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Volunteer Orientation and Training for Nonprofits: The Ultimate Guide

Tatiana Morand Avatar
Tatiana Morand
Published on April 9, 2021

Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations.

With shoestring budgets and big missions, many nonprofits rely heavily on committed volunteers to help carry out their work.

Luckily, people are ready and willing to help.

Around 30 per cent of US adults and 44 per cent of Canadian adults volunteer their time each year, and a huge majority – 72 per cent – are entirely dedicated to serving a single cause.

But there’s a catch: volunteer management continues to be a major problem for the nonprofit sector.

Research shows that although more people are volunteering their time than ever, retention rates are getting worse – revealing that many volunteers are not returning to their posts.

As a nonprofit leader or volunteer manager, how can you ensure your organization is able to retain volunteers over the long term?

An effective volunteer orientation and training program can go a long way toward engaging volunteers, helping them understand their impact and empowering them to contribute to your cause on an ongoing basis.

If volunteers are the lifeblood of your organization, you want to ensure that they have a positive experience with your organization – one thatmotivates them to become active, committed team members.

Having a well-thought-out onboarding process can:

  • Help volunteers feel welcome and part of your team from the start.
  • Help all new volunteersdevelop a solid understanding of your organization – its 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.

So, how can you get started creating a solid volunteer orientation and training program? Easy – follow this guide!

Read More: How to Create a Volunteer Engagement Strategy that Actually Works

Before Getting Started

Before you jump into designing a volunteer orientation and training program, make sure your team is prepared by reviewing these key considerations.

Know the difference between orientation and training

It’s important not to confuse volunteer orientation with volunteer training.

Volunteer orientation is an ongoing process of:

  • Making new volunteers feel welcome when they come on board.
  • Helping new volunteers understand your work and mission.
  • Empowering volunteers with the information they need to effectively navigate your organization and their roles, including basic policies and procedures.
  • Ensuring volunteers have access to a point person who can answer their questions and guide them as needed.

Volunteer training focuses on:

  • The specific details of each volunteer’s unique role.
  • Helping volunteers learn about the systems and processes related to their role.
  • Introducing volunteers to the team members they’ll be working with or supporting.
  • Creating access to the tools and resources volunteers will need as part of their role.

Who will be creating, delivering and managing your volunteer orientation and training?

Your organization may have staff that manage or coordinate volunteers, but you might also want to consider involving volunteers themselves (e.g., recruitment committee members, board members, etc.) to help out, especially if you have a lot of volunteers to organize.

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 different types of volunteer roles. Are there committee chairs who should participate or be responsible for their team’s orientations?

What are the unique needs of your particular volunteer base?

Your onboarding process should be tailored to the different types of volunteers you have, as well as your organizational culture.

For example, your orientation program may need to look slightly different for volunteers who will be interacting directly with service users versus those whose roles are entirely administrative.

Think about first impressions

Offering a warm welcome to your new volunteers is critical to laying the foundation for a meaningful long-term relationship.

After all, the first day or first meeting is like a first date: 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?

Understand the drivers of engagement

Volunteering is powerful, personal and emotional – and every volunteer has their own reasons for their commitment to your organization.

To ensure each individual feels connected with your mission and your team, it’s important to instill the four key emotions that have been proven to lead to engagement:

  1. Enthusiasm: Building volunteers’ enthusiasm for your mission starts with you. Your volunteer orientation and training program offers a critical opportunity to share your team’s passion and commitment – and instill the same passion and commitment in your volunteers.
  2. Inspiration: Use your orientation and training program to inspire your new volunteers. Share stories of impact and help them make a direct connection between that impact and their own work with your organization.
  3. Empowerment: By equipping your volunteers with all of the information, resources and tools they’ll need to succeed in their roles, you’ll be empowering them to fulfill their duties with skill and confidence.
  4. Confidence: Speaking of confidence, it’s critical that you help your volunteers feel ready to jump into their roles. Confidence starts with knowledge and regular access to support.

Volunteer Recruitment Checklist

The Basics of Volunteer Orientation

Volunteer orientation can take place in any number of ways. Depending on the needs and resources available to your organization and your volunteers, you may decide to offer orientation sessions on a one-on-one basis or in group sessions.

Orientation could be just a single session or a series of meetings, and could take place either in-person or online (whether or not COVID-19 restrictions are a consideration!). It’s entirely up to you and your volunteers to decide what works best.

The most important consideration here is timing: Orientation should take place before a volunteer is fully active in their role.

However you decide to deliver orientation, 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.

Goals of Volunteer Orientation

A good volunteer orientation process:

  • Informs volunteers about your mission
  • Educates them about different volunteer opportunities
  • Establishes goals for volunteers
  • Safeguards against common mishaps
  • Helps you learn more about them
  • Excites volunteers to make a difference

Key Topics to Cover

What should you include in your volunteer orientation program?

While onboarding will differ depending on the volunteer job tasks required by your organization, here are our suggestions for what to cover – which you can and should adapt for your particular needs.

General information about the organization

Provide your volunteers with information about:

  • Your organization’s mission and service offerings
  • History of your nonprofit
  • Your organization’s current goals, objectives and strategic plan
  • Your organizational structure (or just the portion relevant to your volunteers)
  • Policies and procedures related to your organization’s operations and culture
  • Overview or tour of your facilities and staff team

Information specific to volunteers

Not to be confused with volunteer training, role-specific information provided during orientation can include:

  • Your volunteer mission statement
  • An overview of how volunteers support your organization’s mission, including different types of roles
  • A list of key contacts

Insights into the impact they’ll help to create

This is where you can focus on building enthusiasm for your cause. It’s critical to help your volunteers understand that their contributions will directly support your mission – and that your mission is worth supporting.

