Tips for successful 'onboarding' of new volunteers

Welcoming volunteers

Perhaps no step in the process of the volunteer lifecycle is as undervalued as “onboarding” new volunteers.

We often put a great deal of time and energy into recruiting and scheduling volunteers, but onboarding? (the process of bringing volunteers into an organization)? Instead of seeing this time as an opportunity to build a relationship with, and anchor the passion and dedication of, new volunteers, most organizations use onboarding and training time simply as a chance to “fire-hose” novices with rules, material and information that’s forgotten before it can ever be used. It shouldn’t be that way.

A solid onboarding process can make sure new volunteers feel like a valued part of the team, right from day one. This is your opportunity to show them that they made the right decision in joining your organization— to make them feel comfortable with the culture and capable of handling the role they have taken on. It also confirms in their minds that, with you, they can make a difference.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

I’ve said this many times. Before you even start recruiting, make sure you have a plan in place for when the volunteers start showing up. Talk to your current volunteers to get ideas on what they wished they had known when they started. What suggestions do they have for easing a new volunteer into the program? Which pieces of information need to be provided up front, and which can be fed to them over time? Discover which of your seasoned pros is willing to be a mentor. Create an onboarding schedule.

Let them shine

Provide an opportunity for everyone in the group, including the new volunteer, to share their backgrounds. Let them highlight the skills, knowledge and life experiences that they bring to the team. It’s like a mini ice-breaker session, but with the very specific purpose of making the new person feel welcome and valued. Encourage the whole team to share, but let your novice be the star, fielding questions about their particular expertise.

Onboarding new volunteers is about more than just throwing information at them

Orientation and training tends to devolve to a day of being (inundated) with information, and then being given a 50-page handbook that reiterates (and sometimes conflicts with) that same information. The new volunteer is taking in a ton of information at once, and it may all be foreign to him or her. Let’s face it, reading or listening to a long list of information is only useful for curing insomnia.

There are a few different ways to solve this. Try creating visuals—organizational charts, infographics, you name it—to help them wrap their heads around all that detail. Videos are great, too. Short videos (five minutes maximum) on very specific topics, especially about topics volunteers tend to have challenges with. Don't forget storytelling. We are hardwired to learn from stories.

Don’t rush role-specific training

When it comes to role-specific training, timing is key. While there are certainly role-specific tasks the volunteer will need to learn quickly, it’s important that her or she first buy into the culture and values of your organization.

While some of that buy-in will have taken place before the person even decided to volunteer with you (otherwise they wouldn’t have stepped forward), I recommend you give the volunteer a little time to get the feel of the organization and the people they will be serving with. Then, gradually add tasks and introduce specific training as they start settling in.

And don’t stop there

Check in regularly with the new volunteer. Ask them how things are going. Do they have any questions or if there’s anything they’re struggling to understand? Ask them to share with you how they’re fitting in. Are there any barriers they are experiencing? Do they have any suggestions for improving things?

Make sure they feel comfortable asking questions, and show them you’re happy to answer them—even if you have already given them the information. No one can remember everything. In other words, reward their desire to do things well.

Remember, the more comfortable the new volunteer feels, the more they’ll get out of the onboarding experience, and the more value they’ll be willing and able to provide.

Pro tip: Those regular check-ins, they’re not just for the onboarding period. They’re a crucial part of creating an environment where feedback flows freely. Continue them throughout every volunteer’s time with you.

Effectively onboarding new volunteers is more than just a checklist. It’s a long-term strategic process aimed at integrating volunteers seamlessly into your program. By prioritizing advance preparation, learning, and ongoing support, you can lay the groundwork for long-term success and effective volunteer engagement.

Make onboarding a priority, and show volunteers that you will invest in them as much or more than they are investing in you.

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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