How to shortlist candidates for conservation jobs

Finding the right people is key to your conservation mission. But how will you select the best person for the job?

Done right, shortlisting help you select the best employee, while also saving and focusing your time, improving your overall recruitment process and ensuring a fair and positive process for candidates.

But if – like many conservationist organisations – you’re always short on time, working to a deadline or receive many applications, it can be challenging too.

Follow these simple steps to find the best people to advance your goals.

What is shortlisting?

Shortlisting does exactly what it says – creates a shortlist of applicants who are the best match for the criteria in your job description, and your organisation’s success.

It’s a specific step in the recruitment process that happens after you source a pool of applicants and before you start interviewing candidates.

And it’s a critical step because it can provide several benefits to you and your applicants.

Why shortlist candidates?

One of the main aims of shortlisting is to help you narrow in on the most qualified candidates. But shortlisting can also help you:

  • Save time – minimising the total staff hours spent on recruitment.
  • Allocate time better – by spending more of your time on top candidates and less on unqualified applicants.
  • Reduce time-to-hire – reducing the risk that top candidates will accept another position first.
  • Give all candidates a fair shot – supporting diversity and inclusion and helping you build the best team.
  • Improve candidate experience – by giving top candidates more attention.
  • Improve your advertising process. If shortlisting is difficult because too few (or too many) applicants meet the shortlist criteria, you may need to review where you’re advertising your roles, and/or review your shortlist criteria to make sure they’re specific and realistic.

Shortlisting helps you quickly focus your time on the most promising candidates, a win-win for employers and top candidates.

How to shortlist candidates | In four steps

Step 1 | Set clear criteria

Setting clear criteria is one of the best ways to ensure you can shortlist successfully – and it starts when you write your job advertisement.

Create a profile of your ideal candidate from the start, considering the qualifications, experience and skills you need. Skills usually include both ‘technical’ or ‘specific’ skills as well as ‘soft’ or ‘transferable’ skills or competencies.

Determine your Essential (‘required’) and Desirable (‘nice to have’) criteria, and make sure these are crystal clear in your job advertisement.

Doing this helps applicants understand exactly what you’re looking for, evaluate whether they’re a good fit, and submit applications that show how their qualifications, experiences and skills match your needs.

Having clarity about your criteria from the start will also make decisions later in the recruitment process much faster and easier.

For more tips, check out our article How to write a stand-out job advertisement.


Step 2 | Use a matrix

One of the best ways to ensure an efficient, consistent, objective, transparent and fair shortlisting process is by using a shortlisting matrix.

This is often a simple Excel document that scores applicants against the Essential and Desirable criteria, and gives a final score.

If you’re creating a shortlisting matrix for the first time, you’ll want to carefully consider how candidates should be evaluated against the criteria to ensure that it’s effective, fair and simple.

For some criteria, it may be a simple Yes/No, while for others you may need a few levels.

One way to score candidates against criteria is to use 1) mentions, 2) evidence and 3) results.

For example, if an essential criterion is ‘Ability to communicate conservation issues to diverse audiences’, you might scan applications for information like:

  1. Mentions: ‘I have communicated conservation issues to diverse audiences’. You can quickly scan an application for keywords or keyphrases such as ‘communicate’ or ‘diverse audiences’.
  2. Evidence: ‘Published 11 reports, blog posts and newsletter articles about conservation issues’. Here you’re looking for concrete evidence of how a candidate meets the criterion – often with specific examples that are measurable or quantifiable.
  3. Results: ‘My most recent article about tracking ocean plastic pollution published in ‘The Conversation’ resulted in a new collaboration with an ecotourism company.’ Does the applicant go beyond evidencing what they’ve done, to show the results, outcomes or impacts they’ve achieved? This is one of the best ways to understand how a candidate can add value in a new role.

In your matrix, it’s also important to reflect whether some criteria are more important than others (e.g. by weighting the desirable criteria), and which (if any) criteria are dealbreakers.

