Effective 'onboarding' of volunteers

Welcoming volunteers

Do you have an effective "onboarding" process for volunteers, or do you have a bit of a revolving door?

Do volunteers come in, stick around for a shift or maybe a dozen, then head right back out again? Effective onboarding can make a huge difference in the retention of your volunteers and, therefore, the success of your mission.

Onboarding is the process of welcoming new volunteers and getting them up to speed about the organization’s mission, goals and expectations. An effective process can help volunteers feel engaged, informed and confident in their roles, which leads to higher levels of satisfaction and impact. Here are some of the key components that I’ve found to be most useful.

1. Communication

Even before a new volunteer starts, it’s essential to establish good communication. Clarify with them what communication methods work best for them, make sure you have the correct email, phone number, etc. Let them know what they can expect over the first few weeks/shifts and what you expect from them (dress, code of conduct, etc). Provide them with necessary access to resources they’ll need (ie: passwords or entry codes), and the links to your website and/or volunteer management software. If you aren’t the person who will be supervising them, introduce the volunteer to their supervisor. Regular, two-way communication should carry on throughout the volunteer’s time with you.

2. Orientation session

Prior to new a volunteer’s first shift, they should be welcomed with an orientation session. That session should help the volunteer understand the organization’s vision, values, goals and culture. It can also cover its history, and the impact volunteers have made. In addition, the session should cover such essential information as health and safety, how to sign up for shifts and policies and procedures. If appropriate, it can include a tour of the facility. Orientation sessions can be done one-on-one, but they can also be scheduled to include several new volunteers, or be used as a refresher for current volunteers.

3. Training

Training is a vital part of helping a volunteer feel competent and confident in their new role. They should receive training that is relevant, and should cover everything from the basics, to more specific skills or procedures that are needed to carry out their duties effectively. Training can be done in a variety of ways including in-person training, on-line workshops and/or role shadowing and mentoring with a more experienced volunteer or staff member.

4. Volunteer handbook

A volunteer handbook (whether in print or online) is a valuable resource for volunteers. One should be provided to them during the onboarding process. If you don't have one, now's the time to create one. The handbook should cover much of the same information as was covered in the orientation, as well as specifics from the volunteer’s training. It should also include policies and procedures that affect volunteers, such as dress codes or how to escalate issues. Finally, the handbook can include resources such as frequently asked questions, the year’s event calendar and contact information.

5. Mentoring

I have mentioned in previous columns that I am a huge fan of mentoring. I have mentors. My mentors have mentors and their mentors probably have mentors. Mentors can answer questions, provide guidance and offer support and encouragement throughout the volunteer’s time with the organization. Choose mentors from your pools of experienced volunteers or staff members, those who have a good understanding of the organization’s culture and values, and who have the time to, and interest in, guiding new volunteers.

6. Regular check-ins

Checking in with a new volunteer is vital. This comes back to communication. Regular chats to see how things are going and to provide any updates can ensure volunteers feel supported and engaged. Encourage the volunteer to share their experiences and thoughts. They may have a brilliant new idea for doing a regular task. Getting their opinions on how things work can greatly improve their engagement with the organization. These check-ins can be done in different ways, depending on the way the volunteer prefers to be communicated with. In person, over the phone, or by email or text – whatever way is best for them.

7. Recognition and appreciation

As always, showing a volunteer how valuable they are to the mission is the best way to keep them happy. That’s likely why they volunteered in the first place. Whether through informal thank-yous, tangible shows of gratitude, public acknowledgement or appreciation events, or all four, show all your volunteers that you notice and appreciate the impact that they are making.

An effective volunteer onboarding process is crucial to any successful volunteer program. Take the time to think through your current process step by step. Using this general template, adjust it so it fits both the needs of your organization and the volunteers themselves.

You’d be amazed at the difference it can make.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Succession planning for volunteer boards

Planning for the future

Does your board have a succession plan in place?

I had the pleasure of running a workshop this past weekend for the not-for-profit organizations in the Regional District of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The first half of the day was focused on building volunteer teams and the second half was on successful board engagement.

Let’s face it, most board members are volunteers, too. The participants were engaged and asked a lot of questions, some of which really got me thinking. In particular, I was asked for specifics about how to build succession planning into the board culture.

If you’ve ever served on the board of directors of a social impact organization, you’ve probably realized that, on many of them, the same members fill the same positions for years at a time. I know of an organization where one person was president for close to 20 years. Great for continuity, not so great for innovation.

Succession planning is an essential element of any organization’s long-term sustainability. Social impact organizations, though, face unique challenges in building a culture of succession planning into their boards. Board members often have limited availability for taking on some of the bigger roles, so those who do have the time often get stuck serving in those roles for longer than they might like.

