Starting Volunteers Off Right

Volunteerism October 27, 2011

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

About This Guide

This article has been developed by Wild Apricot to help you get your new volunteers off to a good start. It outlines critical steps and offers tips and resources to help you develop a new volunteer welcome and orientation process or fine-tune your existing procedures.  

Starting Volunteers Off Right

If volunteers are the lifeblood of your organization, you want to ensure that they have a positive experience with your organization – one that motivates them to become active, committed team members. And making a good first impression can go a long way towards creating that volunteer bond.

Do you have a process for welcoming, orienting, onboarding and engaging your volunteers?

Here are some ideas and steps to take to start your new volunteers off right.

Volunteer Recruitment Checklist

Why develop a process for welcoming or onboarding new volunteers?

When we say “process”, we’re not necessarily suggesting you develop a highly structured training program to initiate your new volunteers. In fact, volunteer development experts, such as Tobi Johnsonsuggest that organizations stop thinking in terms of “new volunteer orientation as an event. Rather, it involves a process of adaptation where volunteers experience a wide range of emotions internally — surprise, fear, ambiguity, etc. — while they wrestle with past and current expectations and make sense of their new environment. So, we must support them accordingly.”

Your onboarding process should be tailored to the different types of volunteers you have, as well as your organizational culture. But once developed, consistency is key. It’s important that all of your staff and volunteers involved in volunteer management offer a united front in welcoming and orienting new volunteers, based on shared goals, consistent information and process.

Having a well thought out onboarding process can:

  • Make volunteers feel welcome and part of your team from the start.
  • Help all new volunteers or voluntourists develop a solid understanding of your organization – it’s mission, goals and culture.
  • Build engagement and commitment. By taking the opportunity to demonstrate how important their efforts are towards making an impact, you can develop their connection with your organization, and hopefully ensure they stick around.
  • Address legal/liability/insurance issues – by ensuring all volunteers are properly briefed or prepared for their roles.

Start With These 5 Critical Steps

To get your volunteers off to a good start, here are 5 critical steps to follow:

Step #1: Develop a plan

Whether you decide to meet with volunteers one-on-one or plan to orient volunteers in teams, you shouldn’t simply do it “on the fly”. With a little planning, you can develop a framework that your volunteer leaders can customize to suit individuals or teams.

  • Start by getting to know your volunteers to understand their goals, abilities and interests
The process of getting to know your new volunteers starts in your screening or interview process. You likely asked a number of questions and had a conversation with each volunteer. If you’ve kept track of that information it can help you customize each new volunteer’s orientation or onboarding. There should also be additional information available through your membership database. Take a look at their member, donor or volunteer profile for insight into their background and involvement with your organization.

You might also want to look at different types of volunteers (leadership volunteers; short-term, task-focused volunteers; pro-bono or skills-based contributors, etc.) to customize your basic orientation to suit different individuals or groups. 

For example, in a post a while back, Nancy Schwartz outlined the New York Cares’ “Volunteer Engagement Scale (VES),” that they use “to pinpoint the best way to motivate volunteer movement from episodic to more engaged participation.” They identified “VES categories” of volunteers which included, for example: “Episodic Contributor”, “Short-term Contributor”, “Fully Engaged Volunteer, “ “Committed Leader”, etc.)

By understanding your volunteers, you can determine the best approaches for orientation and job or task training.

  • Decide who should be involved:
Your organization may have staff that manage or coordinate volunteers, but you might also want to consider involving volunteers (e.g., recruitment committee members, board members, etc.) to help out. 

You should also give some thought to the long-term process of welcoming and training. What about providing mentors or a buddy system? Or perhaps you want to organize small team meetings based on the type of volunteer roles they’ll be playing. Are there committee chairs who should participate or be responsible for their team’s orientations?
  • Identify and/or develop the tools and resources you’ll need:

You don’t want to burden the new volunteer with mountains of paper or lists of required reading in their first visit. But there are a number of resources that you should provide at some point during their orientation. For example:

    • Does each volunteer role have a job description? Volunteer experts suggest that the volunteer experience (for all involved) can be easily derailed if there isn’t clear communication about expectations and roles.
    • Do you have a volunteer handbook or training manual?