You could consider:

  • Sharing stories demonstrating the impact your organization has helped to create
  • Offering testimonials from long-time volunteers about the value they see in their work
  • Introducing volunteers directly to someone who has benefitted from your mission, including by inviting that individual to appear as a special guest at your orientation sessions

Review of your volunteer handbook or manual

If you don’t already have a volunteer handbook or manual, now is a great time to consider creating one!

Your handbook should include all of the information shared during orientation and more. Here’s an example of what a standard volunteer handbook might look like:

  • Your nonprofit’s mission statement, history and organizational structure
  • Your volunteer mission statement
  • General rules, procedures and expectations for volunteers
  • A directory of staff and volunteer contacts
  • Information about tracking volunteer hours
  • Policies such as reimbursement for expenses incurred and termination of the volunteer relationship
  • An overview of volunteer training required for different roles
  • Information about emergency procedures

Other Considerations

What else do you need to know in order to design and deliver an effective volunteer orientation program?

Get to know your volunteers

Getting to know your volunteers can help you customize each new volunteer’s orientation or onboarding experience.

The process of getting to know your new volunteers starts with your screening or interview process. You likely asked a number of questions and had a conversation with each volunteer before they were recruited. Refer back to that information to gather insights in your volunteer’s unique interests.

There should also be additional information available through yourmembership database. Take a look at their member, donor or volunteer profile for insight into their background and involvement with your organization.

Read More: The Top 15 Free and Inexpensive Volunteer Management Software Solutions for Any Organization

Adapt orientation format to different learning styles

The formality, structure and frequency 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.

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?

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 during their orientation session or ensure volunteers are connected with the appropriate training opportunities?
  • 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?

Follow up and provide a point of contact

Volunteer orientation doesn’t end the moment your formal orientation session(s) end.

Once your new volunteers have been through your orientation program, it’s critical to follow up with each individual volunteer to ensure they have everything they need and feel confident about getting started.

This is also a good time to make sure they’re aware of their primary contact and feel comfortable knowing they can reach out with questions at any time.

The Basics of Volunteer Training

Some volunteer roles require specific training that goes beyond a simple orientation.

For example, if you’re training a group of volunteers for specific roles at a major event, your training program may include:

  • A description of their specific role and the roles of the other volunteers they may be working with
  • A floor plan of the event space
  • A walk-through of the event space, if possible
  • An overview of the event agenda and where their tasks fit in
  • A list of key contacts prior to the event and on the day
  • Information about dress code, volunteer shifts, meeting times, etc.

Regardless of the role your volunteers are training for, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Be clear and specific about their role, how their role fits in with the broader event/program/organization and what is expected of them
  • Provide a range of resources and tools to empower them with the information they need to learn and succeed
  • Where possible, walk them through the specific tasks related with their role (bridging concept with practice)
  • Offer an open line of communication by ensuring they have access to key contacts
  • Encourage volunteers to engage with and support one another
  • Think about what information you would need to succeed in the same role

Tips for Effective Training Methods

When designing training procedures for these volunteers, we should also think in terms of“talent development”.

A 2017 survey found that 77 per cent of nonprofits say skilled volunteers could significantly improve their organization’s practices. So how can you help make sure your training procedures are maximizing the talents and skills of your volunteers?

Here are our suggestions:

  • 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:Go beyond simply sharing a description of a certain task. Explain the concept, illustrate how to do the skill, invite learners to try it and give 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.
  • Make learning enjoyable: Training should be delivered in a relaxed atmosphere with lots of opportunities for breaks, questions and conversation.
  • Avoid information overload: Don’t overwhelm new recruits with too much information! Research shows that only three to five pieces of information can be stored in a person’s working memory at a time. To help reduce information overload, consider:

    • Removing any unnecessary content.
    • Using plain language and avoiding blocks of text in written materials.
    • Relating new information to existing knowledge or common experiences.
    • Using visuals in place of words, including graphics, pictures and videos.
    • Breaking up training into shorter sessions.

    For more insights on how to design an effective volunteer training program, check out this article from VolunteerPro and this one from VolunteerHub.

    Keep Your Volunteers Engaged

    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 offering their time and talents to help meet your mission.

    Unfortunately, studies show there’s a major gap between the impact volunteers are creating and how aware they are of that impact: a 2017 survey found that 75 per cent of millennials say they would volunteer more time if they had a better understanding of the impact they were having.


    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.

    You can do this by making volunteer recognition a priority for the entire organization.Say thank you often and sincerely.

    What about volunteer communication and performance management? 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 ongoing communication and feedback.

    Read More: The Ultimate Volunteer Appreciation Guide

    A Final Note

    So, you’re all set! Well, for now, that is.

    Remember: Volunteer orientation training is an ongoing, evolving process. It’s great to start strong with a solid program in place, but don’t forget to adjust course as needed based on feedback from your volunteers and your own observations on what could be improved.

    Let us know how your volunteer orientation and training efforts are going in the comments!

    And don’t forget to check out the resources shared in this article for more information:



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