Beyond Intuition

When you interview volunteers, trusting your gut leads to mixed results

True or False?

Thumbs Up DownOur gut feelings about a volunteer are the best predictor of volunteer success.

Since I’m asking the question – and it’s a leading question – you’ve probably guessed the correct answer: FALSE.

Five years ago I would have answered ‘True’. The program where I have worked, Fairfax CASA, takes volunteer screening seriously. We expect candidates to complete a one hour orientation and two interviews before being considered for training, and then the staff discusses each candidate before making the weighty decision to accept or reject someone.

About those “gut feelings”

Despite all this rigor, our decisions often came down to our “gut feelings” about a candidate – even though our gut feelings were not paying off. We were having a tough time meeting our recruitment goals because so many trainees either dropped their cases or never even took one. This was a huge problem because our judges want to see a volunteer on every single case that enters the court.

The pressure to bring in qualified volunteers had a silver lining, because it forced us to take a good hard look at our recruitment and screening methods. And we were fortunate to receive help from a human resources specialist who taught us how to conduct behavior-based interviews.

A Better Way

The concept behind behavior-based interviewing is pretty simple: past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. You ask questions that require your applicants to give examples of the competencies you seek. If you need a volunteer who is reliable, you ask your prospect to describe situations where others could count on him to deliver. If a position requires good interpersonal skills, ask your candidate about a time she handled a disagreement with someone.

Questions usually begin one of two ways: “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example of…” Then you assess how closely the candidate is able to answer the question. The response, or lack of an adequate response, speaks volumes about that person’s ability to handle a similar situation with confidence.

Shrinking the Gray Area

Fairfax CASA experienced some striking results from the shift to behavior-based interviewing. We shifted from a typical year with over a dozen non-engaged trainees to an average of two volunteers per year not taking a case. And the number of applicants falling into the “gray area”, when we are on the fence about someone, has become much smaller.

There are other factors that play into volunteer screening, like getting clear on the competencies you seek and spelling out expectations, but if I had to choose just one factor, I would pick interviewing. It’s one area where volunteer engagement still relies on the human resources best practices for excellence.


Volunteer Managers: would you like to boost volunteer retention and reliability? 

Attend my March 13 webinar, Behavior-Based Interviewing for Reliable, Loyal Volunteers. Space is limited – register now at


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