Every year thousands of people volunteer. Almost without exception these volunteers are keen to give up their time and efforts simply because it helps others. However, just because most volunteers act altruistically doesn’t mean that volunteers don’t need to be screened. 

The level and extent to which you screen volunteers is determined by the services you provide and the nature of the role. Screening is particularly important if volunteers work with children, young people or vulnerable adults. Screening may also be necessary in cases where volunteers are unsupervised, deal with finances or visit a client’s home. It is vital to remember that screening does not provide a 100% guarantee that the volunteer will be a perfect fit.  

Getting the selection and screening process right will allow you to match the needs of your organisation with the needs and skills of the volunteers. It will also prevent a volunteer from being placed in a role that does not match their wants, or that they are ill-equipped to fulfil, all of which would lead to an unhappy and unproductive experience for everyone.  

General Points 
  • Having checks in place, and advertising this, is in itself a good screening technique, but be careful about putting off potentially good volunteers. 
  • Keep it simple; try to keep the process for your organisation the same for all volunteers. Keep it straightforward and appropriate for the role that you are recruiting for. 
  • Don't fall into the trap of applying your paid staff recruitment processes for volunteers. It's not appropriate and will not work well. 
  • Look at what will help you to draw out the best from your volunteer and ways to make it a fair process for all.  
  • Be clear and fair throughout the process; tell people what checks you are planning to carry out and get their consent beforehand.
  • Never rely on 'gut instinct' alone; a combination of screening tools is always preferable than relying on only one.  
  • Store all confidential information securely; restrict access to those who really need it. 
  • Don't acquire any more information than you actually need to know about the volunteer. 
  • Where possible, try to steer away from the more formal approach of application and interviews. This can be very intimidating for volunteers and depending on the role is completely unnecessary. There are many methods you can use, so it is worth investing time to make the process accessible and suitable to your organisation. 
  • Remove unnecessary barriers to involvement with your organisation where possible to ensure you capture the interest of prospective volunteers. 
  • Don't let the process of recruitment become an inadvertent barrier to people volunteering! 
Volunteer Registration Forms 

You should ask a volunteer to complete a basic application form. However, think very carefully about what information you want to gather on the application and why you are gathering it.  

If this process feels too much like a formal job application, it may put volunteers off so be sure to stress that the form is just to collect information. You may also want to let volunteers know that you can help them complete the form if needed. 

The form gives potential volunteers an opportunity to tell you something about themselves, their reasons for volunteering and provide you with a basic personnel record. 

Interviewing Volunteers (informal chat) 

An important part of the recruitment process is meeting the potential volunteers. Calling this an ‘interview’ can be off putting and may make a prospective volunteer feel anxious or create unnecessary pressure. Depending on the type of volunteer role you are recruiting you may want to ask candidates to come for an ‘informal discussion’ rather than an ‘interview’. 

Meeting with a potential volunteer should: 

  • Be a welcoming experience into your organisation 
  • Be a chance to see what you do, who you are and possibly meet some of your other volunteers or service users 
  • Be a chance for potential volunteers to ask questions about volunteering with you and your organisation 
  • Be a chance for you to find out about them and vice versa. 

Sometimes, volunteers may opt out at this point if they realise the role doesn’t meet their motivations. Conversely, this conversation may help you realise the role won’t be a good fit for the volunteer. 

Finding out about your applicant 

Meeting your applicant is an opportunity to find out why they want to volunteer and to ask them other relevant questions. What you need to ask should be dependent on the role but some basic areas to cover should be: 

  • What skills, experience and knowledge they have, 
  • What interests them about volunteering with your organisation, 
  • What they hope to gain from volunteering with you, 
  • What level of commitment they can make (time, days and for how long). 

You then need to think about what your applicant needs to know about you and your project/organisation, so consider: 

  • Your organisation, who its beneficiaries are, its projects and its future plans, 
  • What role your volunteers play, 
  • Specifics about this volunteer opportunity (if applicable), 
  • Details of any training, support and expenses offered to volunteers, 
  • Time commitment, 
  • The process from here, e.g., references, disclosure checks, etc. 
Screening your applicants 

Your responsibility to your organisation is to ensure that anyone coming into your organisation is suitable, safe and appropriate. To ensure you fulfil this duty of care, suitable screening processes should be in place. With any form of screening, it is important to make your applicants aware that this will take place at the earliest opportunity. Also, remember that you can use your knowledge of volunteers to screen and select for example using a trial period or compulsory training as a means of screening your volunteer’s suitability. 

