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Cover Letters for Impact

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I am newly astonished every few months when another job seeker asks me, “Do I really have to submit a cover letter?”

The short answer is: Yes. Of course you need a cover letter.

Yes, even CEOs and Executive Directors. Yes, even Social Media Assistants. Yes, even Staff Accountants (especially accountants).

I’m not arguing that cover letters are necessary in all cases, for all jobs at all companies and organizations. Writing a cover letter is a waste of time and paper for some jobs or sectors. Let’s say you install fire sprinklers for a living. Your resume reflects 15 years of fire sprinkler installation experience, along with accredited training. Company A will be happy to hire you away from Company B. You don’t need to explain why Company A better aligns with your values over Company B.

I’m speaking to those seeking a job in the impact sector, my area of focus for most of my 20+ year career. If you’re applying for a job at a nonprofit, a philanthropy, or a social enterprise – you need a cover letter.

But Why?

The real question is, “What are cover letters for?”

Process-wise, the application package is the first decision “gateway”. The cover letter and resume are the basis for a hiring manager, recruiter, or HR to determine which applicants are interesting enough to invite to a conversation.

With that in mind, consider two purposes that cover letters fulfill. The first is particular to the impact sector and is vitally important when you apply to work at a nonprofit, philanthropy, or social enterprise. The second is, frankly, just good communication.

Express Mission Alignment

People work in the impact sector because they care about the work. Every nonprofit, philanthropy, and social enterprise is trying to make the world a better place in some specific way.

Hiring managers want to know: Why do you want to work here? What draws you to work on this specific set of issues? What is more appealing about our work and impact area compared to what you worked on previously?

Understanding your alignment with the purpose of an organization is necessary even if the change seems obvious. Say you are a Communications Manager at a small animal shelter applying for a Communications Manager role at a larger animal welfare organization. You will stand out as a stronger candidate if you demonstrate that you know how the two roles and organizations are different, and can explain why you’re seeking that change.

Translate Your Experience

More generally, the importance of a cover letter is its function as a bridge between your resume and the job description for the role you aspire to fill.

A resume is a relatively static document. Though you would ideally tailor your resume for each position you apply to, creativity and empathy have their limits. You can make minor tweaks, like doing your best to make sure words and phrases match the organization’s vocabulary and the job you want. For example, if you use “M&E” for monitoring and evaluation, and the hiring organization uses “MEL” for monitoring, evaluation, and learning – consider using their phrasing.

But don’t spend a lot of time fussing with that on your resume. Instead, let your cover letter do the heavy lifting.

Read the job description and try to picture the ideal candidate from the organization’s perspective. Then, using their language to a reasonable degree, concisely outline how you match that description. Include specific tasks, duties, responsibilities, or accomplishments from previous jobs, along with general experience or soft skills you believe will help you be successful in this role.

Focus on experience that matches the work you will be performing in the new role. Do not spend time talking about accomplishments or duties that aren’t directly applicable.

For example, if you’re applying for a Program Coordinator position supporting an education grant program, here are two ways you could position your Teach for America experience:

  • DON’T: My three years of teaching experience demonstrate my ability to plan and deliver a curriculum while effectively managing a class of students.
    • This may be true, but it has nothing to do with the job you’re applying for.
  • DO: My three years of on-the-ground experience in the field of education provide me with helpful context to effectively support your grantmaking and your grantees.
    • This example is a little vague; this will be stronger if you can make direct connections between the work of their grantees and what you experienced while in a school.

Your cover letter is not the place to point out the aspects of the job you haven’t done. Instead, prepare to answer those questions in the interview process.

Ready to write your cover letter? Below is a sample outline.

Cover Letter Outline

I developed this cover letter outline years ago. This general structure works well for almost any role, from Executive Directors to entry-level Development Assistants. Your cover letter should include:

  • Intro (I’m applying to the            position at            . I found the job on           , and I think I’d be a great fit.)
  • Why I’m particularly interested in this organization (shows you did your homework and allows hiring managers to assess culture fit and mission alignment, if appropriate)
  • 5-6 sentences briefly describing specific projects or experience that directly address a few key aspects in the job posting
  • 3-4 sentences about applicable general skills gained during your career
  • Close by saying, “I’m very interested and hope to talk to you soon about this position.”