Melissa Madzel, managing director of equity initiatives at Koya Partners.
Melissa Madzel, managing director of equity initiatives at Koya Partners.

Hang around philanthropy long enough, and you’ll hear someone say: if you know one foundation, then you know one foundation. While this adage certainly has its place, there are patterns that exist across the sector that reveal some obvious consistencies. The uniformity of staff and boards is one of those consistencies. Study after study has exposed that hiring and retention practices in philanthropy persistently exclude people with marginalized identities, be they race, class, sexuality or disability.

As the sector begins to address its history of systematic discrimination, some foundations are working proactively to correct past mistakes. In doing so, many have engaged recruiters to assist with identifying and attracting candidates that have not been granted access to philanthropy previously. As the managing director of equity initiatives at Koya Partners, which belongs to the Diversified Search Group, Melissa Madzel plays a critical role in helping both foundations and candidates navigate a situation that’s steeped in challenge and discomfort, but also growth opportunities. I spoke with her about what to expect from working with a recruiter and why some foundations have a hard time attracting qualified candidates.

Tell me about your path from social work to recruiting.

Melissa Madzel: It was actually a pretty clear path. I did direct service work and found that I don’t have the heart for being on the frontline every day. I end up taking too much of it home with me. I spent a number of years as a fundraiser, where I got to see the operational components of global, small and startup organizations and everything in between. In doing that, I was able to see that the skills I brought from social work had stuck with me: listening, problem solving and pushing for answers. When I came to Koya six years ago, I found that recruiting was a place where I could pull all those things together in a way that aligned with my passion for social justice. It allowed me to bring all aspects of myself to my career and my clients.

How do you think about your role in recruitment processes?

Melissa Madzel: At the heart of our work are the relationships we’ve built over many years. We use these to connect with a lot of people who may be interested in a position and also gather referrals. At the same time, we’re constantly researching to figure out who we don’t yet know and connecting with new people. It’s important to get new people onto our radar and invite them into our network so that we can connect them with opportunities.

These things might seem obvious, but they’re actually not for a lot of recruiters. This work is not just about placing one person in one job. At least, that’s not what it is for me. It’s about being a shepherd, a guide and a coach to make sure that this role in this organization is the right one for the course of someone’s career, and that this individual is the right person for this foundation’s needs and aspirations.

What are the values that guide your work, and how do they show up?

Melissa Madzel: The biggest value that guides my work is the concept of opening doors. There’s a lot of responsibility to make sure that doors open for people who have not been able to get through. I’m specifically thinking about people of color, women and queer people, who have not had the same opportunities or access that others have. I’m helping to open the door for and bring forward people who can lead with commitment and integrity.

Behind that are the values of meeting people where they are and understanding the weight of the context that social justice organizations are carrying. For many people, a bad day isn’t just a tough meeting; it is a life that is at risk or something that is severe. Knowing that comes with the weight of wanting to make sure that the people who are leading organizations take those responsibilities seriously, whether they work in direct service organizations, advocacy organizations or organizations that provide funding.

Equity has always been part of how we show up, but we recently realized that Koya needs somebody who can take a step back and think holistically about ways to better integrate equity into our search process, identify areas for growth, and make sure we have consistent knowledge across all of our recruiters. Our teams need somebody they can talk things through with and who understands what the best practices are to make sure our process is an equitable one. They want a guide when they’re working through complicated questions from our clients. So it worked out nicely for me to step into this new role where I can solve problems and help people solve their own problems.

What does a search process tend to look like in philanthropy?

Melissa Madzel: At the front end of a new search, we have a lot of conversations with foundation staff where we’re stepping back and trying to understand what the needs of the role are—not what the preferences are, but the actual need. It’s important to listen to the voices of influence within a foundation and understand the culture of the organization. I listen to their challenges and pain points as much as their aspirations. I try to understand the context of the whole space, including the trends in the field and who their peers are that they’re trying to impress. With that information, we’re able to craft a position profile, which is the marketing piece that goes out into the world that helps us to tell that story in a broad way and attract candidates.

