How to Screen Volunteers

Robin Raven
Team of volunteers

Volunteers are a vital part of most non-profit organizations. They donate their time and talents to fulfill the goals of charities while expecting nothing in return. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to put volunteers through a screening process when they may be scarce in the first place, it is necessary to keep things running smoothly and effectively.

Step 1: Have Thorough Applications

Since the process of recruiting volunteers is usually ongoing for most organizations, it's important to have a standard application for aspiring volunteers. You don't have to place the word "application" on the form, though, because that can seem a bit formal and even intimidating. Referring to it as a 'request for volunteer applicant information' can work just as well as giving it the title of application. Be mindful of the impression that the application will have on those who read it. All recruiters should be warm and welcoming when giving out the applications and answering questions that potential volunteers may have.

Mandatory Information

Keep the application simple. Phrase questions colloquially when possible. Ensure that there's sufficient space for the applicant to write the date when she completes the application. Also, be sure the form has adequate space for the potential volunteer to include an email address, phone number, and mailing address. In fact, ask for both permanent and temporary addresses, which is especially important if you are anticipating a lot of college students to volunteer.

Be very specific with the information that you request. Ask for two to three references on the applications for every volunteer position. The type of references that are acceptable depend on your organization and the type of volunteer work needed. If it is a position where the volunteers will have close contact with vulnerable people that the group serves, ask for references that can speak in depth to the person's character and work experience.

Essential Questions

Volunteers are the face of your organization while they are helping you out. Volunteers who are irresponsible or unprofessional in their behavior can sabotage a great reputation that an organization has worked hard to build. Asking just the right questions can reveal a lot about people, so build the application carefully and include strong, open-ended questions that will yield helpful information.

Inquire about the potential volunteer's educational background and past work experience. Ask low-key questions, too, such as, "Which of your hobbies bring you the most joy?" Other questions should touch on the type of worker that he is. Find out how long the person intends to commit to the volunteer position and how many hours per week he prefers.

One of the questions may be, "What inspired you to volunteer with us?" Also, ask things that will be relevant to the exact volunteer job that's available. For example, if this volunteer job involves delivering meals to the elderly, access to a car is mandatory. If the job involves working closely with kids, some level of child care experience is best.

Step 2: Check References

Check all the listed references on each volunteer application. Prepare a list of questions to ask each reference before making the calls. Ask the basics, such as how long the person has known the applicant and what are her defining characteristics? Try to diplomatically gain information that speaks about the applicant's emotional and psychological well-being. Be cordial, kind, and grateful during the phone call. Keep in mind that the reference has nothing to gain from speaking to you and is simply trying to offer objective information.

Step 3: Interview Potential Volunteers

You will find that you can get a much better feel for who someone is and where they may fit within your organization with an in-person or phone interview, although this step is optional. Part of the screening process that can solidify or sever the relationship between a potential volunteer and your organization is the initial interview. Start and end the interview by expressing your sincere gratitude that the person is willing to volunteer. Even if you don't think that it's the right fit, the person should still feel accepted and appreciated.

What You Need To Know

Ask questions that encourage the potential volunteer to speak openly about himself. Avoid stiff questions like, "Tell me about yourself." Although it's open-ended, which is good, it usually sounds a bit mechanical and cold. It can easily make someone freeze up. The idea isn't to make the applicant feel as though he must pass a tough test. After all, he aims to give his time and talents freely to help out.

Instead, ask open-ended questions that are more specific and friendly. Inquire about how he first got involved in the cause. Discover what makes it special enough to him that he is willing to give up free time in order to support the cause. These sorts of questions can usually give you insights into someone's personality without having to ask stiff, predictable questions. Also, invite the aspiring volunteer to ask his own questions, because you also want to use this time to be as transparent about the position as possible.

Desired Traits

Effective volunteers usually share certain traits that can indicate how long a person is likely to stick with your organization and give the work his all. He needs to exhibit stellar leadership skills and social skills. He also needs to be organized. Great volunteers usually have a positive attitude and a sincere interest in serving others.

Flexibility and a go-with-the-flow attitude are essential traits for many positions. When a volunteer commits to attending events, he should be somewhat flexible about the type of work that he does and how long he needs to stay. Some charity events, such as a dinner for the homeless, will serve as long as hungry people arrive. People who come expecting food may go hungry if volunteers all leave after an hour.

A very dedicated volunteer is often someone who has a personal connection to the cause. Consider celebrities who take on charities, for example. Many of them become deeply involved in causes that effect them personally, and that makes people all the more willing to listen when they speak about them. For example, after Olivia Newton-John lost her godchild to cancer, she became involved in an organization dedicated to children's health and now has been volunteering with them for two decades. People who are personally invested in a cause stay with it. .

Step 4: Run Background Checks

Conduct background checks on those who apply to donate time to your group. While it's impossible to predict what every volunteer might do when representing your organization, conducting thorough volunteer screening background checks can help ensure that wise decisions are made about who is accepted to represent your cause.

Why It's Important

When volunteers represent your charity in the community, their actions reflect on your organization as a whole. You also bear liability for the actions of volunteers acting on behalf of your organization. If your organization gives volunteers access to vulnerable people, such as children or battered women, you can immediately see why you need to have a great deal of trust in the ethics of your volunteer. There is just too much at stake to send people out to work in your name without taking steps to ensure that the individuals you accept are reputable.

Customized Screenings

How you screen the volunteers for your organization should be customized to the job at hand and the responsibilities it involves. For example, if someone will work within the fundraising arm of the organization, a credit check may be a primary consideration, whereas a position that involves working closely with children may necessitate a full criminal background check. If the positions require credential or educational credits, confirm these things with the university or accrediting organization.

Utilizing Help

Establish a relationship with a reputable background screening company. Choose an organization that can provide you with comprehensive and reliable information that can be used to aid in making wise decisions that will allow you to protect your organization's reputation and the consumers your charity serves. While taking steps to screen volunteers won't guarantee that one of your volunteers won't do anything illegal or unethical, it is the best way to control for such problems.

Step 5: Establishing a Volunteer Screening Program

If you're ready to set up a formal program for screening volunteers, the first thing you will need to do is develop a formal policy that makes sense for your organization. This will likely involve asking for volunteers to sign liability waivers and volunteer agreements. Verify with legal counsel that the policy you have drafted is compliant with all applicable laws prior to implementing it. Once the policy has been cleared by counsel and your Board of Directors has decided to go ahead with implementation, it will need to be applied consistently.

How to Screen Volunteers