confusing”. So if you have the opportunity to see the difference in the language used by an organization you’re already familiar with – that could be really helpful.

                1. MissDisplaced*

                  Thanks everyone for the grant writing advice and suggestions!

                  I’ve never worked for a nonprofit, but it’s something I would be interested in moving into, which is why I was interested in picking up some specific skills in that area (especially as I’m currently laid off and bored!).

                  Good point about volunteering as well, it’s just that I’m not sure where to start sometimes. I do volunteer for a therapeutic riding center, but they never seem to need “office” help.

                2. Zelos*

                  I echo this advice. That being said, in my neck of the woods a lot of the nonprofits don’t advertise their grant-writing positions, so you may have to volunteer there already to hear about this. On the rare occasion that I’ve seen posted positions for grant writers, they want experienced grant writers…with 2 – 3 years experience. I can understand that they don’t want to spend too much time training when they’re strapped for money, but that isn’t a great training environment!

                  Anyway, MissDisplaced, you might have better luck querying with smaller, grassroots-type groups. I’m gonna start training in grant writing at the end of the month after I queried a small grassroot-y type group that I occasionally help out with (I’m not even a regular volunteer). They have a group of people doing the grants part, but they’re happy to have new blood, so that’s where I come in. (To be fair, this is a volunteer only group–there is no one getting paid–so perhaps they’re more eager to train people since they don’t really have “paid experts” to draw upon, I don’t know. I’m just happy they’re letting me take a crack at it!)

    2. Emily K*

      The big fear is that you’ll leave for more money. You can be a great grant writer anywhere. You can get more money at a lot of other places. “Passion for the cause” is a proxy for “won’t leave us searching for a replacement in six months.” If you want to sell yourself just on the strength of commitment to grant-writing (or another skill) without any particular connection to the mission, you need to say something more explicit about how you’re “looking for a job I can stay in for at least a few years” or “looking for an organization I can grow with over a period of many years” or something along those lines, to undercut their fear.

    3. Yup*

      I understand what you mean, and I think it’s really importance to balance that combination of people. Those who are super passionate about it often bring a certain zeal and enthusiasm that drive the work forward past obstacles. And those who support the mission/org in a more general way are often the ones who have the emotional distance to evaluate results and be constructively critical. If the entire place is filled with True Believers who are totally emotionally invested, you can get really ineffective groupthink: “it doesn’t matter that the data doesn’t support the conclusions, we have to continue funding the program because it’s so important!” “It doesn’t matter that the president is a terrible leader who’s running the org into the ground – she cares so much about the clients!” Obviously you want employees to give a darn about what you’re trying to achieve generally. But the people with a bit distance can offer the reality check that Issue X isn’t the only issue in the world, or that the well-intentioned process is broken, or what have you.

  8. HR CoolFish*

    Passion can be shown through level of research. Showing knowledge and history of their mission beyond what’s on their home page can make an impressive difference.

  9. COT*

    So much great insight here. I used to hire volunteers and interns for a social-service nonprofit. I admit, sometimes I passed on a candidate who couldn’t show sufficient interest in our mission. But there are several effective ways to show interest beyond just being bubbly in an interview:

    Write about it in your cover letter–just a couple of sentences about why their particular mission/client base/programs/style connect with you.

    Ask insightful, specific questions in your interview. For instance, “I saw that you started a new XYZ initiative last year. How is that going? How does it fit into your larger mission of ABC?”

    Give specific reasons about why you are interested in that organization, not just any job or any nonprofit. When I hired volunteers, I was drawn to people who show a real interest in what we did, whether or not they had experience with our particular client base. Things like, “I’m really moved by your work because I know people experiencing this kind of need,” or “I’ve seen how work like yours makes a difference in my neighborhood,” or, “I believe your mission meets a serious need in our community, and I want to be part of that,” make a big difference. I wasn’t so impressed by people who only applied with us because they needed mandatory volunteer hours, or because we fit their schedule… I wanted to know they chose us because of what we do for our community, not because of what we can do for them as volunteers.

    At many nonprofits, the culture (particularly during the application process) may be a little more touchy-feely because they’re looking for a personal investment in their work. I’m not saying you need to cry and sing Kumbaya in your interview, but it does help to be comfortable sharing your feelings a bit. Practice that with a friend, if you need to. And if that’s just not your style, then these organizations may not be a good fit for you.

  10. wanderlust*

    As another voice from the nonprofit world, I would add that it’s very frustrating to me when organizations overly focus on how candidates feel about the cause, because enthusiasm is good, but even the bubbliest personality has a limit. Nonprofit work is not easy and is often discouraging, and if you’re in, say, international work (which I was and which it sounds like the organization where OP interviewed may be – based on his/her comments about knowing culture and language), it’s especially difficult to maintain enthusiasm for a cause when all the work is happening thousands of miles away. In many ways working for a nonprofit is a lot like working in an office, and even though the cause might help you get up and go to work when other things are frustrating you, it will not sustain you to the point of preventing burnout indefinitely. Not to mention that typically, the higher up the ranks you advance, the further you get from interactions with the actual people/animals/plants/what have you that you’re working to help.

    That might sound cynical, but mix in a crappy manager, insane boss, questionable ethical practices, or being asked to do the responsibilities of five people on a salary that’s way below what you could be getting if you went to a for-profit company – all things that I have experienced – and suddenly passion alone is not enough, no matter what kind of work you’re doing.

    1. Helena*

      Ditto for healthcare, teaching, social work and so on- “Just wanting to help people!” won’t stand up against crippling red tape, bad management and burnout.

  11. Barbara*

    This is a great conversation and very helpful to me. Thanks to Alison and all her thoughtful readers. One question I have been meaning to ask: what does OP stand for? (I have a feeling that as soon as I press send I am going to figure it out but here goes.)

    1. Lee*

      I think it stands for “original poster” as in the person who originally posted the question to AAM.
      I’m only guessing though, it’s what I’ve assumed from the context in which it’s used.

  12. Stephanie*

    I’ve interviewed at a couple of tech companies and “passion for the work” seemed to be big there too. Like, half the interview seemed to be conveying how much you were into the brand/product and how your role there would improve the brand/product/app. Some of that may be more the “work as a lifestyle” ethos that permeates those places.

  13. JayAre05*

    I’m a musician, with a specialty that makes it really hard to find work in my field. In addition, for the past ~8 years I’ve been working for some big nonprofit music organizations. I’m getting to the point where my day job just isn’t satisfying anymore, but I don’t really know how to move into a new field; the whole reason I live in my current city is because my job brought me here, and I worry that my training and my experience are so closely tailored to my current job, and my interests and passions (so to speak) are just all about what I’m doing right now. The notion of just getting a job at the food bank or with planned parenthood or some other (equally great!) nonprofit is just not appealing. It’s a strange dilemma.

  14. Melissa*

    “They felt I could have been interviewing for any old job, that I just wanted a job. That I seemed focused on what was in it for me, not that I was excited about or interested in their mission.”

    I understand wanting people who are into your mission, but this seems ridiculous. Of course the OP wants a job. I dislike this trend where some employers feel like you have to act like it’s your life’s mission to work for this company.

    But then, I’m probably not cut out to work for a faith-based nonprofit.

  15. Tara T.*

    There is a difference between “how lovely it would be to work for a place with a spiritual focus and faith-based values, how I know the culture and the language. . . this one seemed like a perfectly good cause, and, like I said, in my faith tradition,” and being “on a mission.” In your future non-profit interviews, you might want to stress more about being dedicated to the mission, and that you have “25 years of experience in health care and nonprofit,” so your whole career is being involved in that kind of mission.

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