As Tobi Johnson suggests, “A Volunteer Handbook is not the same as a Training Manual, covering key technical aspects of the job they will do. Instead, Handbooks help volunteers acclimate to your organization by providing social clues about “how things are done around here.” A high-quality Handbook can also inspire volunteers to see what’s possible as a result of their service.

Volunteer Handbooks can also help deepen levels of engagement. When volunteers join, many haven’t yet fully committed to your program and are still checking you out. A well-written, informative, and approachable Handbook answers three critical personal questions your new recruits are asking themselves — does this organization have the capacity to make a difference in the world? Can I make a difference here? Will I fit in?

    • Do you have a structure in place for communication and performance management? Apparently, statistics suggest that lack of guidance and mentoring can have a huge impact on volunteer turnover. If volunteers feel their efforts aren’t valued or are frustrated with a lack of communication, they will leave. And since turnover is both time-consuming and costly (not to mention the negative feelings of those who are leaving), it’s important to put processes in place for on-going communication and feedback of volunteers.

Step #2: Make new volunteers feel welcome

Whether you have a few new recruits for a specific project, or you’re going through an entire changing of the volunteer guard, offering a warm welcome lays the foundation for building a meaningful long-term relationship. After all, the first day or first meeting is like a first date. So first impressions really do count. If volunteers have a negative first day or meeting, they may not make it to the second (date) and can go looking for a more compatible organizational partner with whom to share their volunteer time and skills.

You’re probably thinking that it goes without saying that your organization offers a welcoming first impression. But think back to your first experience with your organization or your first volunteer role. Were you warmly welcomed by the staff, board or membership committee chair? Or were you expected to hit the ground running during a first event or project? In small organizations where busy volunteers are feeling swamped, they may be so glad to have a new recruit that they forget to offer a proper welcome.

But while you need to introduce the new volunteer to the organization, you don’t want to offer a lecture-style talk. Instead, offer an overview of the organization – use examples to tell your story and build the volunteer’s enthusiasm. But also be sure to engage in two-way conversation to get to know this person, their volunteer goals and expectations. Remember it’s personal – each individual is making a personal commitment to your organization. So it's important to take the time to understand their motivation, and explain the importance of his/her role as part of your team.

Step #3: Go beyond an orientation - demonstrate how volunteer efforts will make a difference

All volunteers, regardless of their assignment area, should receive an orientation about the organization itself. This session may or may not be provided in the volunteer's first visit or meeting, but should take place before he/she is fully active in their new role. But as Tobi Johnson reminds us "volunteer orientation is a process not an event."

Volunteering is powerful, personal and emotional - and every volunteer has their own reasons for their commitment to your organization. So to ensure each individual feels connected with your mission and your team, you need to instill the 4 key emotions (as illustrated in the Dale Carnegie Training infographic clip) that lead to engagement:

    1. Enthusiasm
    2. Inspiration
    3. Empowerment
    4. Confidence

Research into employee engagement, conducted by Dale Carnegie Training and MSW and ARS Research, found that these four emotions are some of the main drivers of engagement. While volunteers aren’t paid for their efforts, the same principles apply to their motivation in their unpaid roles. This means that in any orientation or onboarding, you need to be sure to demonstrate how their efforts will make a difference to build their enthusiasm and inspire their work.

Understanding how their efforts make an impact will make a difference to your volunteer’s experience and commitment

Every volunteer has his or her own reasons for getting involved with your organization. They may want to give something back to their community or their profession. But in addition, they want to gain a sense of accomplishment for their endeavors and know that their efforts made a difference.

