When you have at last found that amazing volunteer who’s eager to give back to the community, possesses several skills that will benefit your organization greatly, and has a positive, go-getter attitude you’re sure will fit in with the rest of your volunteers, you may be tempted to skip over the section of their volunteer application titled, “References.”

Why bother, right? I mean, the candidate is passionate about what you and your organization are passionate about, and they have so much to offer – from much needed skills to previous volunteer experience. Who needs to spend that 15-20 minutes dialing up a few old bosses and university professors, right? Wrong. According to a survey done by the Society for Human Resource Management, 8 out of 10 HR professionals check references. If such a large percentage of HR professionals are checking references, shouldn’t you be vetting your volunteers even more carefully before they do something like work with vulnerable populations or handle your nonprofit’s sensitive information?

Aside from verifying the accuracy of the information provided by the volunteer candidate, checking references provides a host of other valuable insights to you, their potential future Volunteer Manager. Here’s a handy list of the do’s and don’ts to consider in order to make the most of volunteer references:


  1. Make a list of questions to ask! You might be confident in your ability to strike up conversation, but a list of questions will help you be concise and stay on topic. You’ve lots of other volunteer candidates to vet, so a list will help you check faster and more effectively.
  2. Politely introduce yourself and state a time limit for the call. Introducing yourself, your organization, and why you’re calling is a no brainer. Why not slip in “Do you have just a few minutes for a quick discussion of the candidate’s history with you?” This will keep you on track and let the reference person plan their answers accordingly.
  3. Ask open-ended questions when you call the reference. This strategy will facilitate conversation and give you precise, detailed information on the history and experience of the potential volunteer. For instance, instead of asking, “The application says you’ve know the candidate for 10 years. Is this right?” ask this instead: “About how long have you and the candidate known one another?”
  4. Ask questions specific to the work the volunteer candidate will be doing with you and your nonprofit. If they will be working with children, ask the reference ““Is the candidate comfortable working with children? Please give examples.”
  5. Thank them for their time and invite them to follow up if they think of something they should have mentioned. It’s hard to drum up the entire history of a relationship in a few minutes of conversation, so invite them to email or call if they remember something important.


  1. Please don’t wing it. No matter how self-assured you are in your ability to speak to strangers, prepare questions before calling a volunteer candidate’s references.
  2. Avoid asking off-topic, closed-ended questions at all cost. These types of questions are a waste of time. Now is the time to get all the details, not ask the mundane like, “Was he a good employee?” Instead, ask, “What were the candidate’s strengths as an employee?” as mentioned above. And if the volunteer candidate is going to be working at a soup kitchen, do you need to know their typing speed or history class participation grade? Probably not.
  3. If the conversation starts to get off topic, reel it in. Some people just like to talk, so have a plan ready in case one of the references begins to overload on details from a small part of the candidate’s past that doesn’t pertain to the reference check.
  4. Don’t just verify the bare minimum. Go deeper than just the dates and bullet-points in the volunteer candidate’s reference section. Of course, the basics are important, but take this time to also find out more valuable insights about the volunteer candidate’s overall character, like how he or she handles setbacks and if they make friends quickly with others.

What’s your strategy for conducting fast, effective reference checks that provide a comprehensive view of volunteer candidates? We would like to hear your story! Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and share your comments below.

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