The Responsible Tourism Partnership published guidelines for volunteering organisations last year which state that “Each volunteer is interviewed and screened before being accepted as a volunteer.” Fair Trade Volunteering’s five criteria for member organisations state that organisations “need to have an appropriate pre-departure selection, preparation and training programme”.
VSO has an excellent and comprehensive selection process for volunteers. They run assessment days which consist of an interview and group tasks which are observed by “selectors”. What they are looking for is how well people work together, sensitivity towards others, ability to listen and learn and self-assurance, qualities that are important for a successful placement overseas. They also discuss personal circumstances and motivations. The aim is to ensure that volunteers are ready to go overseas and are fully committed and will represent the organisation’s values and make a positive contribution to development. Now, this kind of selection process is very thorough because VSO invests thousands of pounds in each volunteer placement and as a charity and recipient of funds from the UK Department for International Development, they have to assess volunteers carefully. For organisations where people pay the costs of volunteering themselves, it doesn’t need to be as extensive as this, but some sort of selection process is still essential.
All volunteer-sending organisations should have a process in place where their staff have a personal communication with a volunteer and discuss their interests and motivations, identify a suitable placement for them and talk through some of the issues and challenges they may encounter while overseas. The word interview is perhaps too formal for this kind of conversation (although it is more appropriate if a volunteer is being recruited for a placement requiring specific skills and experience). A phone call would be best, or face-to-face if it was logistically possible. In the case of overseas organisations who recruit volunteers directly, rather than using a sending-organisation, it is still possible to set up a Skype call so they can speak to their prospective volunteer and make sure that they understand the project, their role and the local context.
A selection process can help an organisation assess whether a volunteer is suitable for the placement they are interested in and if they have the right experience. Even for short placements that don’t require specific skills, it is important for an organisation to have a conversation with a prospective volunteer and assess their motivations and ensure they understand what will be expected of them. Another thing that can be assessed is how well the volunteer will cope living overseas and how much support they may need or expect from the organisation. If someone is going to volunteer in a foreign country, it is very different from a holiday. It is important for them to have realistic expectations and understand the context they are going to.
An interview is also a two-way process so it gives the prospective volunteer the opportunity to ask questions and find out more about the placement they will be doing and what they should do to prepare. It is also the opportunity for the organisation to brief the volunteer and give them key information about the project they will be going to and any relevant practical information.
Even the largest volunteer-sending organisations who offer primarily 1-2 week placements should be using a selection process for their volunteers, especially as they will have the resources/staff to implement this. Setting up a volunteer placement should not be like booking a holiday or merely a financial transaction!