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teaMarlene has been a volunteer coordinator for ten years. She’s adventurous, loves rock climbing, extreme sports and her idea of a pleasant evening is a demolition derby. It’s only natural that she would bring her sense of adventure to volunteer management.

“I like to try new things all the time,” she says with the tiny grin of a child caught in the act. “I like to see the things others are doing and try to incorporate that into my volunteer program. Here at my hospital, it’s easy to get into a complacent stage where you think all people who come to volunteer in a hospital setting are pretty much the same type of person. I’m constantly being told to find retired nurses and health care workers, because they would naturally want to continue their line of work after retiring, wouldn’t they?” She laughs easily. “I mean it’s this kind of thinking that breeds a stale environment. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that a retired nurse would be easy to train because she knows the system so well and can follow the rules. But,” she adds with a mischievous gleam in her eye, “what about the retired nurse who was so fed up with obeying the rules, and she wants to volunteer to break the constraints wide open? Huh, what about that?”

Marlene has a great point. Organizational administrations who tend to lump potential volunteers together will most likely also make the mistake of lumping actual volunteers together in a “them” mentality. Ignoring the subtle complexities of volunteer management will foster this stale and outdated thinking.

“When it comes to interviewing potential volunteers,” Marlene continued, “I’ve tried everything from quizzes to group interviews to structured questions. Sometimes these techniques work, and sometimes they don’t. We’re in an age when background checks are not enough, not if you really want to get to know the motivations of the volunteers working within your system. Do background checks uncover mental illness? Does a quick call to a reference on an application reveal the tendency to get over-involved with children? Will an interview question about the reason a person comes to volunteer actually produce the real answer?” Her grin widens. “And what is the real answer, now that is the question?”

Marlene has had some experiences she wanted to share with us. “Look, I tried a list of good, solid questions, but what I often found was that I immediately put the volunteer on the defensive. For instance, I asked a man why he wanted to volunteer with us and he shrank back like I hit him with a bat. I could see in his eyes that he was searching for to the correct thing to say, so I knew right then that I wouldn’t be getting an honest answer. Now, mind you, this man became a great volunteer, but that interview question did not help me in any way. Actually, it hindered the rest of the interview and it took some time to get to know him.”

Marlene looked for the right words. “But, I knew that I wanted answers to certain questions so I started experimenting with peppering the questions into a casual conversation. The whole process took a bit longer, but I found that in the majority of cases, it was well worth it. My mother was born in England and so I began to create in my mind what I termed the ‘spot of tea’ scenario. I would invite potential volunteers in for a twenty-minute chat and a cup of tea or coffee.

At first I started by asking them simple questions and I found that even that put them a bit on the defensive so I experimented with trying to put them at ease. And now I begin by first explaining our program to them. It works so much better and puts them at ease. I start by introducing myself and talk about how the program works, our volunteer jobs, and some of the benefits of volunteering. I make sure that I tell them how rewarding our existing volunteers find their work to be. Then, and only then, do I start to ask some questions in a conversational manner. I’ll reword the questions every time so that it doesn’t sound so rehearsed.” Marlene laughs. “If you don’t think most potential volunteers can spot a canned question, then you don’t know volunteers!”

She continued, “when people are comfortable, they will naturally open up, much more than when they are put on the spot by invasive questions like why are you here?” Marlene then recalled an incident during the beginnings of her ‘spot of tea’ interview. “I remember one young man who came in. We were talking, really getting to know one another and he told me that he had been fired from his last job. Because a red flag went up in my head, I carefully asked him what had happened and he told me. I was shocked that he confided in me, but it turned out to be a reason that prevented us from taking him as a volunteer. A background check would not have revealed that information to me. He did.”

Assessing potential volunteers is something all volunteer managers want to do well. There really is no perfect question, technique or method involved in getting to know volunteers. Whether you have a set of specific questions or not, Marlene advocates first putting prospective volunteers at ease. “Make them comfortable with you so that they can be honest. That way, you’ll not only get some honest answers, but you’ll also have a leg up on figuring out a fit for them. And besides, it’s gratifying learning the volunteers’ stories. It helps you and it makes them feel a part of the organization right from the start.”

This is why volunteer managers are so incredibly good at their jobs. Even the simplest of tasks such as interviewing a prospective volunteer is viewed as crucial to organizational success. Volunteer managers like Marlene may not try to be perfect, but in striving to do the best possible job in every situation is surely as professional as it gets.