“Hiring Right the First Time”: How One Non-Profit Found Better Applicants with Skills-Based Hiring

Madeline Bachner, Program Director at Cottonwood Institute, a nonprofit that connects youth with opportunities to explore the outdoors, was about to write a job posting for a Field Program Coordinator when her colleague invited her to a Skillful Talent Series 101 training.


The training outlines the benefits of switching to skills-based job postings: a larger talent pool, more diverse candidates, and improved employee retention and productivity, to name a few.


“After the training, I looked at our eight-year-old job posting template and said, ‘This feels tired,’” Madeline said. “The training really made me think critically about what skills were actually required for a new hire to succeed in the role, and what skills were nice-to-haves, or preferred. By emphasizing skills and competencies over background, we were able to more clearly express what we needed.”


Madeline Bachner stands in front of Cottonwood Institute logo

Madeline Bachner, Program Director at Cottonwood Institute, found the skilled talent her organization needed after focusing her job postings on skills instead of background.


Madeline’s original job posting listed 15 general qualifications and six required qualifications candidates needed to have; the new job posting only listed four minimum qualifications, four preferred, and four required. “By focusing on skills, we were able to streamline our hiring process, highlight the important stuff, provide compensation information upfront, and get rid of a lot of jargon that wasn’t serving us well. Before we made the switch, we’d get applicants who had never worked with kids. After we updated our job descriptions, we got better candidates, and more quickly.”


Using the newly updated skills-based posting Cottonwood Institute garnered a more qualified field of candidates from the start. “We were able to be really picky in a good way,” Madeline said.  Cottonwood Institute ended up hiring a Field Program Coordinator who “we’re really happy with.”


When asked about the hiring experience, the new Field Program Coordinator said, “Cottonwood Institute’s job posting essentially laid out a checklist of desired expectations and competencies, so I was able to explain really clearly in my cover letter, in responding to written questions, and when I came in for an interview, how my previous experience actually translated to each of the things they were looking for. I don't know for sure, but I think that my being able to understand and address their potential concerns was what allowed me to get a foot in the door and eventually land the job.”


Hiring well and creating a shorter process is key for small nonprofits like Cottonwood Institute. “Smaller organizations, especially nonprofits, generally have fewer resources than bigger or for-profit organizations,” Madeline said. “Of course, in a big organization, you want to hire right the first time. But when you have a small team, hiring right the first time is critical.”


To learn more about how you can implement skills-based practices visit our Employer page, where you can also sign up for in-person and online trainings.


Cottonwood Institute is a 501c3 nonprofit working in the Denver metro area to transform the way we empower public school students to become leaders and problem solvers in their communities. Cottonwood Institute’s mission is to connect underserved students to the outdoors and empower them to take action to improve their schools, the community, and the environment for future generations. They do this by partnering primarily with middle and high schools to provide trips and classes that focus on a project-based curriculum underpinned by service learning. Cottonwood Institute change theory states that gift plus issue equals change; by expanding on students’ gifts and applying them to issues they care about, change will come.