Optimizing Your Team: 4 Top Tips for Volunteer Training
Someone shows up at your door. They say, “I want to volunteer.”
Your next words could make or break your organization. Really.
If you say, “no thanks,” you risk your reputation. You could be turning away a potential major donor, someone with the influence you need to move your mission forward, or even just extra people-power to answer the phones.
If you say, “yes,” you take on the burden of finding them tasks and keeping them happy. You’ll juggle schedules to accommodate theirs. When they screw up, you’ll smile, forgive them and even take the blame. If this person behaves inappropriately, steals from your organization, or shares confidential information, your reputation suffers, and theirs might not.
Whether they’re a board candidate, a possible program volunteer, or someone who can do filing twice a week, some version of this scenario plays out at thousands of nonprofits each year. It’s a serious conundrum. Legally, you need at least a few people, nearly always volunteers, to serve on your board. And beyond them — let’s be honest — you could really use the help.
I’m not here to tell you to say yes, do it, or no, and turn potential volunteers away. But what I can tell you is that if you say “yes,” there’s a great way to reduce your risk and increase volunteer output, and it’s all in one word: training.
Volunteer talent is squandered daily because nonprofits don’t take volunteer training seriously.
It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s easy to see why. Training anyone for their job – paid or volunteer – takes time and money. Should you really make that commitment? They’re volunteers, and who knows how long they’ll stay?
I say “yes!” For your organization to grow, especially within your budget, you’re going to need some help. And best of all? Training doesn’t have to cost a lot.
So where do you start?
Volunteer training for long-term success
1. Evaluate your volunteering needs.
There’s no end to the work you need to get done to accomplish your mission – and a volunteer could probably do just about anything. But where are your critical needs? Funding is probably near, or at the top. Then there’s working directly with clients, as well as back office or infrastructure needs. Come up with a list of high-priority needs and go from there.
2. Get to know potential volunteers.
Why is this person standing (physically or virtually) in front of you? What motivated them to volunteer? Are they between jobs, or need skills to get a job? Is your mission particularly compelling to them for a personal reason? Is it because their friends are with you, or they need to get out and make new friends? Knowing their “why” can really help them help you.
While you’re assessing their motivations, assess their skills and education, too. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of people sell volunteers short. I’ve had accomplished professionals tell me that nonprofit staff dismissed their abilities out-of-hand with the words, “you’re only a volunteer.” It was too bad, not just for the disrespect, but because the nonprofit missed out on a lot of free, professional marketing out of a lack of interest for what was right in front of them.
3. Make the match.
Now that you know what you need and who you have, you’re ready to go, right? Not so fast. You wouldn’t hire someone that way, would you? There are references to check and clearances to pass.
Legally mandated clearances make sense, but references, for volunteers? Absolutely. First of all, it’s all about safety for your employees, clients and other volunteers. But there’s another reason. When the standards are high, people respect the organization and its team. By treating volunteers with the same processes and respect you treat paid employees, you show them that being a volunteer in your organization is special, and they’ll take their work more seriously.
4. Ensure proper volunteer training.
One hundred percent trained from day one is impossible. Besides, people learn best over time, in drips, not all-at-once with a firehose. So you need to parse it out. Here’s a sequence to consider:
Legally mandated training:
Some missions require specific basic training, often mandated by a government agency. These usually deal with vulnerable populations, like children or abuse victims. Getting that done early enables you to deploy them as soon as possible, even while the other training is in process.
Every nonprofit has a founding legend, typically heroic, that sets the tone for their future work and establishes the culture. Be proud of it – tell yours. This brings them into your “inner circle” and helps the new volunteers appreciate why your mission is so important.
If your volunteer wasn’t “well intended” they wouldn’t be there. As someone in your community who will represent your organization, even if just by answering your phone, it’s important for your volunteer to transcend well intended and develop some level of expertise. How much expertise to require depends on their interest or task, but at minimum you need to dispel any popular myths about your work. For example, if you work with substance abuse clients, you don’t want them telling their friends that “alcoholism is a moral failing”. Prepare them to be your mission’s best representative to their community, friends, other volunteers, and staff.
By the way, for most of your volunteers, mission training has the potential for being the most fun and interesting. Why? Because chances are the mission is why they’re volunteering, even if they never see a client. Take advantage of that interest and build their enthusiasm for your great work.
Poor training of volunteers on their specific task is remarkably common. There seems to be an idea that “they’ll just pick it up.” While over time that could be true, do you have time for a fundraising volunteer to “just pick it up” when you have a looming budget shortfall?
Similar to a “they’ll pick it up” attitude by the nonprofit, is an “I don’t need training” attitude by some volunteers. Even if this is true (in rare cases) are they doing the job your way? Probably not. There’s lots of reason behind the “I don’t need training” myth. They could be embarrassed. They don’t think they have time. They might think it’s just like something else they do. Don’t let any of these reasons stop you.
All this is great, but how do you keep costs down while implementing high-quality volunteer training processes? Here are a few tips:
Systematize your volunteer training
Set up a schedule and a sequential program — a “boot camp” of sorts. That way you cut down the cost of ongoing development.
Use technology for volunteer training
This should hardly be a surprise. Creating training videos can be inexpensive and remarkably easy. They don’t have to be “high production value,” either. Desktop talks and voiced-over PowerPoints are a good start. Technology also allows for tremendous flexibility. This way, their training can occur at home, over lunch, or to and from work.
Tap into outside resources
Ask a staff person or an established volunteer to serve as a mentor for each new volunteer. It will integrate your new volunteer into your organization more quickly, and you’ll spot any problems sooner rather than later.
Tell your insurance company
Insurance is about risk. You have a strong argument with your insurance provider that your training program reduces their exposure when providing you with insurance. Their lower risk should translate into your lower costs.
Ask volunteers for money
(Okay, not necessarily an idea to reduce costs, but definitely an idea to increase your income. Plus, it can offset some of the volunteer training costs.) Don’t be shy about asking your volunteers to donate to your cause. While a few will say “I don’t give money, I give time,” most will be happy to make a gift if they see that you’re running a strong organization that fulfills a mission they care about. In fact, their monetary buy-in can even strengthen their volunteer commitment.
Volunteers are one of the unique advantages of your nonprofit status. It’s easy to take it, and them, for granted. Thoughtful, systematic training of volunteers to meet your needs and the needs of your clients can move your nonprofit to the next level. And even better? It will save you money in the long run – from reduced labor costs to boosted income and increased productivity. Plus, volunteer enthusiasm for your mission can really motivate staff and increase your community visibility.
Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit Courses, an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members and volunteers, with hundreds of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work. He’s the author of 4 books, including The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and is a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management. Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker.