Selecting volunteers: An important task

Selection is an important step in the volunteer recruitment process. With a well-planned approach, you’ll find the right applicant for your volunteer position.

Selection is an important step in the volunteer recruitment process. With a well-planned approach, you'll find the right applicant for your volunteer position and identify individuals who could grow into contributing members of your organization.

The 5 keys to selecting volunteers

Application form

Organizations should follow these rules of thumb when creating or revising their volunteer application forms and information packets:

  • Only ask for information relevant to the position.
  • Clearly indicate which sections of the form are mandatory and which are optional.
  • Explain how the program will use the information. Remember that applicants have the right to withhold certain personal and confidential information.

An application form should:

  • collect relevant information on the applicant
  • ask for 2 references, if applicable
  • request the applicant's consent to run a criminal background check if warranted by the risk associated with the position
  • include sections on the individual's volunteer activities, personal motivations, relevant experience, availability, etc.


Interviews are an opportunity to speak with applicants about their skills, interests, qualifications and personal goals. They help organizations determine whether an individual is right for them and help potential volunteers make an informed decision about the position. It is important to determine ahead of time what you want to find out during your interview. Here are the 4 main evaluation criteria and the questions you should ask for each:

Criterion What you want to find out Questions
Openness, respect, dedication, character, reliability, etc.
  • Are there any people or groups of people you prefer not to work with?
  • How would your friends and family describe you?
Procedural knowledge
Communication, cooperation, teamwork, job-specific skills
  • Do you prefer to work alone? In a group? With a partner? Why?
  • Tell us about your experience working with people with disabilities, children, seniors, etc.
Compatibility with the organization Organizational culture, internal politics, procedures, applicant's need for coaching vs. the organization's ability to provide it
  • What did you like most about your previous work or volunteer experiences?
  • Tell us about a situation in which you had a disagreement on the job, while volunteering or at school. How did you resolve it?
Motivation Interest in the position, the organization, the cause and the clients
  • What attracted you to our organization? Is there anything in particular that we do that made you want to volunteer with us?
  • Why do you want to volunteer for our organization?

Your interview questions should:

  • clearly relate to the position, i.e., help determine whether the applicant is right for the volunteer position
  • be open-ended rather than closed-ended, i.e., require a thoughtful response rather than a simple “yes” or “no”
  • present scenarios, i.e., hypothetical situations that shed light on the applicant's motivations, attitude and judgment
  • cover a variety of topics to gather different types of information and get clarification (understanding of the organization's policies, concerns, motivations, etc.)
  • explore the applicant's motivation, judgment, character and loyalty

The interviewer should:

  • be trained and qualified
  • have discussed the questions with you in advance
  • tell you how the interview went and share his or her thoughts on the applicant (a standardized interview report form may be a good idea)

Reference check

Depending on the job requirements and applicable human rights, privacy and freedom of information laws, you may have to check an applicant's references.

  • You must get the applicant's written consent.
  • Employers, volunteer coordinators and family and community members are common references.
  • Questions must relate to the volunteer duties and comply with the charter of the Human Rights Commission.
  • Introduce yourself and your organization, give the applicant's name and ask if the reference is willing to discuss the applicant.
  • Explain that any information provided will be kept confidential.
  • Take no more than 10 to 15 minutes of the reference's time.
  • You may want to use a reference check questionnaire.
  • It is best to have the reference answer your questions spontaneously. If you ask the person to provide written answers, you cannot ask follow-up questions to have the person elaborate.

Criminal background check

Depending on your policies, legal requirements and the risk associated with the position, you may have to run a criminal background check on the applicant. You must obtain the applicant's written consent. The name and type of check, the process, the cost and the format in which information is provided vary by jurisdiction. Volunteer and employee criminal background checks are covered under the memorandum of understanding between the organization and the local police department. Only 3 types of clients are considered vulnerable: young people, seniors and persons with disabilities.

Criminal background check considerations:

  • What type of criminal background check is required for the position, if any?
  • Can the applicant begin volunteering before it is in?
  • Who decides if the results are relevant to the position?
  • How often must a criminal background check be run?

Criminal background checks do not cover offences:

  • not yet in the database
  • committed before age 18
  • committed in another country or under another name
  • not reported to the authorities

A criminal background check is just 1 step in the selection process, and it cannot predict an individual's future behaviour. If an applicant has a misdemeanour on his or her record, the manager may ask the applicant to come in for a second interview to explain what happened and discuss his or her commitment.

Selecting and turning down applicants

Having a selection process in place means you value your volunteers and the work they do. It means that selected applicants already have a solid understanding of your organization and the positions they will be taking on. You can recognize volunteers individually and welcome them into your organization where they will feel safe, comfortable and important.

If an applicant is not a good fit for the position or your organization, it is best to turn him or her down to avoid any problems down the line. Explain your decision based on the job requirements or your duty of care and you will meet your legal and ethical obligations.

Before you turn down an applicant:

  • See whether you can offer the applicant another position with your organization.
  • Get a second opinion or set up a second interview, if necessary.
  • Think about what you will say when you meet with the applicant, including the exact grounds for your decision.
  • If possible, refer the applicant to another organization that better meets his or her needs and expectations.

Recruiting volunteers is an important task that requires extensive planning to find good people who will continue to love what they do!