References 

References must be sought for volunteers, however small your venue or the role recruited for. However, unlike employee references, you won’t need to ask for in-depth details, such as the number of sick days they took with an employer, whether they’ve been subject to disciplinary action or their reasons for leaving.  

Checking references allows you to verify details gathered from the volunteer during the application and interview process and to determine that they will bring the right attitude and attributes to the role.  

Reference checks are generally conducted once you have interviewed the applicant and have decided you would like to involve them in your organisation. It is best practice to request permission before contacting referees.  

To minimise any barriers, consider the following: 

  • Who will you accept references from? (Generally, organisations request two references, from non-relatives and from separate sources: education, employment, previous volunteering or from a person of standing within the community.) 
  • Don’t insist that one be from a former employer; these are often irrelevant for the role and difficult to obtain. 
  • Don’t insist that a referee be known for a minimum of two years; again, difficult for some volunteers. 
  • Do let your applicants know who you will accept references from. 
  • When contacting referees, give them information about the role and your organisation and ask them specific questions; you will have more chance of receiving a reference if you give them a prompt.  
  • Consider accepting a phone call or email as a reference; this can often speed up the reference and make it easier for the referee to respond. 

References can and do give you "comfort" that the prospective volunteer is someone that you want to involve, however it is important to recognise that it can be a barrier (so strive to minimise that) and a reference is no substitute for getting to know the individual, good induction and training and good practice in how you manage the volunteer in a day to day basis. 

Disclosure and Barring Service check  

Organisations that involve volunteers need to ensure they have a robust approach to safeguarding in place. They should also consider what level of safeguarding is proportionate to the activities their volunteers are involved in.  

The Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) helps you make safer recruitment decisions and prevent unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups, including children, vulnerable adults (e.g. those with mental health problems, the elderly, or people with learning disabilities),.  

** DBS checks are only one element of the multi-step screening process 

Taster sessions 

You may choose to invite prospective volunteers to attend a taster session or do a tour of your premises. This is another mechanism, like the informal chat, for both parties to decide if the role is a good fit. It also provides an opportunity for prospective volunteers to meet each other as well as existing volunteers in your organisation, which can help them feel more comfortable if they choose to proceed with their application. 

Induction  

An induction is an information-sharing process. It provides a space to introduce volunteers to the work of the organisation, meet fellow staff and volunteers and to become familiar with organisational policies and procedures. It also provides an opportunity to review the role description and introduce the volunteer to the tasks they will be responsible for.  

Training  

Volunteer training that takes place prior to starting gives volunteers an opportunity to come to terms with the role and to decide if it is definitely something they want to pursue. From the organisation’s perspective, training provides an opportunity to learn more about the applicant and ensure they are willing and able to undertake the volunteer role.  

Trial Period  

A trial period provides an opportunity for both parties to see if each other’s expectations are being met. In addition, it provides an opt-out for either party if things are not working out. 

Volunteer Agreement  

A volunteer agreement clarifies the expectations of both parties in relation to the time commitment involved, confidentiality, training and adherence to the organisation’s policies and procedures.  

Saying No to Applicants 

Saying no to an applicant should be something that anyone recruiting for volunteers should be prepared for. We would recommend also that if a volunteer does not suit, don’t just leave it - tell them. If a volunteer is not suitable for you it doesn’t mean that they are not suitable elsewhere, and this could seriously put them off enquiring about other volunteering opportunities. 

Consider: 

  • What skills, knowledge or aptitudes are necessary for the role and whose lack cannot be accommodated. 
  • Look at where support and/or training could help a volunteer if they do not immediately match the role’s requirements
  • If they are not suitable for the role: are they suitable for a role elsewhere within the organisation? 
  • If an applicant is still unsuitable, give them the reasons why in as positive a way as possible, and help them to consider their options. 
  • You can refer them back to CAN so that they can get additional support and information. 

The applicant may decide that they do not want to volunteer for your organisation after all. In this case, you might want to ask the applicant for their reasons. This insight may prove helpful for future recruitment activity.  

If you find yourself with more good applicants than volunteer openings, keep a database of people interested in volunteering (including some information on their skills) and send them details of new roles as and when they arise.