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Volunteer Training for Nonprofits: How to Build Your Dream Team!

Author: Sonia Urlando
April 28, 2023
🕑 12 min read

So you’ve planned out your yearly campaigns and events. You’ve gotten board approval, your team is buzzing and you’ve recruited a team of all star volunteers. The next step? It’s volunteer training and orientation time!

Training your volunteers is how you set them up for success and keep them for the long run. But how do you make sure it goes off without a hitch?

Look no further than this trusty guide!

Get Pumped: Why Volunteer Training and Orientation is Essential

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. In fact, unpaid volunteers are often the largest segment of most organizations’ teams!

However, without the volunteer training to support these essential team members, things can get sticky.

Unfortunately, 51% of nonprofits report challenges with volunteer retention. This means lost relationships, and a whole chunk of time you now need to sink into volunteer recruitment (which 29% of nonprofits say isn’t always feasible!).

There are plenty of people who are ready and willing to help causes they believe in—but they need to orientation and training to know:

  • What their job is
  • How to do it
  • Why it matters

If volunteers are the lifeblood of your organization, you want to ensure that they have an experience that motivates them to become active, committed team members.

Let’s explore how volunteer orientation and training can support that relationship!

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Benefits of Volunteer Training and Orientation

While you might be eager to get your volunteers hustling, be sure to put the time into a well-thought-out volunteer orientation and training program.

Doing this for your volunteers can:

  • Inspire participation, commitment and a sense of belonging. Show people that they’re a valued part of the team!
  • Create meaningful relationships among volunteers. What’s more important to nonprofits than community? When volunteers build connections with one another, they have one more reason to show up for your cause.
  • Make a comfortable working relationship between volunteers and manager. Trust is the foundation of any relationship! When people feel comfortable with who’s managing them, they’ll be more likely to give their best.
  • Foster more safety and openness. Addressing legal, liability, safety and insurance issues is a must-do. Preparing volunteers for their roles, and explaining why rules work the way they do, keeps communication open.
  • Motivate volunteers to engage and improve morale. Good training will keep volunteers present and motivated even when challenges arise.
  • Connect volunteers with your mission. With a rich understanding of the mission, goals and culture of your organization, your volunteers will be inspired to do more.
  • Boost community impact. Passionate volunteers have the power to make a huge difference in your community. Training volunteers makes them extra equipped to provide real support!

Prepping for Success: Tips and Tricks for Volunteer Training

Want to give your very best to your volunteers? Get started with these tips to help you prepare for volunteer management!

1) Know the difference between orientation and training

While we use the words “orientation” and “training” together, they actually cover different parts of volunteer management!

Volunteer orientation is an ongoing process of helping volunteers:

  • Feel welcome when they come on board
  • Understand your work and mission
  • Receive the information they need to do their best within their role—a volunteer handbook should cover your basic policies and procedures
  • Connect with 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

2) Decide who will create, deliver and manage your volunteer orientation and training

Your organization may have staff that manage or coordinate volunteers, but that doesn’t mean they have to do the work themselves.

A few strategies and supports you can tap into include:

  • Asking for help from your board of directors (who are volunteers themselves!)
  • Using a volunteer mentorship or buddy system
  • Holding smell team meetings for different volunteer roles
  • Calling on recruitment committee chairs to participate in (or run) orientations

Delegating the work training volunteers will save you valuable brain space—and form new connections in your organization!

3) Identify 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 organization’s culture.

For example, orientation will look slightly different for volunteers who will be interacting directly with community members versus those whose roles are entirely administrative!

4) Think about first impressions

Offering a warm welcome to your new volunteers is how you lay the foundation of a meaningful long-term relationship! 

Think of the first meeting as a first date—if you kick off with a bad impression, you might not be getting a call back. Volunteers want to offer their time and skills to organizations that not only have a great cause, but also give them a supportive space to do their best.

Opening with gratitude and space to ask questions will make your space much more inviting!

5) 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 volunteer feels connected with your mission and your team, it’s important to work with 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 feelings in your volunteers!
  2. Inspiration: People want to know their work will make a difference. 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 your volunteers feel ready to jump into their roles. Confidence starts with knowledge and regular access to support.

