Empowering Change: Innovative Training Strategies for Non-Profit Volunteers

I remember the first time I had to go to a “Volunteer Orientation”. I was a new mom, and was joining a board for the first time. For three hours one Saturday morning, we watched a pre-recorded DVD on the organization, we signed some forms, and then they fed us some cookies and juice. That was it. The only person there was the Volunteer Coordinator and while the cookies and juice were appreciated, the entire thing felt like something just designed to limit the organization’s liability. The reason I remember the cookies and juice, was that by 1pm on a Saturday, we were all starving, and cookies and juice, whilst appreciated, certainly were no substitute for a meal. Beyond that, I don’t remember anything else about that day, except that I did not stay long at that organization.

Volunteers, as we have been discussing all week, are a big deal for most organizations. They provide valuable services, they enhance they team you already have and grow the impact of your organization. These are people dedicating their time and expertise. Yet, for many organizations, they are an after thought and treated as second tier or worse. From the moment we recruit, to the training we provide, to how we handle them. The problem we are facing is that volunteers are becoming a hot commodity. Like anything else with supply and demand, they will go to the places of highest demand. The ones to suffer will be the cookies and juice providers. Getting top tier volunteers is going to become increasingly competitive.

So how do you stand out if you are an organization without a huge budget? My recommendation is to develop a segmented volunteer strategy. Begin to treat each of your volunteer roles like your staff roles. You would recruit for each of your staff positions separately. You would never train all of your staff members the same way. You would not dream of leaving them in a room all day alone on their first day. This is their first experience with your organization. You want to celebrate the fact that they are choosing to come and spend their time with your organization. For free.

While we have talked all week about different strategies to implement to attract and retain volunteers, today I want to go over what a segmented training program might look like.

The first thing you want to include is a peer to peer mentoring program. This is essential for continuity, help them learn about your organization and to provide them with a buddy. Then you want to make sure you have base training that covers the basic needs for both training and liability. Then you want to differentiate your training to different learning styles. This all sounds complicated, but does not have to be.

For this example, let’s assume that you have three different volunteer roles. These roles for my purposes would be:

  • a. Front line customer serving
  • b. Administrative support (paperwork or book keeper etc)
  • c. Delivery drivers (such as a food program

The following is a high-level idea of what a program might look like:

Common Base Level Training for All Volunteers

Objective: To provide all volunteers with the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to understand and contribute to the organization’s mission, adhere to policies, and work effectively in their respective roles.

  • Orientation Session: Covering the organization’s mission, vision, history, and achievements. Introduction to the organizational structure, key team members, and code of conduct.
  • Policies and Procedures: Training on confidentiality, safety protocols, volunteer policies, and emergency response plans.
  • Diversity and Inclusion: A module on cultural competency, sensitivity training, and inclusive practices.
  • Learning Styles Adaptation: Incorporate visual (videos, infographics), auditory (discussions, audio materials), reading/writing (manuals, guides), and kinesthetic (role-playing, simulations) elements.
  • Peer Mentor Program Introduction: Explanation of the peer mentor system, matching process, and how to engage with mentors/mentees.

Let’s look at one of these above modules in detail:

Highlighting In-depth Examples: Conflict of Interest Training

Objective: To educate volunteers on recognizing, disclosing, and managing conflicts of interest that may arise while serving in their roles.

  • Definition and Examples: Explain what constitutes a conflict of interest and provide real-life examples relevant to volunteer work.
  • Disclosure Procedures: Outline the process for volunteers to disclose potential conflicts of interest and seek guidance on resolution.
  • Ethical Decision-Making: Training on ethical principles, transparency, and maintaining integrity in volunteer activities.
  • Role-Specific Scenarios: Interactive scenarios to help volunteers identify and address conflicts of interest in their specific roles.Provide role-playing exercises or scenarios to practice communication techniques, active listening, and negotiation skills in resolving conflicts.
  • Case Studies: Review case studies highlighting successful conflict resolution and consequences of failing to address conflicts.
  • Integrate conflict resolution strategies within the training programs to equip volunteers with skills for resolving disputes or misunderstandings effectively.

