Preparing for Onboarding a Volunteer: 5 Steps to Follow

Guest blog by Asaf Darashof of Regpack

You’ve just gone through the process of recruiting a fresh batch of volunteers after writing volunteer job descriptions, posting them in the right channels, and doing some initial screening. But while you and your new volunteers might be eager to get to work, you can’t quite set them off just yet. First, you’ll need to train them and get them ready to take on their new responsibilities, and to do that, your team will need to prepare for volunteer onboarding. 

Proper onboarding can take lots of time and may seem like overkill for simple volunteer tasks. But skipping straight to the action can leave your volunteers confused and may even impact the quality of their work. 

Effectively onboarding your volunteers starts their experience off right, giving your program structure and providing an opportunity for you to meet each volunteer and answer their questions. 

Volunteer onboarding will look different depending on the role they’re volunteering for. It can be as simple as just walking through the tasks they’ll need to complete or something complex enough that you’ll need courses and training management software to teach your volunteers everything they need to know. Fortunately, in both these cases and for everything in between, there are a few steps you can take to start planning your onboarding process off right. In this article, we’ll cover these essentials, providing advice for how to:

  1. Assess each volunteer’s qualifications. 
  2. Create a handbook. 
  3. Set an agenda and stick to it. 
  4. Create training materials. 
  5. Encourage volunteers to connect with one another. 

It might take a few tries to iron out your volunteer onboarding process and find an approach that works for your nonprofit. Be ready to take feedback into account and adjust as you go to meet your volunteers’ unique needs, skill sets, and personalities. First, let’s dive into how to assess those volunteers. 

Via Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

1. Assess each volunteer’s qualifications. 

Onboarding should teach a volunteer what they need to know about your organization and their new role, so your first step should be figuring out what they already know! For example, your nonprofit’s board is made up of volunteers, and their onboarding process is going to look quite different from someone volunteering to help plant trees or write thank you letters. 

Take a look at your volunteer applications and assess them for:

  • Relevant skills. For some volunteer positions, it’s completely normal to provide a bit of training to help them out. However, some of your volunteers might come into your program with relevant skills that can help them hit the ground running. For example, you might recruit a volunteer with a technical background to help run your virtual events’ live streams. If they already have experience with live stream tools, you probably won’t need to provide as much training for them to get started. 
  • Prior volunteer experience. If someone has already volunteered at your nonprofit before, your onboarding process can speed through the parts they already know. While there are some things you should cover every time even with recurring volunteers—like waivers—you can often give them an abbreviated version of your normal onboarding materials and spend that majority of your time discussing their new role. 
  • Pre-existing relationships. Often, people like to volunteer with their friends. If a volunteer already knows someone at your nonprofit—whether they’re a manager or another volunteer—try and see if there’s a way you can use that to improve their volunteer experience. For example, if you have your current volunteers help train your new volunteers, put people with pre-existing relationships in the same group.

One more thing to check out early is your volunteers’ employers. Why? Chances are that some of them might work for a company with a volunteer grant program. For these volunteers, you can help them discover if they’re eligible for a grant and if they are, make sure they know their employer’s hour requirements for receiving a grant and the application process for submitting a grant request. 

Ready to learn more about your volunteers? Try out POINT to get the inside scoop. 

2. Create a handbook. 

Your onboarding processes help your new volunteers get acquainted with your organization, but sometimes it’s easy to overload on information. In case your volunteers forget something, have a question, or just want to double check a few details, create a handbook that covers everything they’ll need to know.

The exact content of your handbook will obviously depend on your nonprofit, but most handbooks will cover the same essential topics. Make sure that yours includes sections on:

  • General expectations. Your handbook is a good place to lay a few ground rules to make sure you and your volunteers are on the same page about conduct and internal communication guidelines. These general expectations will usually include basics like what to do if they can’t make a shift. 
  • Details about representing your nonprofit. Volunteers represent your nonprofit whenever they go out and work for you. Chances are that very few of your volunteers are PR experts or know the exact details of your nonprofit’s communication strategy. Getting Attention’s guide to nonprofit branding recommends creating a style guide that you can share with volunteers working on tasks that require communicating with people outside your organization. This section of your handbook can include general guidelines about how to represent your nonprofit or even handy templates volunteers can use for situations you expect to come up a lot, like writing a thank you letter.
  • Contact information. Your handbook can cover a lot, but it’s impossible to account for every question a volunteer might have. Include the contact information of your volunteer manager, specific supervisors, or anyone else at your organization who volunteers can reach out to for help. 

