Are Cover Letters Necessary? Insights from a Nonprofit Executive Recruiter

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Cover-Letter.jpgOn the Campbell & Company Executive Search team, we partner with nonprofits to recruit executive and leadership-level positions—which means my colleagues and I receive and assess scores of applications to mission-based organizations on a weekly basis. When it comes to application materials, one of the questions we hear most often is: “Should I include a cover letter with my resume?” The simple answer is YES!

To assist nonprofit leaders in their pursuit of the right position, our team has identified five other cover letter FAQs. Read on for our responses, based on our decades of combined experience in the field and our daily work with exceptional candidates.

What are the advantages of including a cover letter?

Including a well-written, thoughtful cover letter sends a strong message. It indicates you have a sincere interest in the role and have done the necessary research—about the position and the organization—to determine that your skills and experience are a good fit. A carefully crafted cover letter also demonstrates an ability to communicate concisely and effectively in written language. In our experience, this is almost always an important job requirement.

Cover_Letter_Callout1.pngTo an executive recruiter, sending applications without a cover letter or with generic letters of interest signals that the applicant is applying to multiple positions. Consequently, this puts the onus entirely on the reviewer to determine suitability. If an applicant isn’t willing to explain why they are interested in working for the organization and how their experience makes them qualified, I don’t have time for much more than a cursory review of their resume.

This is especially true in the nonprofit sphere, where connection to the mission is a prerequisite for many leadership positions. To catch my eye in that case, the experience represented needs to be impressive and relevant to overcome the lack of context.

Are there any exceptions to this rule?

If you are being recruited to an organization, rather than actively seeking employment, a cover letter may not be necessary. When a recruiter contacts you to start an exploratory conversation, this initial discussion can serve as the cover letter, providing a thorough explanation of your experience and how it would translate to the new role. Even in this situation, once you decide to become a candidate, a cover letter can help formally present your candidacy to the search committee or hiring manager.

What content will best communicate my professionalism and capabilities?

Your cover letter should be the product of careful consideration. Based on a thorough examination of the published job description, think through how your experience and skills fit with the desired profile. This is an opportunity to highlight key accomplishments and make connections that are less than obvious between your work experience and the position qualifications. As you construct your letter, avoid using towering descriptions to glorify or exaggerate previous experiences. When this is done, it can leave the reader thinking that you’re hiding something.

Cover_Letter_Callout2.pngBeyond your experience and skills, you can include relevant information that isn’t featured in your resume, such as:

  • An explanation of why you’re entertaining new opportunities at this time
  • Proof of passion for the organization’s mission and work
  • A personal or family connection to the organization’s cause or stakeholders
  • Supporting evidence for a nontraditional profile, which may include indirect or volunteer experience that elevates your candidacy

The cover letter can also be a place to demonstrate personality and even humor. Creative letters that foster a personal connection stand out and are likely to get a more thorough evaluation. That being said, don’t go too far outside the box and make sure to keep it concise—you should not exceed one page in length.

I’ve written my cover letter. Is there anything else I should consider before submitting?

Proofread, proofread, proofread. Making sure your application materials are error-free is one of the most crucial aspects to consider—grammar, spelling, and diction are all important. A spectacular letter isn’t worth much if it contains typos, grammatical errors, or inconsistencies. Some search committees and hiring managers will eliminate someone from consideration for errors alone. Mistakes communicate a lack of effort, attention to detail, and, ultimately, respect for the position you’re applying for.

Is there a proper way to send my letter?

If you’re submitting an application through a website portal, there will likely be an option to upload both the resume and cover letter. Make sure to follow specific instructions, if provided, but it’s a good idea to send all your application materials in PDF format to avoid errors or unwanted changes. If you’re applying through an email, use your cover letter as the text of your message. Whatever your submission method, always keep your resume and cover letter as separate entities, rather than combining them in one document.  

The bottom line? In the nonprofit sector, a strong connection with the organization’s mission is often a non-negotiable requirement. A cover letter offers you the chance to demonstrate how that mission is important to you in a way that your resume alone cannot communicate.