What do the following questions have in common?

    What is your organization's mission?
    Where does your agency get most of its funding?
    When was your organization founded?

If you answered that all of these are questions that should be part of your company research, you are absolutely right. However, this is just the beginning of what your company research should include. Equally important as what you should know about an organization is where you find that information and what purpose it serves.

As a job seeker, you are competing with other applicants who may have similar qualifications and interests. The first thing that sets you apart from the competition is your cover letter and resume. This is an opportunity to introduce yourself to a potential employer, and it is your first chance to demonstrate your research skills. You should know as much as you can about an organization before applying for the position. The three questions that open this article are examples of facts you should know before you write a cover letter. Employers, especially in the non-profit environment, want to see that you have taken the time to learn something about them, and that your interest in working for them goes beyond just getting another job. Demonstrate your knowledge in the cover letter by referring to various aspects of the organization that most interest you, and how your skills and experience fit in with both the organization and the specific position.

Begin your research online by reading the agency's web site, and by using several search engines (Yahoo, Google, Infoseek, Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista) to gather additional information, including newspaper articles about the agency. You also want to call the organization and request additional information such as their annual report and any materials they have about the specific department to which you are applying. You need to go a step further, though, if you want to get the full picture. An organization is unlikely to publish, in their own publications, the fact that they haven't secured funding for the next fiscal year or that they are under investigation by the IRS. Use places like The Foundation Center, GuideStar.org, Genie.org, and Wetfeet.com to gather more insider information on an organization. You may want to go another step and post a message on YNPN, a non-profit e-mail list, by signing up at their web site at www.ynpn.org. Use this and other non-profit list serves to see if you can get more specific, personalized information. The most effective way to get the full scoop on an organization is also one of the most effective ways of job searching – networking. Talk to people you know in the field for their insights, and find out whom else they know who would be willing to talk with you.

Your next opportunity for company research is during the interview process. Here, your research serves two purposes: the employer will want to see that your questions reflect some knowledge of the organization, and you will want to find out if this is the right place for you to work. The first purpose is sometimes the easier to achieve. Do your homework, and listen for opportunities to ask questions based on the information you've gathered. Rather than asking, "Where do you get your funding?" try, "I read in your annual report that 75 percent of your funding comes from government grants. What is the longevity of these program grants, and what are the agency's future funding plans?" Another example may be to ask, "How does this department in particular achieve the organization's mission of involving local youth in anti-smoking efforts?" as opposed to asking, "Does the agency work with any local communities in its efforts?" This shows that you have done your preliminary research while, at the same time, providing you with valuable information about the agency's long-term stability.

The most difficult, but extremely valuable company research is the kind that tells you whether or not you will be happy working for that organization. In order to find this out, you will have to dig deeper than your reading and the interview with a hiring manager. Ask to speak with people with whom you will be working regularly. You will want to ask several people about those aspects of a work environment that are important to you such as how many hours they typically work in a week, what the management style is like, whether or not it is a fun place to work, what their outside interests are, and so forth. If an offer is made, you may want to ask to spend a day shadowing someone else in the department before making a decision so that you can get somewhat of a feel for a typical day. It is better for both you and the organization to find out if it is a good match before you accept the offer. Finally, always remember that the one question you are most afraid to ask may be the most important one to ask.