Next, we go to people we already know in our network and also to new people to think through who we should be having conversations with about the opportunity. We ask people what’s going on with their careers and what they’re interested in. As we have those conversations, we find a lot of candidates who maybe don’t move forward for the position we contacted them about, but we keep them in our network. We develop those relationships year after year, and we stay in touch with people because the more we know about them, the more we can think of them for other opportunities going forward. This is how we constantly grow our network.

The recruiting industry can be mysterious, so a big part of my role is to demystify recruiting for people. I try to take away the scariness and the confusion around what recruiting is. I try to make it really clear what we do and how we do it. We’re having internal conversations about what we can do to open up the black box, make it clear what people can expect, and talk about how candidates can feel more confident going through a search process. It may seem like a small thing, but there can be a lot of secrecy around the roles that are open. We post all our positions openly because transparency makes a difference. Those nuanced decisions do change our outcomes and relationships to candidates.

Do candidates approach job opportunities in philanthropy differently?

Melissa Madzel: The majority of people with whom I’m having informational calls about their careers want to work in philanthropy, but there are just not that many jobs in the sector. There’s always been such an allure around working for foundations that candidates who are applying for philanthropy jobs tend to be more forgiving than they would be if they were applying for a role at a direct service or advocacy organization. That can create some challenges because they don’t always advocate for themselves as much as they could. I think it’s important for the philanthropy sector to be more open about the good and the not-good parts of the work. The more honest that people are, the more candidates will be able to advocate for themselves and understand what questions they should be asking, specifically people of color.

You seem to be saying that there is an abundance of talent, but I’ve heard people say that their foundation has a hard time attracting qualified candidates. Where is the misalignment between perception and reality happening?

Melissa Madzel: When foundations say they can’t find anybody, it’s often because there are internal barriers in the way. It’s beneficial to have someone from the outside step in and hold up a mirror, and recruiters often play that role. We can recognize that the people on your board or senior team, or the way the foundation got its money, don’t tell a story of inclusion. We can go out and talk to a lot of people and share what we see as a representative picture of the pool of potential candidates. We can share our expertise to help foundations understand where they may need to shift a practice, or many practices, to make themselves more inviting or attractive to potential candidates.

I’ve found that some foundations are open to learning, and I work best with those clients. I enjoy being a partner to foundations that are really committed to having open and honest conversations—specifically foundations that have already begun their journey of understanding racial justice, the roles that wealth and power play into the philanthropy sector, and where their own challenges might be or what barriers they have to move past. When I work with those partners, everyone is set up to succeed. It helps when there’s some awareness of the ways that oppression and systemic racism have been part of what has allowed a foundation to have wealth, even if it’s early in the journey.

We’re seeing a growing acknowledgement of racial bias in philanthropy, particularly in recruitment and retention practices. Are the conversations you’re able to have with foundation leaders today different than the ones you were having 18 months ago?

Melissa Madzel: I’ve seen some foundations that have been willing to push themselves out of their comfort zones in order to bring greater diversity to their boards of directors, which I think is admirable. One foundation we worked with recently for a board search prioritized identifying people who’ve had direct experience with the criminal justice system, which opened up the opportunity for it to learn from professionals who have the skills and expertise to contribute to a board of a major foundation, but who had just never been asked. That level of commitment was great to see.

What we try to do with clients is help them to understand what they can communicate with candidates so that they’re being transparent and honest about where they are in their journey. It is OK for candidates who are people of color to know that there are no people of color on the board or in senior positions. It may make it harder to recruit those candidates, but they need to understand where the foundation is at, and then they can make the decision themselves.

On the other hand, I’m seeing a lot more tokenization happening where foundations are saying they want to identify a candidate who is Black or Latinx, but they’re not willing to change much of the rest of the profile. So they’re looking for the exact same expertise, perspectives, and pedigree that a white candidate would bring without having an understanding of the different ways that people’s expertise, perspectives and pedigree reflect their lived experience. People of color can have experiences where they feel like they’ve been put in a candidate pool just to meet a quota even though they’re not going to get hired. That is a massive waste of their time, and I work very hard to avoid that.

