Good selection for better volunteers

When browsing through the websites of different volunteer travel companies and organizations you can notice a small, but very important difference. Whereas many offers can be booked immediately online, others request the potential volunteer to apply first. So, where are the differences and why are they so important? Why should there be a selection process at all?


Being serious about volunteering

For the client – or the applicant – it is already a fist indicator about how serious the social mission of the volunteer travel company is. Even though volunteering is often unskilled labor, it will be easy to understand that not every volunteer position is suitable for every person. If a volunteering provider is willing to invest time and effort into a real selection process, it shows that the company cares about the “target group” or the “beneficiaries” addressed by the project.

At the same time, accepted volunteers will also receive the feedback that they are suitable for the work they are interested in. This can result in a real call-to-action and boost the volunteer’s esteem. They will also understand that volunteering is not just for fun as there are expectations they have to fulfill and requirements to meet.

Protection of placements and volunteers

But the fist and most important reason for conducting a real selection process is: Security.

If organizations don’t let everyone join, they reduce the risk of abuse and failures of any kind. For example, unsupervised volunteering is a pretty simple way for pedophiles to get in contact with vulnerable children and opens the door to some of the terrible stories you might already have read or heard about. But it is not only sexual abuse but abuse of any kind. People who just want to party and boost their CV at the same time can be very disturbing to local communities and destroy the trust created by more ambitious volunteers. In most cases, local organisations state that short-time volunteers create more work than they bring help. A sincere selection process can reduce the efforts for those who do the work on the ground.

But it is also a very important protection mechanism for volunteers. Not everybody is suitable for any placement. Some volunteers might have difficulties to cope with the realities they will be thrown into and even more experienced persons might be misinterpreting things they see and come to wrong conclusions. This is of course a matter that should be addressed in the first place by supervision and training on the ground. But in some cases it might even be best not to confront people with something they might not be able to deal with at all.


What makes a good volunteer?

In the first place, volunteer services should be focused on learning and exchange. Because let’s face it – the work done on the ground will most properly not change much. Volunteers have to understand the bigger picture and have the possibility to evaluate their own actions and lifestyle. But as much as important as interest is ambition. Ambitious volunteers will carry on their experiences after finishing their “job” and will take some of the learnings home. Only then a long lasting impact can be generated as well as some kind of change. They will act as “multipliers” when sharing their experiences, motivating others to volunteer and changing their lifestyle to a more sustainable way.

Although learning is most important, skillful volunteers are most welcome in placements. If you have volunteers who can really contribute their skills and experiences to the projects, they can be a real asset. Still, it is very challenging to transfer their knowledge in a sustainable way as a structured process for organizational learning is needed. But with some guidance and reflection it would be possible.

Application forms and selection processes are a great way to introduce the potential volunteer to the provider and already give a great idea of what is important to the person and what possibilities for future learning and skills might be feasible.


How to create a good selection process

Surprisingly – or not – the selection of volunteers should not differ too much from the selection of any employee in standard HR processes. Of course, if you identify the volunteer as your client, this turns the relationship upside down. Clients have to be served. In a nutshell, this is the million dollar question for everybody who works in the volunteering sector. If you identify the volunteer as your client, you are running a business, not a volunteering agency. If the organisation is interested in serving local communities, these people are the clients.

Steps in selection

There has to be an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of every single person to see if it is a general fit and fulfills the minimum standards for the position. This has to be done in any case to see if the volunteer is a potential fit or not.

In addition, we highly recommend conducting a potential analysis also. How can the applicant potentially benefit from volunteering. What are areas for future development? And how can we provide learning options for these areas?

If you have ideas on how you can fulfill these needs, it might be a perfect match.


Process design

The most advanced process we witnessed is a three step application process. The volunteer has to apply with all documents and an extensive letter of motivation. If pass, he or she will be invited to a three day assessment centre where especially social competencies, ambitions and capacities will be checked. Only after passing the assessment, the volunteer will be introduced to the local partner who are free to conduct their own assessment – e.g. via Skype. They have the final say and decide if the volunteer matches their needs.

Of course this is a very intensive process that will not be available to most providers due to the lack of capacities and funds. This example should be understood as best practice and might not be necessary for all situations.

But we strongly believe that for a significant selection process there has to be at least some direct interaction between the volunteer to be and the provider. Only in this way they can check if the volunteer might be suitable for the job or not and to crosscheck the written application. Also, if somehow possible, local partners have to have their place in the process because only they know the realities on the ground.

This way, you can increase the possibility of a good matching between volunteer and placement, which is the most important aspect for a successful volunteering job.