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  • Writer's pictureJessica

Internet Inquiry: February 2021 Edition (Gut Feelings and Volunteer Screening)

Updated: Jun 11, 2022

This question was posted to the Volunteer Engagement Professionals - connection & camaraderie Facebook page on January 22, 2021, and generated some great discussion within the international leaders of volunteers' community. There are currently twenty-seven comments on this post! For context: most posts on this page average about 4 or 5 comments.

Question (edited for brevity): What's the best way to decline a volunteer candidate when their application and qualifications match your organization's needs, but after completing the interview your gut says no? In this case, the candidate's attitude "was a little off" and they didn't seem like a "good cultural fit".

While I had contributed a few comments fairly quickly, I'm now taking the opportunity now to dive deeper and share how I would approach building a matrix for evaluating volunteer fit. My initial comments are quoted word-for-word below.

My initial comment #1: What do you mean by not a "good cultural fit"[?] this "feeling" is regularly used to disqualify people of colour and others who seem "different". I would encourage you to use a ranking matrix on key skills and qualifications for volunteer roles, and in this case, ask a colleague to review the person's resume and your interview notes to identify whether they have the skills and experiences required.

My initial comment #2: If there are already questions you use during the interview process to gauge interpersonal skills (e.g. ability to build rapport, active listening) this could be measured through a matrix as well. These are usually situational questions.

Both the colleague who asked the question and others on the discussion thread were interested in seeing a sample matrix. Since each organization's mission and volunteer tasks are different, instead of sharing a sample matrix, I've offered some tips on building matrices for evaluating volunteer fit at the end of this article.

I also wanted to share other helpful comments from the discussion thread:

Barry Atland (author of Head, Heart, and Hands Engagement) said, "I always remind Leaders that we do not need to “like” our Volunteers for them to be effective in their service role. We must always leverage our mission as the measuring stick more than our own personal take."

Some other colleagues suggested giving this volunteer candidate a "trial period".

Andy Fryar shared his article "Intuition or Indigestion?" published in 2003. I read it and encourage you to do so as well. The ideas are very relevant today in this situation, especially the 8 questions Andy poses around "danger or difference?"- challenging leaders of volunteers to consider their unconscious biases.

Elisa Kosarin offered to share the video for her behaviour-based interviewing webinar and asked if the colleague reaching out had any kind of objective scoring system.

And this is the perfect lead-in for me to talk about volunteer screening matrices. Screening matrices don't need to be complicated- the goal is to measure key skills and qualifications for the volunteer role.

Side note: soft skills can be measured objectively! A quick Google search on "measuring soft skills objectively" resulted in a variety of articles for Human Resources professionals including:

- This one on LinkedIn's Talent Blog

My tips for building a matrix to evaluate volunteer fit during the screening process are:

1) Review the role description and pull out the key skills and qualifications required. This is a good time to make sure that the role description is up to date and that you are asking for the right things during the recruitment process.

2) For each skill/ qualification, create relevant interview questions.

Let's say we are screening volunteer candidates who have applied to support new parents by video chat.

A sample question for a "hard skill" like comfort with updating databases could be: "Our organization uses Sumac to track client information and we are looking for volunteers who are comfortable with updating databases. Tell us about your experience with using databases."

A sample question for a "soft skill" like setting boundaries with clients could be framed in a situational context: "What would you say to a client if they asked you to pick up their older child from school? Besides addressing the client's question, what other actions would you take?"

3) Rank potential interview answers. For each interview question, think about potential answers a candidate could give you and rank them on a scale of 5 from excellent (5/5) to poor (1/5). Consider the key ideas that must be communicated for each ranking.

For our question on updating databases, the potential answers could be:

5/5- excellent:

- Uses/ used the Sumac database regularly

4/5- good:

- Uses/ used other databases regularly

- Eager to learn Sumac

3/5- meets needs:

- Used databases a few times

- Willing to learn Sumac

2/5- fair:

- Limited experience with databases

- Hesitant about learning new software

1/5- poor:

- No experience with databases

- Adverse to learning new software

For our question on setting boundaries, the potential answers could be:

5/5- excellent:

- Explain that the task is outside the scope of the volunteer role and would violate the organization's policy.

- Share that they cannot break policy because they really enjoy volunteering and must follow the rules to continue supporting the organzation's mission.

- Document the client's request and seek immediate guidance from their employee partner about how the organization may be able to support in another way (e.g. involve another team, refer to a partner organization)

4/5- good:

- Explain that the task is outside the scope of the volunteer role and would violate the organization's policy.

- Tell the client that they would raise the question to their employee partner and get back to them.

3/5- meets needs:

- Explain that the task would violate the organization's policy.

- Tell the client to raise the question to an agency employee by calling the reception desk.

2/5- fair:

- Ask their employee partner if they can help the client pick up their older child from school.

1/5- poor:

- Pick up the client's older child from school.

- Do not tell anyone at the agency.

4) Increase the scoring potential for questions that address absolutely critical skills and qualifications.

For our sample role where volunteers would support new parents via video chat, the skill around setting boundaries is absolutely critical while the skill around updating databases is not. A volunteer in this role could take notes about their client interactions, and work with a data entry volunteer to ensure the information is recorded accurently and in a timely manner.

For critical skills and qualifications, consider multiplying the score by a factor of 2 or 3 to create the final total. This places higher importance on "must haves" while still giving substance to the "good to haves".

5) Define minimum scores for moving forward with volunteer candidates and find a way to resolve scores that are "on the cusp".

Whatever the total score comes to, I would suggest ensuring that volunteer candidates must score at least 70-80% of the total before being invited to next steps for the role.

Why? It comes back to fit- not every role will be a good fit for every candidate. However, your organization may have a better fit role available, or could refer that candidate to another organization that would benefit from the canidate's skills. Don't sell your organizational mission short. If you have scored the answers objectively, you can confidently say why a candidate is a good fit or not.

For candidates "on the cusp", I would recommend asking a colleague to review the scoring, setting up another conversation to dig deeper into areas where the candidate scored poorly, or even considering a "trial period". To be honest, I have never tried "trial periods" before and welcome readers to share any experiences they have.

6) Ask for stakeholder feedback and adjust accordingly before implementing the matrix. Stakeholders who would have incredible feedback to give are: current volunteers in the role, employee partners working with this group of volunteers, your manager, and other leaders of volunteers.

If you are using a volunteer screening matrix, or other tools to help objectively evaluate volunteer fit, please reach out or comment below to share your experience!

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