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Volunteer Onboarding Process: How to Prepare Volunteers for Success

Congratulations! You’ve recruited a cohort of new volunteers, and they’re eager to get started. But the reality is that many of them may not be ready to jump right in yet. They still need to learn about your program, meet the people that keep your program going, and hone their skills.

That’s where volunteer onboarding comes in. It’s an essential step in the volunteer lifecycle that prepares them for success.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the steps for onboarding new volunteers and provide checklists and workflow templates to help develop an onboarding process that makes sense for your organization.

Article Contents:


What is Volunteer Onboarding? 

Volunteer onboarding, a key pillar of volunteer management, is the process of integrating volunteer recruits into your organization. Onboarding is your chance to welcome new volunteers and instill the knowledge and skills necessary to perform their volunteer roles effectively.

A thoughtful onboarding process can benefit all involved, including your organization, the community you serve, and your volunteers.

What’s the difference between onboarding and orientation?

Many people confuse onboarding with orientation. Orientation is typically a one-time occurrence, either online or in person, that introduces new volunteers to your organization and their role.

Think of orientation as a component of onboarding. Onboarding, on the other hand, is a multi-step process that encompasses the vetting, placement, orientation, and training of new volunteers.

The Benefits of Volunteer Onboarding

The goal of onboarding is to get new volunteers engaged and prepared to serve. Volunteer programs benefit by welcoming and training new volunteers early on in their journey, while they’re most motivated.

A well-structured onboarding experience can:

  • Prepare and acclimate volunteers
  • Manage volunteer expectations
  • Garner trust between the volunteer and the organization
  • Inspire, motivate and engage volunteers
  • Instill a sense of organizational support and culture
  • Help establish lasting connections
  • Reduce volunteer turnover and increase retention

You get back what you invest in your volunteers. Volunteer onboarding can increase your return on investment because, when executed well, it results in engaged, prepared volunteers.

The Volunteer Onboarding Process

Wondering how to onboard your volunteers effectively?

You’ll need to put some thought into your onboarding program; it will ensure you’re getting the most from your volunteers’ time, and your volunteers are getting the most out of time spent with your organization.

Before you begin planning your volunteer onboarding experience, you’ll want to set a few goals or takeaways. What do you want volunteers to have accomplished upon completion of onboarding? Takeaways may look something like this:

Upon completion of onboarding, the volunteer should have:

  • Met with team leader
  • Completed orientation and basic training
  • Served at least once
  • Logged their volunteer hours successfully
  • Filled out an engagement survey

These action items will help you keep your onboarding focused.

Now it’s time to plan your program’s volunteer onboarding. Below, we break down the onboarding process into four major steps:

  1. Connect
  2. Prepare
  3. Activate
  4. Support
  5. Evaluate

 Let’s dive deeper into each of these onboarding steps:

Connect

This step occurs immediately after a new volunteer registers with your organization (and before they arrive for their first scheduled shift).

The primary purpose of this step is to initiate communication with your new supporters. This action is critical to establishing an ongoing relationship between volunteers and your organization and will lay the groundwork for how they engage with you moving forward.

As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to connect with volunteers within 24 to 36 hours after registration.

After the volunteer registers their information, you will welcome them to your organization, usually via email. This email can be automated if you use a volunteer management system, allowing you to connect with volunteers quickly.

You will likely reach most of your volunteers by email. However, some may prefer text messaging, while others respond best to phone calls. This is why it’s important to collect data on your volunteers’ contact preferences.

Your initial outreach to volunteers should include the following information:

  • Thank the volunteer for registering their interest
  • Send a welcome message
  • An overview of your onboarding program and its purpose
  • Instructions for accessing onboarding materials, training, and orientation
  • Instructions for immediate next steps
  • Contact details for getting in touch with you

Check out this email template for welcoming new volunteers:

Sample Welcome Email:

Hi [Volunteer Name],

We value your time and skills and want to make sure you’re getting the most from volunteering with us. That’s why we ask our volunteers to complete a few brief onboarding tasks.

Our volunteer onboarding experience is designed to introduce you to our organization and the community you’ll serve, while also preparing you for your role.

Don’t worry; you can complete onboarding in your own time—and we’re always here to answer any questions you may have. Simply reach out to us at [email address] or [phone number].

Click here to start volunteer onboarding.

If you prefer to complete onboarding offline, please call us at [phone number], and we’ll set you up with the tools you need.

After you have completed our initial online onboarding sequence, you will be able to attend your first shift. You can view upcoming shifts here.

We’re really excited to meet you and know you’re eager to get started!

Sincerely,

[Volunteer Leader Name]

[Organization Name, Volunteer Leader Title]

[Contact Information and Website]

Prepare

Onboarding early in the volunteer journey is essential. That’s because volunteer interest and motivation levels are at their highest immediately following registration. During this time, you should initiate onboarding and get them up to speed quickly.

Generally, volunteers should spend no more than a week in this phase (perhaps two weeks if the volunteer role is more complex).

The “prepare” phase of onboarding will typically include these actions:

  • Volunteer Screening
  • Volunteer Placement
  • Volunteer Orientation
  • Volunteer Training

 

Volunteer Screening

Some organizations choose to screen volunteers before they begin onboarding, while others choose to incorporate screening into the onboarding process.

The purpose of screening your volunteers is to ensure they’re a good fit for your organization. Screening also serves to safeguard your organization and community, especially if you’re working with vulnerable populations.

Organizations choose a variety of application and screening processes. Some organizations feel that a simple application form is enough, while others opt for an in-person interview and background check.

