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  • Pat Libby

Are job-specific cover letters extinct?

Once upon a time, before computers searched for keywords in resumes, nearly every human applying for a job submitted a cover letter.

Now, thanks to a proliferation of online job search engines that are designed to serve both employers and job seekers, anyone can upload their resume in seconds.

While this kind of accessibility is dazzling – tantalizing easy and fast – it has led to incredible sloppiness on both ends of the search process.

Many job applicants are flinging their resumes like frisbees on a windy beach, hoping to luck into a smooth glide. At the same time, many employers are treating applicants like so many sea shells on the shore – callously picking up the shiny ones, ignoring the others, and randomly discarding those they initially chose as they continue their stroll. Resumes are revolving like cherries on a slot machine.

One result of this casual fly-by recruitment process is a lack of attention to detail. As an executive search consultant (who, by the way, responds to every applicant) I see this manifest in sloppy or non-existent cover letters.

A good cover letter is the ticket to helping you get the job you really want.

The case for writing a tailor-made cover letter

I am aware that this is a hyper-crazed job market. Still, when I recruit for a C-level position – CEO/Executive Director, COO/Deputy Director – I expect to receive a cover letter. In fact, I state in every job post that candidates who do not submit a cover letter will not be considered (and guess what, many still don’t!). Frankly, if someone wants to be seen as competitive for an executive position within the nonprofit/philanthropic sector, it’s the least they can do.

The cover letter needs to convey that you as a candidate:

1. Are a competent writer

In addition to what is provided on a resume, one way that I judge a candidate is by their ability to write coherently. I want to see several paragraphs that are cleanly written and well-organized.

2. Pay attention to detail

Typos and poor grammar indicate that the person didn’t care enough about this job to proofread their material (or to ask someone else to do so for them).

3. Have thought about this specific position

Most cover letters I receive are generic. They don’t offer any clues about why this person has determined that this particular job is the right fit for them and the organization. These letters regurgitate pablum like “My skills and experience are a perfect match for what your organization is seeking in a new leader.” If you want to write a sentence like that, you need to follow it up with SPECIFICS about which skills are a match for the job.

4. Care

95% of the letters I read say NOTHING about why this position holds meaning for the applicant. To state the obvious, since I work exclusively with nonprofits and philanthropies, I am not hiring people to oversee widget-making firms. I expect applicants to convey something about why this work “speaks” to them. Do they have professional, personal, or volunteer experience in this area? Why does this work matter to them personally?

5. Know something about the organization

It's common for me to receive letters written with the assumption that if the person has any type of senior nonprofit leadership experience, it will be automatically transferable to whatever position I’m looking to fill. Often, this is NOT the case: Most organizations want leaders who have knowledge about the work they do and respect the role that organization plays in advancing that work.

The word on the street is that this is a hot market for talent. While that may be true, strong executive-level candidates know that a good letter is the best way to introduce themselves to an organization.



Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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