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Hiring Staff / Hiring Volunteers

The current influx of volunteers is all the talk in our world. It’s the topic of articles in online and print publications (from the New York Times and The Chronicle of Philanthropy to the Dallas Business Journal), in blogs and e-Newsletters (including our own JFFixler blog), and certainly around the water coolers of nonprofits large and small. We have written about how we believe this is a tremendous opportunity for strategic engagement of skilled volunteers. But, how does an organization move from facing the crowds of volunteers at its proverbial door to actually selecting and placing those candidates who can have greatest impact?

We frequently find that, while many nonprofit professionals would never hire a new staff member without having carefully developed a position description, clearly outlined the desired qualifications, and conducted a formal interview, those same professionals put out a call for volunteers and accept whoever lands at their doorstep with a pulse.  Beth Steinhorn a JFFixler Associate, recently observed a training session presented by a trained Boomer facilitator for a local nonprofit. The facilitator was sharing tips on interviewing volunteers and asked what the NPO’s interviewing practices are for volunteers. A board member replied with a smile, “The interview consists of us begging them to volunteer and hoping they’ll say ‘yes’.” In order to make the most of these interested volunteers seeking opportunities to use their skills to make an impact in the world, organizations ought to be intentional and strategic in whom they select and invite into a partnership with staff. The key to that is the interview.

When seeking highly skilled volunteers who are serious about their volunteer work, the organization should act seriously about their volunteer needs. Interviewing candidates not only demonstrates that the organization views the volunteer in a professional light, but also gives both the organization and the candidate a chance to see if there is a good fit between the two. I was quoted in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article, “Vetting Charity Volunteers Can Help Smooth Relations,” that discusses the importance of carefully vetting potential volunteers for a good fit with the organization, not just in terms of qualifications and skills but also in regard to personality and office culture.

When interviewing volunteer candidates, we encourage all nonprofits to use the same care and attention given to interviewing candidates for paid staff positions. Both the volunteer candidate and organizational staff want to know if the volunteer’s skills are a match to the nonprofit’s needs, if the organization can provide the necessary support to ensure success, and if the candidate is a good fit in the office culture.

In order to help achieve everyone’s goals, follow these tips:

  • From the moment you meet, begin the process of culture setting.
  • Describe a picture of the organization that is so clear that the candidate can or cannot visualize themselves in the organization.
  • Focus on helping the candidate to do her or his own screening.
  • Ask unexpected questions where the answer is not implied to observe how candidates perform when forced to think on their feet.
  • Focus on skills. Ask, “What skills do you have that you would gladly share with us if we could make it possible for you to do so and if they align with our strategic priorities?
  • Don’t rush into a decision. If you know that the candidate is unacceptable send a thank you but polite decline letter. If every indication is that this would be a great match, don’t offer the position during the interview. Thank the candidate and then set up a timeline that gives the candidate time to accept or opt out.







I could not agree more about the importance of strategic volunteerism, and the necessity to do intentional recrutiment of both volunteers and staff, not only to their specific role but to their relationship roles as partners. In recent research that I presented at the 2009 National Conference on Community Service in San Francisco, I found that there are 5 major types of volunteer/staff partnerships. The 5 partnership skills you need for the partnership types are the same (Open Communications, Relationship Building, Mutual Accountability, Mutual Appreciation, Shared Passion for the Cause), but the way you use them in your relationship is different depending on the volunteer role. The level of staff accountability in the relationship with the community service volunteer is more of a "hands on" partnership than it is with the community management volunteer, who takes a greater leadership role in delivery of their responsibilities. The staff partner communication expectations with a governance volunteer are notably different than that with a community service volunteer, for example.

Designer Volunteerism is critical in today's consumer culture. Clearly identifying your primary volunteer roles or types is Step 1. Delineating role expectations within each partnership type is an essential Step 2. Recruiting the right staff and right volunteers based on identified parternship skills needed is step 3. Developing strategies that help transition volunteers and staff to future "career" paths or teaching staff and volunteers how to "switch hats' between different partnership relationships is step 4. Finally (step 5), we created an experiential workshop that has been a successful way for us to create this "ah-ha" in our new staff and volunteers for use in orientations. Realization of these distinctions helps greatly to disentangle many of the communication misunderstandings between volunteers and staff caused by differeing expectations, and enables you to better attract, develop and retain the talent needed to deliver on mission. - L

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