Training Delivery Method

Utilize a mix of training methods tailored to different learning styles, including interactive workshops, case studies, role-playing exercises, multimedia presentations, group discussions, and peer-led activities. Rotate trainers to offer diverse perspectives and expertise on various topics.

Role Specific Training

Then, we split the volunteers up, or have them come for a second session and we do the role specific training. This does not have to be super hard, just covering the basic skills they would need to have to do this role. Assess each person and if they already have these skills, perhaps they can skip some of the training. However, this is what I would do if I were designing your training program:

Segmented Training Programs

1. Front-Line Customer Service/Client Work Volunteers

Objective: To prepare volunteers for direct interaction with clients or customers, emphasizing communication skills, empathy, and problem-solving.

  • Skill Development: Training on effective communication techniques, active listening, conflict resolution, and empathy.
  • Role-Specific Scenarios: Interactive role-playing sessions and simulations of common customer service scenarios.
  • Feedback Handling: Techniques for receiving and managing feedback or complaints constructively.
  • Peer Mentor Focus: Pairing with experienced front-line service volunteers for shadowing and guidance.

2. Administrative Volunteers

Objective: To equip volunteers with the necessary skills for administrative tasks including data entry, scheduling, and office management.

  • Technical Skills: Training on relevant software (e.g., databases, spreadsheet management), data privacy principles, and document handling.
  • Organization Skills: Workshops on time management, project management tools, and effective communication within an office setting.
  • Role-Specific Challenges: Group discussions or workshops to solve common administrative challenges.
  • Peer Mentor Focus: Matching with mentors who have experience in administrative roles for support in navigating organizational processes.

3. Driving Volunteers

Objective: To prepare volunteers for roles involving transportation of goods or individuals, focusing on safety, navigation, and logistical coordination.

  • Safety Training: Comprehensive driver safety course, including defensive driving techniques and first aid.
  • Vehicle Maintenance: Basic vehicle maintenance workshops and checklists for pre/post-trip inspections.
  • Logistics Coordination: Training on route planning, scheduling pickups/deliveries, and effective communication with dispatch or coordinators.
  • Hands-On Experience: Practical driving sessions accompanied by experienced volunteer drivers; focus on specific vehicles they’ll be operating.
  • Peer Mentor Focus: Experienced driving volunteers provide mentorship, sharing insights on managing schedules, routes, and unexpected situations.

Cross-Segment Strategies

  • Evaluation and Feedback: Regular assessment of volunteer competence in role-specific skills and overall satisfaction with the training program. Adjustments made based on feedback.
  • Recognition Programs: Acknowledge volunteer achievements and milestones to motivate continued engagement and improvement.
  • Continuous Learning Opportunities: Offer advanced workshops, seminars, or courses for skill enhancement based on volunteer interest or emerging organizational needs.

This May Seem Like a Lot….

Yes, I acknowledge this may seem like a lot. But, like most things in life, what you get out of something is as good as what we put in. If we want to see better results from our volunteers, we need better training. For other reasons, including the increased liability we face in all things today, better training is absolutely a requirement. This may not be right for everyone, but I encourage you to begin thinking and diversifying your training programs so that you, and your volunteers are happier.

Using Existing Resources as a Starting Point– Then Get Specialists:

Much of what you have already will allow you to get started. Take some time, and perhaps hire a consultant or volunteer (maybe a retired instructor) and get them to give some thought to how to structure a volunteer program. You may want to hire a learning specialist who can help you adapt your resources to different learning styles.

I know cost can be an issue with most organizations, so one of the things we are working on in our Pharo NonProfit Portal is to create both a

  1. Starter Volunteer orientation kit, like what was in this week’s blog
  2. Basic Volunteer Training Modules like the ones identified above

You can use these to get started and to cut down on the work. These can be accessed with your annual membership to our portal by mid-April they will available for download in the Resources and Courses portion of the Portal.

Regardless of how you get started. Do something. Anything to differentiate yourself and create more value for your volunteers. Also, skip the cookies and juice and maybe offer sandwiches and pizza instead 😉