4 Reasons Why You Need a Volunteer Onboarding Process

Volunteerism April 23, 2015

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

You have a group of new volunteers starting at your organization. They have “aspirations to change the world.” And since you only have one chance to make a good first impression, how will you welcome them into your community? Do you have a volunteer onboarding process?

Expert Webinar: Onboarding Volunteers – Converting Joiners to Stayers

As part of our National Volunteer Week celebrations, Wild Apricot hosted an Expert Webinar on volunteer onboarding, presented by Tobi Johnson (Tobi Johnson & Associates), a recognized expert in the field of volunteer engagement.

The webinar agenda included:

  • What is onboarding?
  • Motivations for today’s skilled volunteers
  • Emotions & expectations
  • Customizing for levels of engagement
  • Improving key touch points for volunteers
  • Promoting volunteer leadership

Why you need a volunteer onboarding process

Here are highlights from the webinar presentation and 4 reasons why you should have a volunteer onboarding process in place.

1. Volunteer onboarding "inspires a deeper participation and commitment.”

In the webinar, Tobi reminded us that we all come into our volunteer roles with lofty expectations – including wanting to help others, develop relationships, or simply be part of something. But we humans also have a fundamental need to belong. We’re all sensitive to social context and want to fit in and avoid social exclusion. This means that it’s important to ensure volunteers get off to a good start, and your volunteer onboarding process plays a critical role. Tobi explained that “onboarding sets the stage for deeper volunteer involvement – so don’t leave it up to chance.”

Volunteer onboarding definition:

Volunteer onboarding is more than just offering an orientation about your organization. Here is one definition that Tobi offered:

“Volunteer onboarding is: the mechanism through which new volunteers acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders.”

Or in other words: “onboarding = socialization and community building – this leads to building trust.”

2. It helps you create the “perfect trifecta of opportunity” 

Your volunteers come to your organization with a “passion for your cause or a commitment to your community”. They also have specific expectations, which are often very lofty and possibly even unrealistic. At the same time, volunteers each bring skills, capabilities and interests to the table.

For your part, your organization has opportunities, goals and requirements that your volunteers need to support. Tobi noted that “when these things all come together, you have the perfect trifecta of opportunity.”

The onboarding process is where you balance volunteer expectations with organizational goals and program expectations to create a positive experience for your volunteers. This process builds a foundation of mutual trust and “deepens their involvement”. If, on the other hand, your volunteers don’t feel they are being heard or their expectations are being met, they likely won’t continue in their volunteer roles.

What motivates your volunteers?

Tobi explained that even though individual volunteers have their own expectations, all of your volunteers are looking for:

  • Autonomy: self-direct tasks, team and techniques
  • Mastery: Making progress – learning, mastering and managing. Challenges matched with their own abilities. “People like a little bit of challenge. It’s alluring to be able to keep moving ahead and learning – this can be motivating.”
  • Purpose: Pursuing a higher purpose. Related goals, beyond their own self interest.
Banner admin roles - saving volunteers

3. It helps newcomers negotiate conflicting emotions and acclimate to new surroundings

As Tobi reminded us, we all want to feel we belong and fit in. So you should try to help volunteers acclimate to your organization or community. This involves understanding that they will experience a lot of conflicting emotions: surprise, anticipation, joy, fear, ambiguity. You also need to recognize that they will be looking for “social clues” and support.

To help us understand some of the emotions volunteers experience and how to help them deal with these, Tobi introduced the SCARF neuroleadership model. This looks at human emotions including: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness – and their effects on teams in particular. She offered examples of ways to support these emotions with your volunteers, such as: to help reassure volunteers (certainty) you might offer a well defined schedule or calendar for the team; provide a handbook;  and have regular scheduled meetings or training.

To help your new volunteers through their emotional turmoil, Tobi suggests:

  • Be sure these emotions aren’t discounted or ignored
  • Prioritize trust-building, connecting, etc. in your onboarding process
  • Understand that people need time to get to know one another
  • While we are reluctant to talk about fear, acknowledge that some people will feel very unsure of themselves and may need support from staff or other volunteers.

4. It helps you “Convert Joiners to Stayers”

Tobi offered the following recommendations to put in place to help "convert your volunteer joiners to stayers":

  • Rituals: establish safety – e.g., explain processes, e.g., "we always run the meeting this way..."
  • Relationships: develop social capital, obligation, socialization – when you feel closely knit with the other volunteers, you won’t want to let them down
  • Training: offer training to increase self confidence, help connect the dots and provide a roadmap
  • Cost-benefit analysis: calculating and demonstrating the impact of the time your volunteers are investing in the organization will help them understand their true purpose

Webinar Video & Presentation, Volunteer Journey Worksheet and ROI Calculator Available

You can watch the full webinar video (including a special Overtime Q&A session) or check out the slide presentation and other resources here.

To help you understand the onboarding volunteer journey, Tobi offered a “Volunteer Onboarding Journey Worksheet” – available here – along with other resources, such as a Volunteer ROI Calculator.

You might also want to check out Tobi’s blog post: Five Things to Remember When Welcoming New Volunteers. One of the five things includes:

Commitment is a Process, More than a Destination – Even after volunteers have been recruited, they are still checking out your organization and the people who work and volunteer there. We often think onboarding is all about paperwork, orientation, and training. In reality, volunteers are still making a decision about whether or not they will stay.

Good luck with your volunteer onboarding!

As Tobi demonstrated in this Expert Webinar, with effective onboarding, you can “inspire deeper participation and commitment” among your amazing team of volunteers.

Read More: The Top 14 Free and Inexpensive Volunteer Management Software Solutions For Any Organization

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