Signs of, and solutions for, ineffective volunteer training

Good volunteer training

Having ineffective volunteer training can decrease your retention rates and increase errors.

Good training is a crucial aspect of ensuring the success of volunteer programs. For most organizations, volunteers are the ones who actually create impact. Their effectiveness, however, often hinges on the effectiveness of the training they receive. As a leader of volunteers, it's important to consistently improve your training.

It starts with recognizing the signs that things aren’t going well. Some of these will show up during the training itself, others will appear later.

Low participation rates

Are different volunteers regularly skipping training sessions or disappearing part way through?

Limited interaction

If volunteers are distracted or not participating in discussions, something is wrong.

Declining retention rates

Do volunteers regularly disappear shortly after, or even before, completing the training? That’s a red flag.

Tasks done poorly

If mistakes keep happening, it’s a sign that the training isn’t working.

There seems to be just a few main reasons for unhappy volunteer trainees—the training is too extensive. It seems irrelevant to their role. It’s inconvenient. The training, frankly, is just boring. Once you know what signs to watch for and what the problems might be, look at how to improve your training if you have seen any of these signs.

First, tackle the overly-extensive training issue. How much training do you require volunteers to take? I get it, in certain types of organizations, some of the training is mandated. Volunteers in hospice organizations in Ontario, for example, are required to complete specific training prior to filling certain roles.

It may be, however, that volunteers can fill other roles while they are going through that training. It will give them a sense they are part of the organization even before they start working with patients. It also introduces them to the culture of the organization and to other volunteers and staff, so that they don’t feel like they’ve been dropped in cold.

For training that isn’t mandated, it’s a good idea to edit it carefully. Can some of it be done after the volunteer starts, or even dropped altogether? The more you can keep the training to the essentials, the more likely it is volunteers will complete it. If some of your training is more in the area of “good to have” rather than absolutely essential, offer it as a benefit rather than a requirement. It’s amazing what a bit of reframing can do.

What if the training seems irrelevant to the volunteer? I had a conversation with the manager of an animal shelter. He often received complaints about the training required.

“Why do I have to know all that just to take a dog for a walk?” was a question he was often asked.

In some cases, it may be that the training really isn’t necessary. When possible, tailor the training to the specific roles or tasks the volunteer is doing. They’ll be able to absorb it better because they see the need for it, and it won’t get lost amongst a bunch of detail that’s only important for a different role.

If the training is important, but doesn’t necessarily appear so, use storytelling. The manager I mentioned began telling the trainees about an infectious disease that killed three dogs in the shelter. A volunteer didn’t recognize the signs of infection in a dog they met while she was taking a shelter dog for a walk. Using a story to draw that direct line between the training and the role captures their attention.

Be flexible with the training schedule and location. This is becoming less of an issue as organizations are putting more of their training online. Many have training videos volunteers can watch at their convenience. It does still happen, though, that important training takes place at a time or location that is a barrier to many potential volunteers.

As training is usually done by staff, and staff have set hours, training is fit into those hours. That is great if the shift will be during those hours. If a volunteer can’t make the training, they won’t be able to make the shift. Unfortunately, that is often not the case.

A person who wants to volunteer on the weekend because the work during the week, won’t be able to attend weekday training. If in-person training occurs at a location that isn’t serviced by transit, you prevent many people from participating. The more flexible you can be, the more people will attend.

And what if your training is just flat out boring?

The worst you can do is stand at the front of the room and lecture everyone for an hour. People have different learning styles. Some prefer visuals, others learn better through hands-on experiences and so on. Mix things up. Ask questions, include videos, infographics, games, and practical demonstrations. The greater the variety of training methods you are able to include, the more likely it is that you will reach everyone and keep them interested. It makes it more fun for you, too

Good training is essential to having good volunteers. Review the training you provide volunteers. Only include training that’s necessary to the role, use storytelling to show its importance, be flexible with timing and location, and use different elements to make it interesting.

Good training isn’t difficult, but it does take thought. Good luck.

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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