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How to Craft your Perfect Resumé (for social change)

Craig Zelizer

April 9, 2020

One of our goals at PCDN is to help our community develop the best materials to radically increase the chances of a successful application in the social impact space, and the resume is one of the most critical documents. Having a strong resume that is tailored to both a particular  job opening and the employer can often make a huge difference in having your application moved from the huge pile of submissions to moving onto the interview stage.

This post is provides a number of actionable tips to ensure that make a resume outstanding. The recommendations spring from my many years of applied research on careers in change, many conversations with employers, mentoring sessions with PCDN Career Coaching clients and my students, as well my experience hiring many employees, consultants and interns.

Before jumping into the search for a social impact job, it is first important to consider what is the purpose of a resume?

A resumé is a document that tells a story about your previous, current and ideally future career path. No piece of paper can tell your whole story, but it is an essential document that needs careful crafting as well as regular updating.

A resumé will rarely be the sole factor for helping you land a first-round  job interview, but it is a critical one.  For many job openings in the social impact and social change sectors, a recruiter or program officer will often receive 100-300 applications (this is based on data from the Washington, DC area). This is a huge number and it is clear that even if a recruiter wanted to, he/she cannot  devote significant time to reviewing each resumé. For example in one job search for a junior level opening where I was part of the hiring process, we received over 200 applications. If I spent 5 minutes per resume (not to mention cover letters), this means I would have needed to spend  almost 17 hours just reviewing the documents.

The average recruiter spends 10-20 seconds with a first glance at a resumé. Of course your resumé may also never reach a recruiter or hiring official if an employer uses a computer applicant tracking system to do an initial scan which is becoming increasingly common in the fourth industrial revolution.

When I do hire, I begin with a quick review of resumés (I may glance at cover letters ,but that often comes later) and sort them into three piles including:

1) Strong candidates - These are applicants that will get a much more detailed review. They have a strong resumé, cover letter and meet or exceed the qualifications for the position. In my experience this is usually about 5% of all applications.

2) Needs a second review - These are candidates who have some intriguing factors and worthy of a second quick review. Usually the candidate will not meet all the required job requirements but comes close.  This may be 5%-10% of the applications.

3) Shred and Recycle - There are many reasons why an application will not make it beyond this initial quick review including being significantly under or overqualified, having a resumé that doesn’t provide a convincing story or demonstrate appropriate skills/experience, having grammatical mistakes or typos in a resumé. This tends to be the majority of the applications.

After this initial review I will take a more thorough look into the candidates, explore the resumé and cover letters in more-depth. If the candidate is a strong one then often reviewing his/her Linkedin profile is a part of the process

Out of the top 20-30 applications, this is usually narrowed to a top 5-7candidates. Often short online interviews will be conducted with the top group and the top 3-4 will be invited for further phone or in person interviews. Some employers may skip this initial phone screening and go straight to a top group of candidates for screening.

It is important to understand if  a job opening receives 300 applicants, only 1-2% of candidates might get an interview. This may sound like daunting odds and they are, but having the strongest resumé possible can help increase your chances of being selected for an interview. Of course it is important to emphasize that the resume is only one part of the process, it is also necessary to build strong professional networks,  have a strong professional online presence, and of course have the skills and qualifications for the position.

Getting back to the story of you on paper or resumé.

Before you start crafting your resume some key recommendations include:

  • Do your homework. Spend time reading the organization’s website and yearly report to understand their mission, goals, programs and needs. Equally important is exploring the language that is used to describe the sectoral focus of the work conducted by the institution and its overall approach to showing the impact of programming. A key tip here is if possible try to use relevant language in your application.  This is particularly critical when applying for positions in larger institutions such as USAID that rely on automated application tracking systems.
  • Be Strategic and Selective. Chances are you don’t have to list EVERYTHING for each job you are applying. Select THE MOST relevant experience for the job in question. For example, if you are applying for a job that requires monitoring and evaluation or budget management experience make sure to show this in your document.
  • Less is more. No need to send a 10-15-page resume  (if one does submit an overly long resume it can lead your materials being sent to the shred/recycle pile). Unless of course the employer asks for a Curriculum Vitae that is typically used in academic settings (a cv tends to cover all of one's professional experience). Also, do not make the font so small it requires special magnifying lenses to be read. If you are strategic having 2 or 3 versions of your resume that fits into the different types of jobs you are applying. For example you may have a resume that is more focused on research, one for consultancies and if needed tweak your resume for the particular job application.
  • Write from the perspective of the reader (potential employer). Make it readable, make it relevant and show proof that you are the best fit for the position. How? A great strategy is to tell your story showing concrete metrics that show the impact of your previous work.
  • Read job descriptions – Look at the particular job opening carefully to see what are the key skills and qualifications the employer is seeking. Reviewing job openings from other organizations is also highly recommended.  This can give a sense of trends the field, language to use, or skills you may need to consider developing to be competitive for future applications. For example, if you want to work as a community manager for an online platform focused on change, review as many community manager job openings as possible.




