References are increasingly important as nonprofits respond to greater demands for accountability and transparency. Some search firms discourage contacting current employers while others want feedback from the candidate’s immediate situation. Ultimately, the employer has the right to ask for current references, and you may have to comply to stay in the running.

Consider proposing a two-tiered solution. Offer to arrange references from a former employee of your current association (preferably a former supervisor) or a trusted peer who’s working there now. If those references and your excellence as a candidate convince the search team that you are the top candidate, your prospective employer can make the final job offer contingent on taking with your current employer. You want an agreement that says, essentially, “The job is yours unless your present employer seriously contradicts the facts you’ve given us.”  

You bear some risk with a contingency offer, but candidates with a solid record are usually willing to take the chance. The way to minimize the risk is to be candid when interviewing—and to consistently perform with an eye toward that all-important reference.

If your prospective employer won’t negotiate a reference arrangement and insists that you take a risk you think is unreasonable to get the job, beware; it may be a signal about what’s to come.

Published in Associations Now, February 2006