I’m a curious person. Ok, my family says I’m downright nosey, but I think we volunteer managers have a real natural curious streak in us.
One of the senior managers who went to a symposium (you know, where the information is so cutting edge), came back with a brilliant idea. (or so the person selling their product said). The idea is to have standard questions when interviewing volunteers. These questions have been thoroughly researched and are guaranteed to give us insight into the volunteers’ unwitting brains.
Hmmm, I thought. Could this magic solution be the answer? Would it weed out the agenda driven, lawsuit creating nutcase while highlighting the cautious, yet perfect, stay with us forever while working 60 hours per week volunteer? I thought, “why not”, so I took the questions and tried them out. Here’s how an interview went with a prospective volunteer, Ed:
Me, smiling: Why do you feel you would be a good fit for this organization?
Ed: I want to help.
Me, reading from the slick page of questions: How would you describe yourself as a volunteer?
Ed: I’m someone who wants to help.
Me, straightening my shirt, still reading: Where do you envision yourself as a volunteer in the next, say year?
Ed: Actually helping people.
Me, squirming a bit: Have you ever been asked to leave an organization you volunteered for?
Me, squinting at the page: In other volunteer jobs, what would you describe as your biggest accomplishment?
Ed: I helped a lot of people.
Me, skipping questions now: What would you do if we did not accept you as a volunteer?
Ed: I’d be disappointed, because I want to volunteer here, but I’d go somewhere else to help people.
Me, scanning the page: What interests you about volunteering for our organization?
Ed: The chance to help someone.
Me, a bead of sweat forming above my eyebrow: What do you think could possibly make you stop volunteering here?
Ed: I suppose if I didn’t think I was helping anyone.
Me, putting the paper and formality aside: Ed, tell me a little about yourself.
Ed told me about his career path, his years playing college football, his long marriage to his college sweetheart and her untimely death. He told me about his children, his neighborhood, his love of writing and his military service. He told me that his parents raised him to think of others and how they would make him and his brother do volunteer work as teens. Ed talked about his work as a plant supervisor, and how the men and women he managed were his heroes. He spoke about one man who worked for him, who took in and adopted three disabled children. He wistfully said that he never encountered a happier family. He told me that his father, an immigrant from Poland, grew up dirt poor, but managed to work enough to put both sons through college. He chuckled when talking about how his mother would make pierogis and red cabbage for the retired school teacher down the street so that she would tutor Ed’s brother in math. He said that, now that he was retired, he’d really like to put his time to good use and help people.
We talked about how he envisioned his volunteer work and funny, it meshed completely with my vision of him as a volunteer. We talked about finding the right spot for him, and I told him that he was exactly the type of person we were looking for. I felt the kind of comfort with Ed that you feel when you open the pages of a favorite novel. Now that the “interview” portion was over, we talked about his writings and I found out that Ed enjoyed helping people tell their stories. I asked him if he could see himself doing that with our patients and families and he said that he could. Maybe, then, I suggested to him, we have a way to incorporate your interests with your volunteering. He said he would be glad to try. He just really wanted to help.
I think we both felt a connection, not through measured questions, but through exploration and old-fashioned nosiness. I felt like we were chatting across a garden fence, coffee cups in hand. I think he will be a great volunteer.
And, oh, I forgot one question from the crafted list: If you had to pick one positive aspect about yourself, what would that be?
I’ll bet money that Ed would not have answered, “I have many positive aspects and facets and I am a person with rich interests, skills and talents and I genuinely want to help someone else.” So, being the curious type, I answered for him.
Kristen McHenry said:
I, too, have suffered the “beads of sweat” effect when trying to communicate with potential volunteers in an interview when all I am getting is one-word answers or a constant refrain of a cliche. I do like having consistent questions that I ask every volunteer, but I also go “off book” and try to elicit a conversation, too–which is always where the most interesting and relevant information comes from.
Sue Hine said:
This is a classic! An example of how-not-to engage with volunteer applicants – or an applicant for any job for that matter. I would run a mile from any organisation that asked questions like that……. And just look at the riches you uncovered when getting away from formulaic questions!
Thanks Sue and Kristen! I think Volunteer Managers have that built-in “radar” which equips us to dig a bit deeper. I agree some standard questions to start with are helpful and I have to admit, I’ve been wrong about some really great volunteers. Our continuous absorption of information from our volunteers also helps us create new programs and new ways of doing things. Listening is the volunteer manager’s middle name!