6) Develop a plan and schedule that works for everyone

Send out a poll for volunteer availability, and then build out a schedule that works for everybody. After all, you want people to be able to attend their shifts!

Be clear on when things start and end, as well as everyone’s responsibilities. To be safe, make a list of back-up help in case some of your volunteers have to pull back. 

Volunteer Orientation: The Fun Part

Orientation is where the magic happens, and there’s no one right way to do it! Depending on your needs and resources, you might either hold training on a one-on-one basis or in one or more group sessions. You can also either go the in-person or virtual route.

Just be sure to kick off volunteer orientation before a volunteer is active in their role, and DON’T do it on the fly. A structured training orientation session is the key to success!

The goals of volunteer orientation are to:

  • Inform volunteers about your mission
  • Educate them about different volunteer opportunities
  • Establish goals for volunteers
  • Safeguard against common mishaps
  • Help you learn more about them
  • Excite volunteers to make a difference

What to cover in your volunteer orientation:

It might feel like there’s a lot of information to get through in your volunteer orientation, but it can be broken down into 10 basics:

  1. Welcome volunteers with open arms to show gratitude for their support! Genuinely get to know who they are, and create a warm environment.
  2. Share your organization’s history, mission and goals so they have the most up-to-date information. You might be surprised by what people don’t yet know.
  3. Share their roles and responsibilities to establish expectations and guidelines. If anyone feels like they might not be a good fit for a role, this is a way to figure that out nice and quick.
  4. Show volunteers insights into the impact they’ll help create. Everyone wants to make a difference, and this will get them inspired from the very first meeting!
  5. Introduce volunteers to staff and fellow volunteers through creative icebreakers. The more familiar faces there are, the more connected people will feel.
  6. Review your volunteer handbook or manual to familiarize everyone with your policies. Training volunteers on the legal parts of your policies is especially important.
  7. Offer hands-on training and practice opportunities. Be sure to incorporate different learning styles so everyone feels confident in their training!
  8. Give volunteers a tour of facilities and available resources. This’ll keep volunteers from feeling like strangers in their roles and empower them to do their best.
  9. Keep in touch and provide ongoing support and feedback. Keep communication open, and make sure volunteers have a set point of contact for any questions or concerns.
  10. Ask for volunteers’ input and feedback. Their experience in the role will keep you on top of what’s working and what could benefit from a change.

Volunteer Training: Ready, Set, ACTION!

Many volunteer roles require specific training that goes beyond a simple orientation. That’s where a volunteer training program would come in!

Volunteer Training Guidelines

No matter what kind of role you’re training volunteers for, these are a few evergreen guidelines:

  • Be clear and specific about their role. This includes what the responsibilities are and how it fits in with the broader event/program/organization. If there’s an agenda, clearly identify where their tasks fit in.
  • Provide a range of resources and tools to empower them with the information they need to learn and succeed. This could include a volunteer handbook, or a floor plan and walk-through of an event space.
  • Where possible, walk them through the specific tasks related to their role. Giving them space to practice builds confidence, and helps you troubleshoot any issues or questions on the spot!
  • Give them access to key contacts for an open line of communication. Knowing who to go to with questions will reduce confusion and help them feel supported.
  • Encourage volunteers to engage with and support one another. Like we said, building community is a must-do—and will make your team all the more connected!
  • Think about what information you would need to succeed in the same role. Put yourself in your volunteers’ shoes—what helped you when you first started with your nonprofit training? If you had a rocky experience, what could have made it better? 

Tips for Effective Training 

When designing training procedures for these volunteers, we should also think in terms of“ talent development”. The best thing you can do for your volunteers (and your organization!) is to find ways to maximize their skills and talents.

Here are our suggestions:

  • Focus on learning styles: 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. A little roleplay goes a long way!
  • 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! 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 like graphics, pictures and videos.
    • Breaking up training into shorter sessions.

Keep Your Volunteers Engaged

We all want to know if we’re doing a good job or if there is room for improvement! And who doesn’t feel good when their efforts are given special recognition?

Volunteers offer their time and talents to your organization out of love for your mission. If they feel unappreciated, or can’t see the impact of their work, you might end up losing them.