Others enjoy being in power and are reluctant to step down, and may look for reasons why it makes sense for them to stay.

For an organization to stay relevant, though, a steady influx of new ideas is essential. Which means that there needs to be a regular turnover of leadership. But how do you build that into your board culture?

Step one is recognizing it’s importance. Ensure your board understands that succession planning is not just about finding replacements for current board members, but also about building a pipeline of future leaders, who can bring in those new ideas and skills to the organization. Boards should also recognize that the process is a shared responsibility, not just the job of the board chair or president. Everyone should be involved in the process, and there should be a clear plan for how they will identify, develop and support their future leaders.

Next, build it into the board’s strategy plan and the plan’s annual review. Ensure that board (and senior staff) succession is included in the organization’s strategic plan and create formal processes for them. These can include setting term limits on roles, identifying gaps in experience and/or diversity, and strategies for onboarding and training new members.

Then, at least once a year, the board should outline the specific steps it will take that year to identify and develop potential new board members. That may include reviewing board member job descriptions, updating any skill gaps, identifying a target number of new members, developing a mentorship program for new board members, and creating opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge.

The process should include a clear timeline for recruitment. It should also involve input from all current board members and senior staff.

Provide support and training. Once new board members are recruited, it is important to provide them with the support and training they need to be effective leaders. I am a huge believer in mentoring and role shadowing, but the process can also include an orientation session and role specific (ie: treasurer) training.

It’s also important to get the new member involved on committees or special projects, which can help them build relationships with other members and develop a deeper understanding of the organization’s operations and goals.

Have systems in place for leadership transitions. It’s not enough to just say “so-and-so is now the board chair.” The succession plan should include an outline of how leadership transitions will be managed, including the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders, the timeline for transition, and the criteria for selecting a new leader.

The longer you’ve been in the sector, the more likely it is that you’ve seen someone made board chair or president after having only been on the board a month or two. I suggest that role only go to someone who has had a minimum of a year on the board, and preferably who has filled another role, such as secretary. Your plan should also include contingency actions in case of any disruptions or conflicts that may arise.

Lastly, review the plan regularly to ensure it’s up-to-date and still effective. This might include conducting a survey of board members to assess how they feel things are going, reviewing the recruitment and retention rates, examining the board’s diversity levels, and evaluating new board members to assess the effectiveness of the training and mentoring programs.

Building a culture of succession planning is essential to keep organizations strong and relevant into the future.

It isn’t always easy, and you may get push-back from long-term members, but if you work at it step by step, you can weave succession planning into your culture. And believe me, it’s worth it.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

The benefits of public acknowledging volunteers

Thanking those who help

Public acknowledgement of volunteers is important – and in more ways than one.

As we all know, volunteers play a crucial role in our communities. They give up their time and energy to help others, whether it’s through stocking food at a food bank, mentoring a child, or cleaning up a local park.

However, few people outside the organization or their immediate circles are aware of their hard work and dedication. There are a few of reasons why that needs to change.

Public acknowledgement can up your appreciation game.

Obviously, recognizing volunteers is a way to show them we see and value their efforts and contributions. By publicly acknowledging volunteers, though, we take that appreciation to another level, helping to increase volunteer retention. This can help to ensure that organizations have a consistent group of volunteers to rely on.

For example, in my city of Kamloops, B.C., there is an annual volunteer recognition ceremony, where anyone who volunteers can come, share some food, enjoy music and be given awards for their contributions. It’s a lot of fun, even if you do have to listen to speeches from politicians.

It increases community awareness. The Kamloops volunteer event and others like it not only recognize the efforts of volunteers but also brings attention to the causes those volunteers are working for.

They can be a great way to highlight the important work that organizations do in the community. That can help the cause and bring in more donations.

Public acknowledgement can also improve recruitment. Seeing volunteers acknowledged can encourage other people to volunteer. When people see others being recognized for their volunteer work, it can inspire them to get involved themselves. I

t’s a way to showcase the impact that volunteers have. Most people really want to make a difference, and seeing others are doing it and it’s not out of reach can be just the catalyst others need.

It strengthens community ties. Volunteers are the backbone of community organizations and events. By publicly recognizing their efforts, we are not only thanking them for their work but also acknowledging the important role they play in our communities.

That can help to build stronger connections between volunteers, community members, and organizations. If a community organization holds a volunteer appreciation event, it can be an opportunity for volunteers to connect with each other and with other members of the community.

By sharing stories and experiences, they can form bonds and create a sense of community and belonging that can help to strengthen the fabric of our entire society.