If you have a variety of set volunteer positions, consider adding sections to your handbook that provide details about those specific roles. For instance, an animal shelter might have separate sections for volunteers working with animals and those in more administrative roles. 

3. Set an agenda and stick to it. 

Have you sat through a training session that seemed overly long and maybe even scattered? If you have, chances are that the organizers either didn’t create an agenda or ended up straying from it at some point. This is an easy problem to run into, especially when you have lots of people who ask lots of questions, making it hard to stay on track and avoid tangents. 

Before your onboarding sessions, create an agenda and brainstorm strategies you can use to make sure you stick to it. Here are a few methods that just might work for your nonprofit:

  • Set a timer. On your agenda, write down approximately how long you plan to spend on each activity. It’s okay if your estimates are a little off here and there, but giving yourself a ballpark number makes it easier to keep track of if things are running long, getting finished quickly, or right on time. If something does end up running over your estimated time, consider tabling it and coming back to address it at the end if you have extra time. 
  • Get resources ready beforehand. It’s not uncommon to start running a training session and then realize you forgot to set something up ahead of time. This can be a small speed bump, but multiple instances can wrack up and leave your volunteers with little to do while you get ready. Create a checklist before your onboarding sessions to help make sure everything is prepared and ready to go. 
  • Use management tools. Volunteer management software and productivity tools are designed to help you create an onboarding experience that will work. Plus, take into account tools for other parts of your onboarding sessions. For example, if your volunteers need to take a course, use your registration software to take note of how many people completed the course, if there were any problem areas, or anything else you might want to add to your agenda to address. 

While it might be tempting to create one onboarding agenda and use it over and over again for each group of volunteers, it can be helpful to change it up based on past data. If your last group of volunteers struggled with something in practice, consider penciling in something on your agenda to address the issue and get ahead of it.

Need volunteer management software? See what POINT can do for you.

4. Create training materials. 

Your volunteers are ready to help, but sometimes they need a little bit more knowledge about your specific projects before they can hit the ground running. In these cases, be sure to prep your training materials ahead of your onboarding sessions. 

What training materials do you need? It will depend on your program. In some cases, the only training material you might need could just be your handbook. Other times, it might be better to require volunteers to take a whole training course to ensure they have the right skills. 

This might sound like a lot, but chances are that many of your volunteers will actually be excited to learn a new skill while helping out. For some of them, it may even end up being the highlight of your program!

If you do go the training courses route, make sure you have your registration and management software ready. Regpack’s guide to class registration software recommends looking for a platform that has a simplified enrollment process, so volunteers can sign up quickly online. After all, if they’re able to sign up in advance, they can devote the bulk of onboarding to actually taking their courses instead of signing up for them.

Via Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

5. Encourage volunteers to connect with one another.

While you can try, it can be hard to cover everything in your onboarding session. With your handbook and training materials, volunteers should be armed with resources to review what they learned during onboarding after they’ve gotten started in their role. But there is one more resource you should make them aware of: each other

Just like when you missed something in class during school, your volunteers can share notes with and help each other out. If they go to each other for help first, your volunteer supervisors won’t need to spend as much time answering questions. 

For example, imagine if your volunteers are out canvassing for a new advocacy campaign and end up getting confused about which houses they were supposed to go to. They could shoot a message to their supervisor who’s a little busy managing every volunteer, or get a quicker response by texting another volunteer who is also out canvassing that day. 

Plus, volunteering is often at its most rewarding when it’s a social experience. If a new volunteer ends up making a few friends during onboarding, chances are they’ll be eager to come back to both help your nonprofit and see their new buddies. 

Not sure how to engage your volunteers? See how POINT can help.

Your volunteers are eager and ready to help your programs. Help them start out on the right foot by building out a volunteer onboarding process that lets them play to their strengths, gives them the tools they need, and even teaches them skills that will help them succeed. Good luck!

Asaf Darash, Founder and CEO of Regpack, has extensive experience as an entrepreneur and investor. Asaf has built 3 successful companies to date, all with an exit plan or that have stayed in profitability and are still functional. Asaf specializes in product development for the web, team building and in bringing a company from concept to an actualized unit that is profitable.

Photo Stephanie Page
Stephanie Page
Head of Outreach

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