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Interviewing potential volunteers for specific jobs
30 September 2005
by Mary V. Merrill

After an individual has been tentatively selected or recruited for a specific volunteer job, a manager of volunteers or programme manager should become more familiar with the individual through an interview. Each organization should have a volunteer application form to gather pertinent, helpful information.

An interview with a potential volunteer is a critical step in the total volunteer involvement programme. Interviews with potential volunteers could be conducted in an office, an individual’s home, or even at lunch. The setting should be comfortable, friendly, somewhat private, and should put the volunteer at ease. The interview should not take place standing at the counter in an office, on the sidewalk, or at a public event.

MacBride (1979) lists several considerations during and after an interview:

a) Be prepared. Have the completed volunteer application, a volunteer interview form/schedule and various volunteer job descriptions. Be prepared to respond to questions and have any supportive information close at hand.

b) During the interview, be clear regarding your expectation for the volunteer position. Smile and make the potential volunteer feel comfortable. Review the application to be certain you and the volunteer are clear regarding the information contained in each section. Discuss personal and training needs. Explain, step by step, the role the volunteer plays, including dates, deadlines and other appropriate details regarding the position. It is generally advisable to follow the same rules and guidelines that apply to paid employment interviews when interviewing volunteers. In some settings, managers of volunteers may need to be aware of and follow non-discrimination policies in the interviewing and selection of volunteers.

c) After the interview, make notes and place them in the potential volunteer’s file.  This helps to document information as it is gathered. If you are required to obtain references and /or check backgrounds for all volunteers or certain categories of volunteers be sure to explain the policy to the applicant. Do not assume the applicant will divulge sensitive or negative information. Reference checks and background checks for police records are helpful steps to gain important background information regarding volunteers. While such information may be necessary for all volunteer positions, it is often very important if the volunteer will be working with youth or the elderly, or other vulnerable populations. All volunteers should go through the same application, background check and interview process. Gathering background information requires additional time.  Give an indication of the next steps and timeline to the interviewee. Follow-up with the individual as soon as possible, informing them of their acceptability for the position.

Volunteer managers may occasionally encounter problems in an interviewing situation.  These may arise in the form of a prospective volunteer with a mental health problem, or someone who (in your professional judgement) is not suitable for the specific volunteer job due to physical limitations or lack of specific skills.  In these cases it is essential that the manager of volunteers helps the volunteer identify an alternative plan of action.  Interviewers may:

  • Describe other volunteer opportunities within the community, refer to a local volunteer centre, and/or offer names of programmes and programme coordinators, and
  • Have information on available counseling programmes, mental health centres, support groups and legal aid services.

Although the interviewers’ purpose is not to solve a potential volunteer’s problems, the interview is the place to identify potential areas of concern:

  1. Observe any signs of disappointment or discontent by the potential volunteer. Such signs may provide a clue to problems or indicate that the interview is covering topics that seem embarrassing or uncomfortable.
  2. Provide the prospective volunteer with ample opportunity to tell their story.  Let them speak freely without interruptions.
  3. Maintain a friendly, sympathetic and helpful attitude, but do not assume the responsibility for finding solutions to the individual’s problems.
  4. If you feel uncomfortable or unsure following an interview, but cannot identify a reason, conduct a second interview and have another staff person or programme manager present. Talk about your perceptions with the other staff person after the interview. This will help to either strengthen or dismiss your first impressions.
  5. Sometimes potential volunteers are referred by a social worker, doctor or therapist, who believes volunteer work would be a good therapy for a client. Ask the interviewee if you can contact the referring partner for further information so that you can make the best possible placement.
  6. If you are uneasy following an interview or if reference or background information is incomplete or causes you concern, a good risk management procedure is to gather more information and input from others before accepting the volunteer. If you are working with children or vulnerable populations (aged, disabled, etc.) you are required to ensure the safety of your client with thorough and extensive screening of potential volunteers. 

Select References:

Lynch, R. (1984). “Preparing an Effective Recruitment Campaign.” Voluntary Action Leadership (Winter), 23-28

MacBride, M. (1979). “Step By Step: Management of the Volunteer Program in Agencies.”  Voluntary Action Leadership (Spring), 28-32.

(Adapted by permission from: The Ohio 4-H Blast! Program:  Building Leadership and Skills Together, Module 3.  The Ohio Cooperative Extension Service, The Ohio State University, 10/92.)