What are some of the systemic barriers that keep people with marginalized identities out of philanthropy?

Melissa Madzel: Certainly, the top one is the requirement to have prior experience in philanthropy. Others are what school someone went to, what degrees they have, and whether they are coming from an organization that is a known entity to the people in the foundation. Interpersonal networks are so important in foundation searches, and it’s important for hiring teams to remember that they don’t know everybody. I think philanthropy needs to be open to candidates that are coming from different types of organizations—ones that are smaller or in a different part of the country than the foundation is used to working in.

As recruiters, we have to understand a foundation’s appetite for change, and I learned very quickly that some foundations just don’t have that. We can push back, raise concerns, and name the challenges when we see them. Yet, we find that there are foundations that are just not as open as we would like them to be to candidates who may bring a greater understanding of the challenges that grantees face.

How do you think about a recruiter’s responsibility to candidates when they’re applying for roles at a foundation that hasn’t done, or perhaps isn’t interested in doing, real work to contend with systemic racism?

Melissa Madzel: The most critical role a recruiter can play is to provide information to candidates, because one individual’s capacity for the challenges they may encounter in a work environment could be completely different than another individual’s capacity. It would be paternalistic to decide that on someone else’s behalf. It’s about providing information and allowing that candidate to ask questions, to engage with the organization, to reflect, and to consider if they see themselves there or if they don’t.

For candidates, information gathering should be a core piece of the process. They should invest time and energy into having conversations with people who can give them insight into a specific foundation and about philanthropy in general. I tell candidates to make sure they are talking to people of color who have worked at the specific foundation where they are applying in order to understand what the dynamics are and the experiences of people of color who work there.

If it’s not already baked into the interview process, candidates should ask to have a conversation with a person of color at that foundation, and any savvy foundation will set that up. Candidates need to be able to have an offline conversation where they can ask questions about what inclusion looks like in the foundation. Also, it’s important to understand where the foundation’s money comes from, who has power in the organization, how it is leveraged, and how the decisions are made.

What other types of support should a candidate expect from a recruiter?

Melissa Madzel: The biggest one is that they can ask for feedback and advice. Recruiters see thousands of resumes every week, and we interview countless people, so we’re able to provide guidance at every step along the way. Candidates can ask a recruiter for details about what to expect in each round of interviews. It’s okay to ask questions about what’s going to happen in the process and who they will be speaking to. They can ask about areas they should make sure to highlight or where they could improve. They should always ask for feedback, especially if they’re declined for a role, because they can use that feedback as they go forward.

Candidates can definitely ask questions and raise concerns regarding things like salary, the option to work remotely, the start date, and all of those things. Some things they should pay attention to are who would be on their team laterally, who’s going to report to them, and who they’ll report to. You absolutely want to have a one-on-one conversation with the person that you would be reporting to. If there’s a recruiter handling the search, the recruiter can ask questions on behalf of the candidate.

Also, candidates can sometimes feel like they’ve gotten so far into a process that they’re kind of stuck in it, but you always have the option to walk away if something is not right for you. As great as an opportunity might seem, you do have that choice.

If a foundation is considering its own readiness to create the conditions for an equitable work environment, what would you encourage them to look at?

Melissa Madzel: I would look at how decisions get made, who’s in which meetings, the formal and informal leadership roles that people play, and how internal communication takes place. I would look at whether their policies are fair and if they take into account the wide range of circumstances that people are in, personally and professionally. I would also think about the way the board of directors engages with staff, if they engage with staff at all.

Foundations should be looking in the mirror to understand whether their rhetoric reflects their values, and if those things are really reflected in their actions. For example, candidates may ask where assets are invested, and if there are assets invested in prisons or corporate entities that create harm in communities of color. That’s something for foundations to be aware of and to address if they want to appeal to candidates who hold social justice values.

Share with cohorts