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Picking the Right Professional References: Advice for Nonprofit Leaders


By the time an organization asks for your references, you are one of the final candidates in the interview process. You’ve made it to the last stretch, but you still need to be strategic. Selecting a good reference is about much more than choosing someone who will sing your praises.

As executive search consultants, we’ve checked many, many professional references, and we know what makes a good one—and what doesn’t. Read on to learn what we look for in a reference call and how we recommend you choose these all-important contacts.


Checking references gives the organization a 360° view of the candidate. For that reason, we typically ask candidates to provide a manager or supervisor, a peer, and a direct report (for development positions, it’s also common to ask for a board member or volunteer).

In a perfect world, those references would be from the candidate’s current organization, but that’s often not possible. The more recent, the better because we’re looking for detailed information about the candidate and their performance. If the reference hasn’t worked with that person in 12 years, it’s going to be hard for them to get beyond the surface level and provide the details and examples we need.

Our conversations with references can go in various directions, but in general, we’re looking to learn about:

  • Their relationship with the candidate
  • The candidate’s work style, strengths, and weaknesses
  • The candidate’s experience with relevant responsibilities
  • Professional challenges the candidate faced and how they overcame them

During these conversations, we’re also listening closely to make sure what the references share is consistent with how the candidate represented themselves and their experience.


Start thinking about references early on, but don’t share them until asked. We counsel candidates to consider who they will use for references before we reach that point in the process. Thinking about this early gives candidates the time to weigh their options, select the right mix, and personally contact each reference.

Even though candidates should pick their references in advance, they shouldn’t send the list before the organization requests it. Sometimes we receive references with a resume, which gives the appearance of a one-size-fits-all application, rather than the tailored approach we want.

Balance the prestige of the reference with the depth of the relationship. A reference with a well-known name or an impressive title can make a statement: this candidate has strong connections with leaders in their field. But if that reference doesn’t have a close relationship with the candidate, it’s typically not worth using them. When in doubt, candidates should choose the reference who can provide the 360° view we need.

Don’t overuse references. Serving as a reference is a favor, and candidates should be mindful of how often they ask for that favor. Preserve relationships by rotating the references used if there isn’t much time between job searches.

Feel free to ask search consultants for their feedback on a potential reference. We are always happy to provide input to candidates on their reference choices. As search consultants, we have a unique perspective—we are an external party, but we represent the organization and understand what it’s looking for.  

Let references know when they will be contacted and prep them for what to expect. Once a candidate submits their reference list, it’s so important for them to brief each reference. This includes not only timing for the reference call, but key information on the position and the organization. It won’t be easy for someone to explain why you are qualified for a position without a basic understanding of what the job entails.

Always follow up with references to let them know what happened. References are invested in the outcome, so be sure to give them an update after the interview process is complete. Candidates should circle back to express gratitude and let references know whether they received a job offer or not.

Do you have reference questions we didn’t answer? Leave them in the comments or contact us directly at or

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