Volunteer Orientation Guide: Don’t Wing It

A couple of years ago I helped my parents downsize their home and found a letter written to my mother at some point during her career as a placement specialist for a volunteer staffing agency. According to the letter, my mom spent considerable time getting to know the letter writer’s goals and connected her with a fantastic opportunity that was a great fit that also propelled a new career path.

The impact of this interaction clearly meant a lot to my mother and the woman she helped. It’s a great reminder about just how much value nonprofit organizations provide to individuals who contribute enormous time, talent, and energy to nonprofits’ missions.

Having an impact is of increasing importance to each of us as the weight of the world’s and our own communities’ issues have become a call to action.

Everyone has a million tasks on their plates. But here’s a simple reminder: don’t take your volunteers for granted. Slow down, build relationships, and create meaningful experiences for these individuals who connect with and often times propel your organization.

One way to do that is by setting the stage with a great volunteer orientation. It’s not like any other staff meeting.

Volunteer Orientation Tips

Position it as the kick-off to a long-term relationship that may grow along many branches. Here are eight tips to get you started.

  1. Background on organization and mission.  New volunteers likely know about your organization, but not everything. Provide brief background information on what your organization is all about and especially what its purpose is. What do you stand for? What are you trying to solve?
  2. Purpose of the event, program, or volunteer day. After sketching the big picture, move on to the purpose of your event or program and why your volunteers are there. Whether the volunteer experience is ongoing or short-term, provide a framework so the volunteers takes pride in their roles.
  3. Big picture then details. Now that you’ve provided the big picture—briefly—you’re ready to share details on the volunteers’ specific roles. Be sure to introduce key staff members so they understand the organizational hierarchy and to whom to turn with questions or difficulties (which may not be the same person).
  4. Storytelling that places the volunteer in the heart of the mission story. Let them know how vital their efforts are to the success of the whole and remember to weave in storytelling about your mission so they become part of the greater fabric of your organization.
  5. Set standards and expectations. Drop down to another level of detail by describing operational and logistical expectations. What do you want volunteers to do and, just as importantly, not do?
  6. Think in systems
    Brand strategy. Your volunteers are a crucial set of ambassadors. How do you want them to represent your brand? Provide scripts for important messages. Instruct them on customer service protocols.
    – Hours. What hours do you need volunteers to arrive, to be in their position, to take breaks, and to complete their roles?
    Individual roles. Describe individuals’ roles and let them know where they are to go and what specifically they will be doing when they get there. Volunteers want to contribute meaningfully; help them do that.
    Supplies needed. If your volunteers need supplies on the job, where or from whom do they pick them up? How do they get from there to their post?
    On the job. While your volunteer team is on the job, what can they expect? What do they need to check on, do, or say? What are the performance expectations?
    When things go wrong. Things happen, especially if your volunteers are helping out with an event, festival, or conference. Let volunteers know when to get help and how not to make assumptions.
  7. Who are the sponsors? Don’t forget to let your volunteers know who your sponsors are. If you have one soft drink company as a sponsor, for example, you wouldn’t want your volunteer wondering around sipping a bottle of a competing brand.
  8. Feedback please. Finally, as the volunteers check out at the end of their shifts, debrief with each. How did everything go? How was their experience with the staff members they worked with and the operation overall? What would they improve? Use this information to update next year’s plans.

Life for everyone—kids and grown-ups alike—is super busy. Despite this, people still want to volunteer. Help make the experience fantastic so you create meaning for your volunteers and convert them to active, engaged donors and supporters.

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