Interview by:

As part of our ongoing look at the world of hiring, RNN occasionally sits down with leaders who don't sit within the talent acquisition seat. CEOs, founders, HR leaders - they all make up the larger world we work within, and their perspectives can make or break our success as recruiters. The range runs from leaders of mutlinationals to boutique regional firms. Hiring is always interesting. This week, we were fortunate enough to meet with Michelle Zenie, Executive Director at the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley.

Michelle's background began in publishing and education, and then running a household. When she returned to the office, it was to join a non-profit, the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley, as Executive Director, a position she has held since 2014. Over the arc of her time there, she has grown the organization into grow an award-winning organization and one of the Lehigh Valley's most well-respected non-profits.

Non-profits are unique creatures. They are set up to help, and tend to attract people who want to be part of the mission. That said, they famously struggle to compete with for-profit companies when it comes to recruitment. Budgets and teams tend to be thinner, and hiring leaders tend to be more creative and - for lack of a better word - scrappier when it comes to winning talent. The skills are unique, and the rewards aren't for everyone.

Just to open you up a bit, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What your role is, your history leading up to where you are today - how'd you get here?

I am first and foremost a mom to three amazing kids, who are all young adults (17, 19, and 22). I am also a cancer mom, as my 22 year-old is an Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia survivor, having been diagnosed in 2001 at the age of 3. After working in publishing, years of raising my children and then teaching, I started volunteering with PCFLV, and then became Executive Director in 2014.

I've found that with many employees of mission-driven organizations, they are there for a reason. What drew you to the Foundation? Is there a story?

While our family was living through the incredibly traumatic experience of having our son diagnosed with cancer, we had very little social and emotional support. We had no family locally and there were no organizations like PCFLV by us at the time. It was a very isolating and lonely experience. When I was introduced to PCFLV, I was acutely aware of how beneficial a support organization like this would have been in my life all those years ago. I immediately wanted to get involved and make a difference for other families going through this.

In terms of hiring for The Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley, who drives that?

Oh, that's me - human resources, recruitment, are part of the Executive Director's core roles.

Can you talk a bit about what you look for when you're hiring? Any deal-breakers/ makers?

As within many small nonprofits, I, as ED, wear many hats…including that of HR director. Having had no training in or experience with HR, it has all been a “learn as you go” scenario for me. Many parts of running a nonprofit are like that, frankly. For our small nonprofit, we certainly look for someone who has experience to bring to the position. But I would say, even more importantly, we look for someone with passion for the cause. Working in nonprofit can be thankless, and you certainly won’t get rich doing it. So you must have the passion and commitment. Skills can be acquired: passion cannot.

Do you have a way you like to position the organization - a brand as an employer?

Our PCFLV brand focuses on intimacy and personal relationships with our families. While our numbers increase by about 40-50 families per year, we are still “small” enough in the big scheme of things to truly get to know our families very personally and to become part of their journeys. We say we “embrace the journey alongside our families”…and we truly do. But that level of intimacy with people going through the most difficult experience can be tough on someone. So being clear about that with candidates is important, because it is truly not for everyone.

Some of us, in the recruiting industry, work for third-party agencies - I'm assuming you've been called by staffing firms in the past looking to sell services. Do those pitches ever work for you?

I have been contacted by agencies. And I am always open to hearing what someone has to offer. For me, again wearing many different hats and juggling many things, I am especially open to anyone or anything that can make my life easier.

How do you typically find candidates? Is there a process in place?

We do not have a written policy, however the last time we were hiring, we used Indeed and that worked very well for us. It was a simple, clearly-defined, user-friendly process. I screened candidates and then interviewed select ones in tandem with a member of our Board of Directors. We selected an Administrative Assistant after interviewing about a dozen people out of approximately three dozen applications.

How much do you use technology when you're hiring?

We rely on Indeed and social media exclusively when hiring - and then typical office tech, a spreadsheet for tracking, etc.

How has the pandemic impacted hiring? What do you see coming down the road?

The pandemic has put all hiring on hold for us. Our fundraising capabilities have been greatly impacted, and we have had to dip into reserves to keep our programming and services running. So any hiring will need to wait until we are able to fundraise in a closer-to-normal environment.

Is your team still remote, hybrid, or right back at it?

In July, we gave our office team the option to come back into the office or stay remote. Half of us decided to come back full-time, while the other half is working approximately 1/3 in-office and 2/3 remotely.

What's the funniest interview story you can remember?

I cannot think of any funny stories, but I can think of plenty of frustrating ones…candidates who never showed and didn’t bother calling or emailing to cancel. A mom bringing her two very loud school-aged kids along to the interview, and a young man who got very offended when I said his four months of experience in a receptionist position did not really qualify as “significant experience”.