Effective 'onboarding' of volunteers

Welcoming volunteers

Do you have an effective "onboarding" process for volunteers, or do you have a bit of a revolving door?

Do volunteers come in, stick around for a shift or maybe a dozen, then head right back out again? Effective onboarding can make a huge difference in the retention of your volunteers and, therefore, the success of your mission.

Onboarding is the process of welcoming new volunteers and getting them up to speed about the organization’s mission, goals and expectations. An effective process can help volunteers feel engaged, informed and confident in their roles, which leads to higher levels of satisfaction and impact. Here are some of the key components that I’ve found to be most useful.

1. Communication

Even before a new volunteer starts, it’s essential to establish good communication. Clarify with them what communication methods work best for them, make sure you have the correct email, phone number, etc. Let them know what they can expect over the first few weeks/shifts and what you expect from them (dress, code of conduct, etc). Provide them with necessary access to resources they’ll need (ie: passwords or entry codes), and the links to your website and/or volunteer management software. If you aren’t the person who will be supervising them, introduce the volunteer to their supervisor. Regular, two-way communication should carry on throughout the volunteer’s time with you.

2. Orientation session

Prior to new a volunteer’s first shift, they should be welcomed with an orientation session. That session should help the volunteer understand the organization’s vision, values, goals and culture. It can also cover its history, and the impact volunteers have made. In addition, the session should cover such essential information as health and safety, how to sign up for shifts and policies and procedures. If appropriate, it can include a tour of the facility. Orientation sessions can be done one-on-one, but they can also be scheduled to include several new volunteers, or be used as a refresher for current volunteers.

3. Training

Training is a vital part of helping a volunteer feel competent and confident in their new role. They should receive training that is relevant, and should cover everything from the basics, to more specific skills or procedures that are needed to carry out their duties effectively. Training can be done in a variety of ways including in-person training, on-line workshops and/or role shadowing and mentoring with a more experienced volunteer or staff member.

4. Volunteer handbook

A volunteer handbook (whether in print or online) is a valuable resource for volunteers. One should be provided to them during the onboarding process. If you don't have one, now's the time to create one. The handbook should cover much of the same information as was covered in the orientation, as well as specifics from the volunteer’s training. It should also include policies and procedures that affect volunteers, such as dress codes or how to escalate issues. Finally, the handbook can include resources such as frequently asked questions, the year’s event calendar and contact information.

5. Mentoring

I have mentioned in previous columns that I am a huge fan of mentoring. I have mentors. My mentors have mentors and their mentors probably have mentors. Mentors can answer questions, provide guidance and offer support and encouragement throughout the volunteer’s time with the organization. Choose mentors from your pools of experienced volunteers or staff members, those who have a good understanding of the organization’s culture and values, and who have the time to, and interest in, guiding new volunteers.

6. Regular check-ins

Checking in with a new volunteer is vital. This comes back to communication. Regular chats to see how things are going and to provide any updates can ensure volunteers feel supported and engaged. Encourage the volunteer to share their experiences and thoughts. They may have a brilliant new idea for doing a regular task. Getting their opinions on how things work can greatly improve their engagement with the organization. These check-ins can be done in different ways, depending on the way the volunteer prefers to be communicated with. In person, over the phone, or by email or text – whatever way is best for them.

7. Recognition and appreciation

As always, showing a volunteer how valuable they are to the mission is the best way to keep them happy. That’s likely why they volunteered in the first place. Whether through informal thank-yous, tangible shows of gratitude, public acknowledgement or appreciation events, or all four, show all your volunteers that you notice and appreciate the impact that they are making.

An effective volunteer onboarding process is crucial to any successful volunteer program. Take the time to think through your current process step by step. Using this general template, adjust it so it fits both the needs of your organization and the volunteers themselves.

You’d be amazed at the difference it can make.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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