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The Right Way to Onboard and Train Volunteers

social impact sector

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Published September 1, 2016 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Volunteers are a vital part of the social impact sector. Whether they assist with an annual 5k run/walk or a weekly program, a devoted community of volunteers allows your organization to do more than it ever could alone. But volunteers, like any member of your team, need guidance to succeed and help your nonprofit make an impact.

If you educate your volunteers on your organization and prepare them for their duties on the job, you can ensure that your volunteers have a positive experience. Properly trained volunteers can then become a valuable asset to your nonprofit, especially if you can retain them.

Follow these steps to get the best work from your volunteers and maximize your organization’s overall impact.

Onboarding: The First Step to Success

No matter what type of work you need volunteers to help with, you should make sure they are familiar with your mission and operations. When you explain what volunteers help you to achieve, you make their work more satisfying. And volunteers who gain a sense of accomplishment from their work will be more likely to lend a hand again.

New volunteers should be led through an orientation or onboarding presentation, particularly if they will be representing your organization to donors and the public.

Your orientation for new volunteers should cover…

  • Your organization’s mission
  • Your primary programs
  • What kind of work volunteers help with
  • Basic safety instructions and rules
  • How to document volunteer hours
  • Frequently asked questions

With this information, volunteers know what you’re trying to accomplish, how you’re making an impact, and what they can do to help. If you need to onboard several volunteers, prepare a short presentation or handbook to deliver these details. For nonprofits that are always recruiting volunteers, you can even set up a monthly orientation meeting so you can regularly bring new supporters up to speed.

Once they have the lay of the land, you can train volunteers for the specific responsibilities of their position.

Better Training = Better Volunteers

While onboarding gives volunteers an overall understanding of your mission and work, you should also train them for the actual tasks they will be performing. Either at orientation or on their first day, show volunteers their tasks and the tools they will use. Remember that even if something seems very basic to you, it may be new to them. Better to train volunteers at the beginning and save yourself a lot of questions, mistakes, and time later on.

Training is easier to manage when you have clearly defined volunteer roles. When you know exactly what someone will be doing, you can properly prepare them. For example, you may know that for your gala event, you will need some volunteers running coat check and a few manning the silent auction table. The event will go much smoother if you give volunteers their assignment and train them to succeed at their specific tasks ahead of time.

Another important step to set your volunteers up for success is to make sure they know who their supervisor is. Volunteers should always be able to get in touch with a staff member if they run into trouble. Encourage them to ask questions if they are unsure about something. Provide clarification up front and you will avoid the need to rectify mistakes or misunderstood instructions.

Channel Your Volunteers’ Skills

Although volunteers are a great resource for delegating simple tasks, they can also bring unique experience and skills to your organization. In fact, a survey of millennials found that 77 percent would be more likely to volunteer if they could use their skills and expertise. Sites like LinkedIn and Catchafire enable nonprofits to create volunteer positions and recruit people with specialized skills like web design or grant writing.

When you do have a volunteer who can help you with a special responsibility, make sure you get a good understanding of their experience with the task. It’s also important to brief the volunteer on how your organization approaches this responsibility. For example, if a writer offers to help your marketing department and produce some blog posts, they will need to understand your organization’s voice and tone on your blog. Like a football player traded to a different team, their skills will translate, but to succeed, they need to learn your team’s playbook.

After working with a dedicated volunteer for some time, you can even let them take charge of a project or initiative. They may have an interest in a particular area or have an idea to improve the way you operate. Invite them to present their idea. If you do move forward, set clear expectations as you would with a paid employee.


Volunteers are a mainstay in the nonprofit sector, and for good reason. A devoted volunteer can give thousands of hours to your organization over a lifetime and make a huge impact on your cause. If you treat volunteers well and give them the tools they need to succeed, they can strengthen your team and help advance your mission.

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