The trick to retaining volunteers? Communication!

Regular feedback keeps volunteers on top of their role, shows them places to grow and keeps them engaged with your organization. Even more important is saying thank you, often and sincerely.

Volunteer appreciation should always be a priority. Not only will it make people feel warm, but it’ll also show them the difference they’re making—and that’s what volunteering is all about.

8 Steps to Organize Your Volunteers for Maximum Impact

Organizing your volunteers from the first meeting is the key to finding success with long-term volunteer management.

Here are 8 steps to organize your volunteers and make the most of your volunteer training program:

1) Set goals and objectives for volunteer training

Goal-setting is step number one in taking on any new project. Finding your footing, measuring success and working well with other people is all about knowing what it is you want! Then, all you have to do is make it measurable.

To quote our friends over at Asana: “A goal is an achievable outcome that is generally broad and longer term while an objective is shorter term and defines measurable actions to achieve an overall goal.”

So, for example: your goal might be to have your volunteers understand their role within your organization and feel excited to kick off. A couple of objectives you could set might include reviewing the handbook and holding an icebreaker activity.

2) Identify your ideal volunteer profile

Getting to know your volunteers is a must-do! Not only will it build up relationships, but it’ll also give you an idea of how to best  use their skills and talents.

Chatting with them individually is a great start, especially if you put their information into an Excel sheet. But if you want to simplify the process, you can also use membership management software to your advantage!

Have your volunteers fill out an online registration form with their:

  • Name
  • Availability
  • Past experience volunteering
  • Reason for joining your organization
  • Top 3 picks for roles (if you’ve already got them listed!)

Now you have a complete and accurate list of volunteers, and you know who is best suited for each task!

3) Assign roles and responsibilities

Once you have a list of tasks you’d like your volunteers to cover, go through your volunteer database and choose the best picks. This is why the top 3 choices are important—it helps you make sure everyone gets something they feel confident in!

Send over a document highlighting the key parts of each role and where to start. Also, make them aware of typical problems that arise and what to do. Finally, include your contact person’s phone number in case they run into any major roadblocks and really need your help.

4) Create a training and orientation plan

Remember those 10 things to include in your volunteer orientation training? It’s time for them to shine! Write out a detailed plan, send it to your volunteer trainers and review it prior to training—you want everyone involved in the process to feel prepared.

5) Keep track of volunteer activities and progress

To keep track of how things are going, we suggest creating a volunteer tracking document. This includes the agenda, each task and who is responsible for it. Hold specific times for people to sign in and out of their shifts!

Depending on if volunteering is for online work or in-person event, you could:

  • Make a physical check-in sheet at Volunteer HQ
  • Share an excel sheet online
  • Use event software for check-ins

No matter what your sheet looks like, check-ins are essential. This shows progress, alerts you to no-shows and gives you the opportunity to troubleshoot before a small issue becomes big.

6) Recognize and appreciate volunteers’ hard work and dedication

For you, reward comes from everything running smoothly with a stellar team of accountable and loyal volunteers. For your volunteers, reward comes in the form of developing their skills, passions and knowing they’ve made a difference!

A lot of sources recommend physical thank yous, like a $10 Starbucks gift card. While everyone loves a treat, getting personal is what will leave a lasting impression on volunteers.

Champion the work they did, shouting out specific examples to your whole team! You can also write personal thank you cards that highlight your favorite parts of working with them. Gratitude and recognition can go a long way.

7) Evaluate your volunteer training program and make improvements

Don’t expect to get your volunteer training program completely right on the first try! After each training, send out a volunteer survey on how you did. All feedback is good feedback, and key insight into what can be improved in the future!

8) Implement changes and updates as needed

Don’t feel like you have to stick with the same volunteer orientation program that’s always been around. In fact, one of the best things you can do is make feedback-based changes and see how things improve!

Even if you’re simply updating systems to match new technology or unprecedented circumstances (we all remember that push to virtual), remember to stay flexible.

Keep the Good Times Rolling

We hope these volunteer orientation and training guidelines have been valuable! Just remember, with a little preparation and a lot of enthusiasm, you can build a rockstar team of volunteers. From there, your impact will only grow!

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