Voluntary sector interview skills for career changers

Alison_Lewis_50pxJanuary is a classic time to reflect and plan, and for many people this includes considering a job or career change. If you are thinking about shifting your career to the voluntary sector then there will be additional aspects to take into account in getting that first role.

This article assumes that you’ve been successful in the shortlisting stage of the job hunt process, and you’ve now been invited to interview.

If you want help with adapting your CV to voluntary sector roles, then take a look at Georgina’s blog post on Giving your CV a voluntary sector facelift. There is also some advice about completing voluntary sector application forms, from the ‘goodmoves’ website.

What’s different from job interviews in other sectors?

There are some typical voluntary sector job interview processes which may surprise you if you haven’t come across them before.

1. Panel interviews

It is very common to be interviewed by a panel of 3 or more people in the voluntary sector. This is to minimise prejudice and bias as well as provide an opportunity for different stakeholders to be involved in recruitment decisions. Be prepared for different panel members to ask different questions, or for one member to remain silent or be note-taker, but ensure you include all members when you answer questions, by including them with your eye contact.

2. Panel members

The range of stakeholders included in a voluntary sector interview panel may be more varied than you’re used to. As well as the recruiting manager, it is not unusual for there to be a Trustee, a volunteer, or a beneficiary involved (depending on the job). Pitch your answers to the audience, including minimising any specialist jargon that only someone from your functional background would understand.

3. Telephone interviews

As budget and time are always major considerations in voluntary sector organisations, telephone interviews are often used (sometimes as an initial, short, interview as part of the shortlisting process before face-to-face interviews). Some useful tips on telephone interviews (a site for academic, rather than voluntary sector, jobs, but useful nevertheless).

Preparation for the interview

You’ll have done some groundwork when you applied for the post; reading the job description, looking at the organisation’s website, and matching the specific skills needed to your own experience. Now that you’ve been invited to interview though, you’ll need to be more thorough and specific in your research and preparation:

  • Look again at the role profile and the specific competencies or skills that are required. Prepare a range of examples from your personal experience that demonstrate ways in which you’ve acquired or used these skills. Also think through ways in which you might need to adapt these when changing sector (e.g. managing a team of volunteers rather than paid staff).
  • If you can find out who will be on your panel, then you can research the individuals or their roles in the organisation. This can help you understand their particular interest in the recruitment and prepare relevant examples to bring in to your answers to questions.
  • Read as much as you can about the organisation, including current priorities or changes to policies that will be affecting how they operate. Don’t restrict yourself to the organisation’s own website and newsletters; read up on more general voluntary sector news (the NCVO and Third Sector sites are good for this).
  • Plan your travel to the interview. This may seem strange, but some voluntary sector offices are tucked away and aren’t always obvious from the outside. If you don’t know the area, it might be worth having a practice-run and going to the address ahead of time so that you don’t arrive flustered from having walked up and down a street several times trying to find the right door!

What to wear

Choosing the right outfit for a face-to-face interview is often straightforward in other sectors, but can be more problematic in the voluntary sector. If you’ve been lucky enough to look around the organisation’s offices beforehand you’ll have an idea of the dress-code there. Don’t think that casually dressed staff and volunteers means that wearing flip flops and a mis-shapen T-shirt to the interview will be a good idea, though! You still want your first impression to convey reliability and professionalism, so show respect for the interview process by dressing neatly and cleanly. If you’re unsure of the appropriate level of formality, then dress flexibly:

  • Wear a jacket which you’ll be prepared to take off and hang on the back of the chair if everyone on the panel is in shirt-sleeves.
  • Men could take a tie with them, arrive early, and notice what people are wearing as they walk through reception, then decide whether to put it on or not based on that.
  • If you know there will be a practical and physical aspect to the interview (e.g. sorting through a black sack of donations for a charity shop manager job) then bring appropriate clothing such as gloves or overalls with you in a bag.

Whatever your choice, dress slightly more smartly than you normally would for work in a casual workplace, as this is safer than dressing ‘down’ too much.

Framework for answering questions

If the style of questioning is along the lines of “Tell us about a time when … [insert skill, ability, or competency]”, and the panel don’t seem to ask many follow up questions to probe your answers (some voluntary sector panel will not follow up so that every candidate gets asked exactly the same questions), then you can use this ‘STARE’ framework to structure your answers. It will be help ensure you are thorough in your answers:

1. Situation – describe a time when you had to do this particular thing. Remember that it doesn’t have to necessarily be as an employee, as the voluntary sector will value your experiences outside work too.

2. Tasks – explain the key tasks that were involved.

3. Actions – tell the panel what you, personally, actually did. This helps differentiate between team actions and your personal abilities.

4. Results – what were the outcomes? These don’t necessarily need to be entirely positive, as long as you can demonstrate awareness of mistakes made and a willingness to learn from the experience and try things differently next time.

5. Evaluation – what did you learn from the experience? How would you do things differently now? What might need to be changed if this was in a different sector, culture, or environment?

Striking the right balance

Whilst any job interview is an opportunity to sell yourself, you need to ensure that you also show an appropriate amount of humility and willingness to learn about a new sector and organisation. Here’s a short video to demonstrate the difference a change in attitude can have:

Alison Lewis

About the author

Alison Lewis is a training consultant specialising in train the trainer, management and personal skills development, operating as Spiral Training & Associates Ltd. She was Corporate Learning & Development Manager at Oxfam GB following a career in training and development at PricewaterhouseCoopers, H.M. Customs & Excise, and Roffey Park Management Institute.

Alison facilitates two days of the Working For A Charity Foundation Course, where she shows participants how to get a job in the voluntary sector (from finding job adverts to career planning). The Working For A Charity Course also provides an introduction to voluntary sector management for career changers and the next course begins in May 2012. Find out more.

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Georgina Anstey presents the voluntary sector as a positive career option, reflects on what makes it unique and offers tips on getting in to and working in the sector.

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