We recently hosted a webinar all about the volunteer interview and were lucky enough to have Beth Steinhorn, President of JFFixler Group, as our presenter. She delivered so much valuable information that it warrants not just one, but 3, summary blog posts. This is the first, covering who to interview and how to do it effectively even if you think you have too few staff or too little time.

Starting With the Basics: What’s the difference between employee interviews and volunteer interviews?

You might be surprised to learn that interviewing paid employees and unpaid volunteers is more similar than different. Why? There is a common goal involved:  to determine whether the candidate has the skills, motivations, and expectations that make him or her a good fit for the position as well as the organization.

Where the difference lies is mostly in the motivations of employees versus volunteers. While employees are looking for a position that pays well, aligns with their skills, offers opportunities for advancement, etc., volunteers are more likely to seek out positions that will allow them to make a tangible difference in their community, leave a social legacy, fulfill a passion, or enable them to pursue an encore “career.” They may expect the volunteer role to be more flexible in terms of responsibilities and hours than a paid position. They may or may not want leadership opportunities available to them.  The volunteer interview helps you learn what motivates the volunteer so you can understand if the position in question will satisfy those motivations.

Should the specific volunteer role dictate whether I conduct an interview or not?

Ideally, all volunteers should be interviewed, but that is not always realistic. Think about day of service events, when thousands of one-time volunteers come out, for instance, to assemble boxes of food for the hungry.  The organization running the event likely does not have the time or the staff capacity to interview each and every participant. Then there are project-based volunteer roles, where a volunteer works with your organization on an episodic basis, and ongoing volunteer positions, where a volunteer helps out frequently and on a more regular basis. When filling these roles, because they likely require a greater level of skill, organizations should always include an interview.

Let’s step back to those day of service events for a moment. Although it may not be possible to interview all volunteers before the event, think of the event itself as a good opportunity to conduct informal interviews. Are there individuals in the room that seem excited and passionate about what they are doing? Chat with those folks. Understand their motivations and cultivate for deeper engagement. If you get them pumped about working for your organization more regularly, then invite them in for a more traditional interview. You might just have a committed volunteer on your hands!

Okay. I know that I should interview all volunteers, but who has the staff time?

Great question. We need to stop thinking about interviews as something that can only be conducted by paid staff. Volunteers can interview their peers, too!  First, look for the intuitive, big picture thinkers in your volunteer pool. You’ll want to train the volunteers on the interview process and ensure all volunteer interviewers – and staff – are on the same page in terms of how to rate and score the candidates. You benefit by freeing up staff time, and the volunteers are happy to be offered more responsibility and leadership roles within the organization.

If capacity is an issue in your organization (there are just not enough volunteers or hours to interview each candidate), consider group interviews. This is where a group of volunteer candidates is interviewed by one or more volunteers or staff members at once. This is great for many reasons. First, applicants are in a room with their potential volunteer “teammates”. It’s good for them to meet the folks they could potentially be working with – and good for you to see how they interact in a group context. This is particularly beneficial if teamwork is part of the role description. The fact that volunteers are interviewed by their peers shows candidates how much your organization values volunteers. And you build capacity at the same time. It’s a win-win situation.


Questions from our audience

We received some thoughtful questions from webinar attendees, the answers to which will likely benefit many of you. Here are a couple:

How do you convince your staff that you need to interview volunteers when you have a “say yes to everyone” culture at your organization?

We took a poll during the webinar to see what our audience is currently doing in terms of interviewing volunteers. Turns out that 52% are interviewing all or nearly all of their volunteers, while a quarter of attendees interview volunteers for just some roles within their organization. That’s great, but there is some work to do for the other quarter of respondents, who either interview rarely or are not sure what’s happening within their organization.

Many organizations are averse to interviewing because they are fearful of scaring volunteers off or believe that if someone wants to help they should be able to.  The problem with this thought process – in addition to leaving you in danger of onboarding shady individuals if you are neither interviewing nor conducting background screens – is that you are bringing on lots of individuals that are not the right fit for your organization. That means you could be decreasing the effectiveness of your entire volunteer program.

So what can you do? Start by having conversation with staff members about the success rate and support that they are giving to volunteers who are placed within their departments/groups.  Do some formal and informal analysis around these success rates. Are there any issues or problems you can identify (i.e. you are finding that you have to create work for volunteers to help with)? If so, present your analysis to your peers and leaders.  Offer up volunteer interviewing as a way to slim down your volunteer pool to only those folks who are a good fit with your organization and who offer skills that your organization actually needs.  If you frame it in a way where it will help increase your program’s impact, folks are more likely to listen up.

How does interviewing volunteers differ from interviewing board members?

Again, the interview process for the majority of roles is pretty similar. When it comes to the board, though, interviewing should be much more thorough. That means that the Chair of the board should be involved in the process. References should be requested and checked for all candidates. Candidates should be given the bylaws and understand completely how the board member nomination and election process is delineated. 


Want to learn more about the types of questions you should ask during volunteer interviews? How to turn a candidate down? Look out for our next blog in this webinar follow-up series.


And check out these related resources:

Volunteer Screening: The Interview
The Lifecycle of a Volunteer: Interviewing Best Practices

For more tips and tools from Beth Steinhorn, visit the JFFixler Group website.


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