In a Nonprofit Blog Carnival round-up that we hosted about Improving the Volunteer Experience, we included a great post by Joanne Fritz about the importance of “enchanting your volunteers.” Joanne quotes Guy Kawasaki (from his book Enchanted) who advises organizations to:

...make your goals for volunteers ambitious ones. If there is one thing that volunteers want, it's to know that they are doing something important and that they are really making a difference. So don't waste your volunteers' time by setting piddling goals. It's a terrible waste. Make your goals big, even grandiose. It's much better to overuse volunteers than to underuse them, and better to reach for the impossible than to settle for the merely doable.

What does your orientation look like ?

The formality and structure of your volunteer orientation will depend on the nature of your organization, the type of volunteers (e.g., one-time or micro-volunteers versus year-round, committee or board roles) and job they will perform. The format can range from an intimate one-on-one meeting to a gathering of a new volunteer team.

When developing a new orientation, consider the following:

  • What is the individual’s background with or knowledge of the organization?
  • How complex is the volunteer job?
  • Does this individual have prior experience with this type of role?
  • What are the legal or liability issues around the job to be performed?

Orientation formats

Once you’ve identified the different types of volunteers and roles, you can think about how to best offer the orientation. For example:

  • Can some of the documents be available online for review prior to a face-to-face session?
  • Could long-term volunteers offer their insight and experience?
  • Are there documents or procedure manuals that some volunteers are required to read prior to starting their job? If so, how can you make these available and/or confirm their comprehension?
  • Do you offer mentors or buddies to orient new volunteers and help them through their early days? If so, are they prepared to offer a full and consistent orientation?

What should your orientation include?

While onboarding sessions will differ depending on the volunteer job tasks, here is an overview of the type of information you might want to include in your general orientation:

  • An overview of the organization – its mission, vision, values
  • An outline of the organizational structure, e.g., key staff members, leadership volunteers and an explanation of their roles
  • A general overview of the type of volunteer jobs performed at your organization
  • A position or job description that outlines specific expectations for their role
  • Physical orientation - help newcomers find their way around - e.g., show the volunteer creature-comfort such as the coat closet, rest rooms, and where to get coffee. Begin your tour with the volunteer's own work space.
  • An outline of any policies, rules, and procedures
  • An overview of any volunteer training that is required and pertinent schedules
  • Contact information and emergency procedures

Step #4: Offer training that motivates and engages volunteers

Some volunteer roles require specific training that goes beyond a simple orientation. And according to Tobi Johnson, Good Training Means Better Retention. Whether it be a simple orientation to the policies, procedures, and mission of the organization or a five-day boot camp of complex technical information volunteers must master before they are able to provide direct service, all volunteers need be provided information that will help them do their job to the best of their ability.”

Finding the right kind of training

But you don’t want to scare volunteers away with daunting amounts of information and boring presentations. Tobi suggests that to “Design Volunteer Training that Helps (Not Hurts) Learning” you need to better understand how our brains process information and learn. We should also think about volunteer training in terms of “talent development”. So volunteer managers need to consider the following when developing training programs:

  • Focus on learning style: new research suggests that people learn better with informal versus formal, classroom-style training. Peer-to peer training is especially effective.
  • Integrate practice into training: Tobi Johnson suggests that a “stair step” structure is the most effective architecture for the transfer of learning for novices and is a great way to integrate timely practice into learning. With this approach, the instructor explains the concept, illustrates how to do the skill, invites learners to try it, and finally gives supportive feedback. ... Case studies and scenarios lend themselves to this type of architecture and give volunteers the chance to practice before they try their new skills out in the real world.
  • Feed the right emotions – research suggests that learning is fueled by these three hormones:
    • Adrenaline, fueled by anxiety and our “fight or flight” response, makes it hard for the neurotransmitters to carry messages across the synapses in your brain; this causes learners to “blank out” on tests.
    • Endorphins are produced when we relax, exercise, laugh, or learn new things. If we produce calming hormones, they can counteract the limiting effects of stress.
    • Dopamine is released in the brain when something is perceived as new, exciting, or rewarding. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses; it enables us not only to see rewards but to also take action to move toward them.

