The Basics of Volunteer Orientation and Training

Volunteers receiving training.
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Among the things that make volunteers happy are a good orientation to your organization and basic training. 

Just getting the volunteer in the door is not enough. Just like any employee, a volunteer needs to feel welcomed, informed and trained for whatever might happen.

Orientation is just like it sounds. Volunteers want to know the context in which they will be doing their work. Sure, they have read your website and some printed material. However, those items do not take the place of a real person who can describe the ins and outs of working in your charity’s environment and answer any questions volunteers have.

Today, much volunteer orientation and training takes place online, either in the volunteer’s home before they come to the site or at a computer at your facility. However, supplement that online training with at least a brief face-to-face session where unforeseen concerns can be addressed.

What Orientation Should Cover

  • Explain what your charity does and its history. How did it come to be and how has it evolved?
  • Describe the programs and whom your organization serves.
  • Provide an overview of how your organization is set up. Go over the organizational chart so that volunteers understand who does what.
  • Introduce volunteers to your facility. Take them on a tour, introducing them to key staff along the way.
  • Go over general policies and procedures, spending the most time on those that impact the volunteers directly.
  • Explain how the volunteer management system works. How do they schedule their time? Does the volunteer need to check in? How do they log their hours? To whom can they turn for help?

How to Train Volunteers

After orientation, provide specific training for each volunteer that addresses the particular job they will do.

Training should include:

  • How the volunteer will perform his or her particular task
  • What not to do when performing this task
  • How to handle an emergency or what to do when something unexpected happens
  • What the goals are for the task, and how performance will be evaluated
  • What equipment will be required and how to use it
  • A walk through of the task and coaching while the volunteer tries out the task

Training is at its best when it is experiential, practical, and hands-on. You can train in groups or one-on-one, and it can be provided by staff or by other volunteers.

Sometimes training is intricate and takes many hours. However, even if the volunteer task is easy and the time volunteering will be brief, don't neglect the basics.

Personalize Training for Learning Types

Tom McKee, co-author of The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer, suggests that volunteers are likely to fit into one of three learning types. Make sure that you include methods and materials that appeal to all three of these:

  • The Analyzer: Analyzers are often perfectionists who abhor mistakes. They will want to know everything and to practice it all. Analyzers never want to “wing it,” so don’t put them in that position. Give them steps to follow, details to adhere to, and lots of practice time.
  • The Doer: Doers are plentiful. They learn by doing. Provide small tasks and then get out of their way. Expect them to make mistakes and not pay much attention to whatever advice you give. Fortunately, they do not mind making mistakes, and they learn from those mistakes. Because doers are unafraid of making an error, they are often the first ones to volunteer for a new challenge.
  • The Watcher: The watchers are great imitators. They learn best by watching someone perform the task. After some basic training, pair these volunteers with experienced folks and they will not only learn but feel much more comfortable.

Online Training for Volunteers

Many nonprofits have started to develop and use online training for their volunteers. Done right, online training can be a time and money saver.

However, there are many factors to consider before going this route.

For instance:

  • Are your volunteers digitally competent and open to online training? Younger volunteers probably are, but older volunteers may find online training courses tough to understand and navigate. There’s also the question of tools. Do your volunteers have computers? High-speed internet connections? Online training can be done at your own nonprofit site, but do you have enough equipment to handle a number of volunteers you’ll be training?
  • How complex are the tasks your volunteers may be asked to perform? Online training works best for rather simple, straightforward jobs, but don’t work so well for more complicated tasks. Online training might work well for new volunteers who will be performing elementary tasks. But, as volunteers move on to more delicate and complex jobs, they will likely benefit from “stand-up” training.
  • Is your nonprofit leadership on board with online training? Are they willing to spend the money to get started? Is your staff willing to devote the time to develop online training modules? How much of your online training material can be bought “off the shelf” and how much of it will need to be specific to your nonprofit?

It’s quite possible to develop a training program that consists of both in person and online components. For instance, an orientation to your nonprofit could be developed and accessed online, while specific training for particular jobs could be done in person. Likewise, a refresher course for returning volunteers could work well online. 

Sometimes online simply means having a YouTube presentation ready to go. Those are especially useful for parts of your training that are always the same.

For more sophisticated training, you may need to purchase online training software.

Consult Current Volunteers and Get Feedback

When designing training or updating it, be sure to get the input of current volunteers.

Ask what they wish they had known before they started doing the work. Let current volunteers help you design orientation and training for new volunteers.

After orientation and training, have new volunteers fill out a survey about how they liked it and if they found it adequate. 

The goal of training and orientation is to produce volunteers who are happy with what they are doing and confident that they know how to do their jobs well.

If you want happy volunteers, who will stick with you, put effort and thought into your orientation and training. Without it, you will see a lot of turnover and possible bad word-of-mouth from disgruntled volunteers.