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5 Questions to ask during volunteer interviews

Vols-StaffThe volunteer screening and application process serves a dual purpose. It gives the helpline manager the opportunity to meet the volunteer and evaluate their ability to work on the helpline. For the volunteer it can be a discovery meeting where they learn more about the realities of helpline volunteerism. For both parties it’s a major step in deciding if the volunteer will move to the next stage.

Most helplines have a well-established list of questions to ask, but we’d like to offer these for your consideration…

1. Why do you think you’d be a good fit for our helpline? – The responses to this question let your volunteer share their qualities, but they’ll also reveal their preconceptions about what it’s like to work on a helpline. Portrayals in movies, television, or commonly held beliefs about crisis work tend to permeate volunteer expectations. Someone might answer, “I think I could give great advice.” This may open the door for you to talk about the reality of the work you do at the helpline. Perhaps you don’t give advice but rather listen to the caller, talk through their options, and let the caller ultimately decide what they’ll do. The volunteer will appreciate the chance to learn about what they can really expect when working on the helpline as opposed to what they’ve been imagining it’d be like.

2. Are you comfortable being observed and receiving feedback? – There’s a good chance your call center is a place where several people are working together at once, often times in close quarters. Your workers may routinely be right there observing their partner’s calls and giving peer feedback afterward. They can also expect to receive feedback from supervisors. New volunteers should be prepared for the work environment and know that feedback isn’t about someone else being critical of their work, but rather it’s intended to help them be successful and better serve the callers. For some, the prospect of regular observation and evaluation may be more than they were expecting.

3. Can you think on your feet? – Quick thinking is an essential quality for any helpline volunteer. The tone of a call can change in an instant and a skilled volunteer will pick up on hints at suicide and know how to proceed. You never know when a caller might say or ask something that takes you by surprise, and the ability to come back with a quick response will ensure the volunteer is always ready and in control of the situation. Not all volunteers will know how to hit the curveballs.

4. Are you a good detective? – You might not immediately think of investigative skills as being important to helpline work, but they’ll come in handy. You can’t just hear, you have to listen, and sometimes that means discovering more than what’s being revealed on the surface. In talking with a caller, sometimes it takes the right methods of reflection and questioning to get to the core of what’s going on for the caller and how the volunteer can help. Searching for the right referrals for a caller can also take some sleuthing and creativity especially when resources are limited or the caller isn’t eligible for services. Thinking outside the box and coming up with ideas and alternatives is a useful skill to have.

5. Do you need to see results to feel like you accomplished something? – New volunteers may be disappointed to find that after spending an hour talking a caller through a problem, that same person may call back in a month, still experiencing the same issue. And for callers who live with chronic and persistent mental illness, each day may come with a similar set of challenges, routines, and coping skills. Helpline workers aren’t always going to see huge changes and immediate positive turnarounds. In many cases, you never even know how it all turned out. The miracle success stories may be few and far between. This doesn’t mean, however, that the work you do isn’t helpful. Often in the helpline world, we need to re-frame our expectations and what we see as “success.” For some callers, just making it through the hour is successful. That hour spent on the line was an hour they didn’t feel as lonely, and it provided them with the boost they needed to get through the evening. If a volunteer needs to see more apparent success in order for them to feel like they had an impact, helpline work may leave them feeling burnt out and disappointed.

There’s a lot to consider when vetting a prospective volunteer. These questions may help both you and the volunteer further evaluate their desire, readiness, and natural abilities to determine whether they’ll end up joining your organization.

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Dana joined the iCarol team in 2013 after 12 years of direct service and administrative duties in the Helpline Industry. You'll find her presenting Webinars, Tweeting, Blogging, Facebooking, and producing other materials to help others learn more about iCarol.

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