Whenever possible, it’s best to have multiple staff shortlist applicants, to help minimise bias.  Make sure everyone involved in shortlisting is clear on how to evaluate and rate candidates – so that everyone assesses candidates in the same way.

Here’s a glimpse into the shortlisting process at Conservation International and the RSPB and (on a much smaller scale!) at Conservation Careers.

Step 3 | Set a limit

Before you begin, set a maximum number of candidates for your shortlist. This will make it much easier to determine which candidates are Yes’s, No’s or Maybe’s.

If a large number of candidates meet the Essential Criteria, you’ll need to use the Desirable Criteria to shortlist further.

If your organisation tends to receive many applications, or the role is particularly popular, you may find that you need to designate a particular criterion or question to help you shortlist further, or conduct an initial round of short telephone or video interviews.

Step 4 | Communicate

During shortlisting, just like any other stage of the recruitment process, it’s important to keep candidates engaged and informed.

At Conservation Careers, one of the biggest frustrations we hear from conservation job applicants is that they rarely or never receive feedback on their applications. It feels like their applications are disappearing into a big “black hole”.

For employers, quick, timely communication with candidates can lesson the chance that top candidates will take another offer in the meantime.

It also says a lot about how you operate as an organisation (read: whether talented candidates will want to work with you) and reflects on your brand. Even if unsuccessful, your applicants are part of your community of supporters, and some could successfully apply in future. Unfortunately all it takes is one bad experience to lose a supporter, or – in the case of many mid-large organisations – hundreds of supporters.

Once you’ve finished shortlisting, let applicants who weren’t successful know then they aren’t moving on to the next round and offer them some simple feedback. All it takes is 20 minutes to give feedback and build a positive relationship!

What makes shortlisting in conservation unique?

Mission & values

If cultural fit is an important recruitment consideration for any company, it’s even more so for conservation.

In our mission-driven sector, conservation employers aren’t looking for just anyone with the right skillset. They want people who can demonstrate commitment to their mission.

At the same time, passion and values are often primary motivators for applicants (in some cases eclipsing other motivators like income, benefits or career progression). We often hear from applicants who’ve written off opportunities because they felt that an organisation’s behaviours or beliefs didn’t align with their own.

We recommend making your organisation’s beliefs and values as clear as possible up front (see Step 1!) Including your mission, vision and/or values in the job advertisement, or even asking candidates to specifically address these in their cover letters, can help you evaluate cultural fit when shortlisting.

Diversity and inclusion

By no means is the importance of diversity and inclusion exclusive to the conservation sector, but it’s worth highlighting in the context of conservation.

Put frankly, our sector has traditionally been dominated by white men from relatively affluent backgrounds, and we know that this narrow approach only hamstrings global conservation efforts.

Increasing diversity and inclusion in all senses – whether gender, minority groups such as BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, or even age – is one of the best ways to increase the knowledge, perspectives, skills and expertise that help conservation succeed.

Most conservation employers also increasingly value the contribution that career switchers – who bring skills, knowledge, experience and contacts from other sectors – can make to help fill traditional gaps in a science-dominated sector.

These days, most (and hopefully soon all) conservation organisations have diversity and inclusion recruitment policies in place. Shortlisting is an important stage to ensure those policies are being applied, and a great opportunity to consider how candidates from diverse backgrounds can contribute diverse knowledge, experience, skills and viewpoints.

Alongside cultural fit, which focusses on how candidates ‘fit in’ with your beliefs and values, it’s just as important to consider what your current culture might lack and how it could benefit from greater diversity.

The bottom line

If shortlisting candidates feels like a struggle, we encourage you to think instead of the possibilities it can create.

Done well, it not only helps you find the best candidate quickly, but can strengthen your organisation, further your mission, improve and streamline your recruitment process, and even engage a community of supporters.

Share your experience

Do you have experience recruiting for conservation jobs? We’d love to hear your honest insight to save employers time in shortlisting, help conservationists apply for jobs successfully, and create more impactful careers.

Careers Advice, Recruitment Tips