Great. You are ready to start crafting that resume. Here are fie key components of developing a resume:

  • Structure – Is there a logical flow on the document? Does the reader feel that the sections are organized in a manner that flows?

Education or professional experience first? It is hard to be prescriptive and say there is only ONE way to have a perfect resume. Make a conscious choice of what you think the employer is seeking. Remember you have 10-20 seconds. Is it a research position that needs to highlight your standing in an academic field? Then consider adding your educational qualifications first. Is the position as a program manager? List your past professional experience first. Use your judgment.

How you organize your professional experience is also essential. If you have accumulated a fair amount of experience you can choose to narrate your story in terms of skills rather than jobs done. For instance, Social Media Manager: managed social media platforms at X, Y and Z.

  • Aesthetics – Does the formatting pull in or push the reader away? Forget about content for a second, this is about visuals and how it can hurt or help your case. When you look at the document: is the layout inviting or crowded, is the font size appropriate? Is it as crowded as a commuter morning rush train? How does it look overall? You might have perfect content, but if your visuals are not  is not right this can hurt your chances. It’s easy to loose perspective, asking a friend with a fresh pair of eyes to review the document can be invaluable.
  • Structure – Is there a logical flow on the document? Does the reader feel that the sections are organized in a manner that flows?Education or professional experience first? It is hard to be prescriptive and say there is only ONE way to have a perfect resume. Make a conscious choice of what you think the employer is seeking. Remember you have 10-20 seconds. Is it a research position that needs to proof your standing in an academic field? Add your educational qualifications first. Is this a program manager job? List your past professional experience first. Use your judgment. How you organized your professional experience is also a matter of importance.
  • Content - Answer these questions: Does your resumé tell a compelling story of your professional life in relation to the potential new position? Does the professional experience in your resume demonstrate competency for the  job? The best way to show you not only meet, but exceed requirements of the employer is to highlight your past contributions. How to do this? With the power of numbers (see below). Using numbers to measure the IMPACT of your job can make the difference from blah to outstanding.
  • Quantification - I have read many, many resumes that use terrific wording but fail to show the scope or impact of one's work. This is one of the areas that is critical to address. Explore what are the core skills required for the job and wherever possible make sure to highlight relevant data to show your qualifications. For example, if part of a job requires training experience, then don't just list training on your resume but try to quantify your work. Try to summarize data such as designed trainings in X sectors for over 1,000 people in 10 countries. If a position requires budget experience, than consider listing what size budgets you've overseen. Stating that one has managed  a yearly budget of $1,000,000 sounds much better than only writing budget experience. Have you managed employees or interns? Consider quantifying this by writing: Managed a team of 10 staff and 5 interns located in three offices.  One key caveat to using numbers. My recommendation is to show the data when the numbers work in your favor such as the examples listed below. But if the numbers don't adequately show your skills in a particular area than it may be appropriate in some cases to listen a more general description.
  • Context - The U.S. and Canada most typically prefer resumes (short concise overview of one's professional  and educational experience). In the UK and Europe and other countries in Africa, Latin America or South Asia sometimes Curriculum Vitaes are the preferred format. Please know exactly what kind of document is required for each application. In many large bureaucracies such as USAID or the UN they will not accept resumes but instead require completion of specific application forms.  Please know that in the U.S. you don’t include personal information such as: age, marital status, religion/political affiliation, picture, identification number. Keep that to yourself. But in other countries this may be required.


If you want to learn more, have at it with these fantastic resources but don’t procrastinate too much:

Great resume tips from Fast Company

Resume Resources from the Muse

Tips from Bridgespan to frame a resume for the Nonprofit Sector

Tips on building the best resume from Idealist

Software to make beautiful resumes

Both Canva and Visme offer wonderful resume templates.

Canva is a free (with the option for paid that includes more features) graphic designer software that offers non-graphic designers the opportunity to create beautiful designs.

Visme: Visme is a simpletool to translate your ideas into engaging content. They have free and paid versions.


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