As Tobi suggests, “for many volunteers, learning new things is very rewarding; so, training itself can help them retain new information. On the other hand, if dopamine levels are low new information goes in one ear and out the other.”

  • Avoid information overload – don’t overwhelm new recruits with too much information! Tobi suggests that “research estimates that only 3-5 pieces of information can be stored in the working memory at a time. If our working memory is corrupted by cognitive overload, we are unable to transfer knowledge into our long-term memory, which has much greater capacity for information storage." To help, consider:
    • Removing any content that is not absolutely “need to know” (give learners links to additional optional info they can read on their own)
    • Relate new information to existing knowledge learners may have (icebreakers are great ways for learners to share their own personal experiences with the topic at hand)
    • Maintain a consistent look and feel to the training materials (fonts, colors, graphics, etc.)
    • Use simple, flat graphics and visuals versus those that are complex and overly detailed (cartoons are great, if they are done well)
    • Use visuals - to extend the capacity of the working memory, explain visuals with audio (versus text, which uses too much “brain bandwidth”)

Motivating volunteers to ensure it is a rewarding experience

In a post a few years back, Rebecca Leaman offered some insight into volunteer motivation in her post: Motivating your volunteers Needs Barriers and Psychology 101. Leaman explains:

“Rewards are not the most powerful kind of human motivation — because a reward by definition follows the act. Motivation, on the other hand, is what gives the volunteer a reason to step up in the first place. And just as there are two ways to reward someone — to give something they like, or take away something they don’t like — motivation also has two sides.

We can create opportunities to volunteer that are designed meet the needs of our supporters, or we can remove the barriers that might keep them from volunteering. Ideally, we’ll do both — but removing the barriers has to come first, if volunteer activities can hope to compete with all the other attractive demands on busy people’s time and attention.”

Step #5: Say thank you and recognize their efforts

We all want to know if we’re doing a good job or if there is room for improvement. And we also want to have our efforts acknowledged or recognized. This is especially true of volunteers who are offer their time and talents to help meet your mission.

As we’ve noted in past blog posts, organizations often think a lot about volunteer recognition during Volunteer Week, but it’s important to thank volunteers regularly and let them know that all of their efforts are appreciated and make an impact on the organization. So make volunteer recognition a priority for the entire organization - and get buy-in from Committee Chairs and event organizers through to the Board of Directors. Say thank you often and sincerely.

Formalize your communications and feedback process

But it isn’t just about saying thank-you at the end of the day or the end of a project. Two-way communication and feedback needs to be initiated in the volunteer’s welcome process and maintained throughout their volunteer experience.

Just as you shouldn’t conduct the new volunteer’s welcome and orientation on the fly, don’t leave the process of offering feedback and thanking volunteers to chance. It’s important to formalize the process of checking in with volunteers and offering feedback on their efforts. This could take place through one-on-one conversations with their volunteer leader or staff volunteer coordinator. It may also be through a call or meeting with a mentor or volunteer buddy. Not only should you be checking to ensure the volunteer understands his/her role and is confident about their tasks, but you also need to address any issues or questions he/she may have. With regular communication and feedback, volunteers will be more confident in their tasks, which leads to higher satisfaction with their experience and motivation to stay involved with your organization for the long term.

Volunteer Recruitment Checklist

New Volunteer Checklist and Additional Resources to Help Get you Started

We hope this article offers some help in getting your new volunteers off to a good start. If you are creating a new volunteer welcome process or refreshing your existing procedures, you might want to use our New Volunteer Checklist.

In addition, here are some helpful blog posts, articles and guides:

Blog posts on the Wild Apricot Blog:

Volunteer orientation and training resources:


Here are some of the sources we used to prepare this article:

  Image source:  Hands holding pieces of a puzzle...courtesy of
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