Events aren’t the only way to thank volunteers publicly. I’ve referred mostly to large events, but those aren’t your only option. Public acknowledgement can take many forms, such as a certificate of appreciation they can display or a spotlight on their efforts during an AGM.

You can also do a shout out on social media about the impact they make, or have a story about them in your newsletter or on your website.

A cavate, though. Public acknowledgement of volunteers must be done in a way that is respectful and appropriate. Ask volunteers for their consent before recognizing them publicly and make every effort to respect their privacy.

Also, public acknowledgement should not be used as a way to pressure people into volunteering or as a replacement for other forms of appreciation.

Public acknowledgement of volunteers is an important tool in your appreciation toolbox. It’s a way to show volunteers their work is valued and appreciated and can inspire others to get involved in their communities.

By publicly recognizing the contributions of volunteers, we can help to build stronger, more connected communities.

So, the next time you see a volunteer working hard to make a difference, think of a way you can thank them publicly.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Avoiding the 'Dead Horse Theory'

Doing things differently

The "Dead Horse Theory" is a well-known business concept that explains the tendency of individuals and organizations to persist in ineffective strategies, even when they are not achieving the desired results.

The theory reads something like this, when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. However, in business and government (and social impact organizations), a whole range of more “advanced” tactics are often employed, including:

• Buying a bigger whip

• Changing riders

• Appointing a committee to study the horse

• Lowering standards to include dead horses

• Providing additional training to improve the horse’s performance

In other words, the dead horse represents an unproductive strategy someone is trying to improve with tactical changes. It’s something I think we’ve all seen in the volunteer engagement space.

“It’s always worked before!” is a cry I often hear. I hear it especially in volunteer recruitment. Organizations struggle to find volunteers but the traditional methods have “always worked before” are becoming less and less effective.

Instead of coming up with a new strategy, though, the organization doubles down on the old way of doing things. “If posting in five places doesn’t bring in enough volunteers, we’ll post in 50!”

It’s not just with volunteer programs, either. The Dead Horse Theory can be seen in fundraising strategies that aren’t effective, operational programs that aren’t meeting the needs of the community and organizational structures that are not allowing for maximum impact.

But why does it happen?

One of the reasons why volunteer engagement leaders persist in outdated strategies is a fear of change. Change can be hard, and many organizations are hesitant to allow significant changes to previously successful strategies or operations. That fear can lead to a situation where aprogram is stuck in a rut and unable to make progress towards achieving its mission.

Another reason may be a lack of resources. Social impact organizations, and volunteer programs especially, often operate with limited budgets and resources. That can make it difficult to test out new strategies or to make significant changes to their operations.

In some cases, a volunteer program may be stuck with inadequate strategies simply because they do not have the resources to try something new.

The most common reason, though, is a lack of understanding by senior leadership. Volunteer programs are rarely top-of-mind for board members or executive directors. Because of this, they often see only the surface of the program—the “what” rather than the “why.”

If leadership is focused on “what”, it can be easy to think that a bit more effort with the current strategy will fix things. Until they have an understanding of why something isn’t working, it can be extremely difficult to get the go-ahead to make radical changes to the underlying strategy.

How do you avoid the Dead Horse Theory? It is important for organizations to be willing to make changes and try new strategies and for all leaders, senior and otherwise, to have an in-depth understanding of why a strategy works or doesn’t work.

That can involve taking a step back and re-evaluating the organization's mission and goals, as well as engaging in regular evaluations to ensure that programs and strategies are still meeting the needs that they were created for. It is also important for leaders to be open to feedback from volunteers and community members, and to use this feedback to make improvements and changes to their programs and strategies.

Another way to avoid the Dead Horse Theory is to prioritize innovation and creativity within the organization. That can involve encouraging staff members to think outside the box and to come up with new and innovative ideas for programs and strategies—regularly question the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way” is a shortcut to obsolescence.

Social impact organizations can also prioritize collaboration and partnerships with other organizations in the community, which can help to bring new perspectives and ideas to the organization.

Avoiding the Dead Horse Theory, though, isn’t all. Volunteer engagement programs can also use this concept to improve their operations.

By recognizing when a strategy is not working, leaders can take steps to make changes and improve impact. Be warned, though; this involves being willing to make difficult decisions, such as ending long-standing programs that are losing their effectiveness and reallocating those resources to more useful strategies.

The Dead Horse Theory is an important concept to understand and address. Once leaders are able to recognize when they are persisting in ineffective strategies and take steps to make changes, volunteer programs—and social impact organizations as a whole—can better achieve their missions and have a greater impact in their communities. It requires a willingness to embrace change and prioritize innovation and creativity.

You know, I think you’ve got this.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Volunteer Matters articles

About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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