Be aware that it’s not uncommon for organizations to lose new registrants at this point in onboarding process. Either vetting takes too long, volunteers are unclear on the next steps, or they simply lose the spark of interest that initially drove them to sign up. (In fact, it’s one of the most common challenges volunteer leaders face.)

While vetting volunteers is essential to safeguard your organization and community, the process can become cumbersome without the right processes and tools in place.

If your volunteers must submit background checks, consider partnering with a provider that integrates background checks with your registration system. Additionally, have volunteers submit necessary information upon registration. This process can be as simple as filling in a few personal details, which goes a long way in reducing time-consuming back-and-forth.

While you’re collecting information from your volunteers, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about their interests, expertise, and relevant qualifications. Survey your volunteers now, which will help you place volunteers (conveniently, our next step).

Volunteer Placement

Volunteer placement will likely vary depending on the nature of your program. Some organizations choose to place volunteers during registration, while others may even place volunteers when they arrive at their shift (think food banks, charity races, or park beautification events). In this case, volunteers may receive a brief job-specific training session just before their shift begins.

The roles that your volunteers choose will also determine the extent of their onboarding experience. Highly skilled or professional positions may require additional screening, training, and contact time with a volunteer leader.

Considerations for Volunteer Placement:

  • Write clear role descriptions. Writing clear, compelling opportunity descriptions will help volunteers identify roles that suit them best while managing their expectations. Remember, vague calls for volunteers tend to convert less than specific listings. In other words, avoid “volunteers needed” listings.  
  • Match volunteer interests and skills. When placing volunteers in their roles, you’ll want to consider their passions, expertise, and goals. Volunteers are much more likely to become long-term supporters when they feel like their talents are being utilized. Survey your volunteers upon registration, so that you can place them during onboarding.
  • Empower volunteers to place themselves. Can volunteers self-select opportunities that inspire them? Can volunteers schedule themselves? If you find that you’re spending a majority of your time placing volunteers, it may be time to a volunteer scheduling software to streamline this process.

 

Volunteer Orientation

Volunteer orientation is typically an informational session that serves to welcome new volunteers (either in person or virtually), acquaint them with your mission, and outline expectations.

Do I need a volunteer orientation?

Most volunteer programs find that some form of orientation is a good idea. If you’re worried about placing too many barriers before your volunteers, you’ll want to think of ways to streamline orientation.

Virtual orientation has become increasingly popular over the past few years. We recommend you utilize video, either pre-recorded or live, to welcome new volunteers. Seeing a face can help them feel more connected to your organization, even if they’re not attending a training session in person.

Check out our complete volunteer orientation guide, including an orientation agenda and volunteer manual template.

Volunteer Training

The purpose of volunteer training is to help volunteers fulfill their volunteer roles successfully, confidently, and independently. It’s an essential part of the volunteer onboarding journey.

It’s important to remember that each of your volunteers may learn differently. So, vary your teaching methods and approach.

Try out a few of these teaching techniques in your volunteer training program:

Problem Solving

Present volunteers with a problem they may face while volunteering. Ask trainees to work through the problem together and assist by asking open-ended questions.

Group Discussion

Provide volunteers with a prompt, and open the floor for discussion. For example, invite trainees to discuss what they think it means to be a great volunteer. Or, encourage volunteers to reflect on their previous volunteering experiences. Some of the best learning is accomplished through open and collaborative discussion.

Simulation

Simulation is a form of experiential learning and an essential training tool for skills-based volunteer work. For those hands-on learners in the group, simulate an activity or task that the volunteer will carry out once trained, like a mock tutoring session.

Interactive Quiz

Test your trainee’s knowledge with a fun (and low-pressure) quiz! Appeal to visual learners by creating your quiz online, and ask volunteers to complete as part of their online training.

Video

Studies show that video can improve one’s ability to remember concepts and details. In fact, viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it in a video compared to 10% when reading it in text.

Consider incorporating video elements into your digital curriculum (ideal for remote volunteers!).

On-the-Job Training

Most people learn best by doing. Experiential training works best after your volunteers have participated in basic training or orientation. Then, partner your beginners with experienced volunteers or training staff during the volunteer activity. Encourage feedback and collaboration.

Learn more about how to design a winning volunteer training program.

Activate

Your volunteers have attended orientation and basic training. Now it’s time to take action. The “activate” phase of onboarding begins after the volunteer schedules their first shift.

Here are some important actions to take to help volunteers “gear up”:

Before First Shift

Throughout your volunteers’ onboarding journey, you’ll want to send confirmation and reminders to complete training, attend orientation, and sign up for their first shifts.

As the volunteer event or activity approaches, you’ll want to send a reminder the month, week, and day before their shift. This communication will help keep you from losing recruits in the gap between registration and volunteering.

Upon Arrival

Remember, first impressions are important. Have new volunteers arrive early, so they can spend time getting acquainted. Greet each new volunteer when they arrive on location.

If you’re engaging virtual volunteers, send a video greeting or personalized email the day before their virtual shift.

Set up a well-marked check-in station where new volunteers know to go when they arrive. Upon check-in, provide volunteers with a welcome package that includes fun takeaways like a t-shirt, branded pen, name tag, a printout that features your mission statement, and your business card.

An organized check-in is key to creating positive first impressions. Consider adopting a contact-free check-in app or posting a QR code so volunteers can sign in and track their hours directly from their mobile devices.

After Check-In

Once your new volunteers have checked in, take a few minutes to discuss how their work today impacts the community and the overall success of your program. Then, take them on a tour of the location, pointing out restrooms, break locations, and emergency gathering points.

Finally, to activate your volunteers, you’ll need to give them the tools and resources necessary to perform the day’s task. Offer a reminder for using the tools (especially technology and software they may need). Be on hand to answer questions as they arise and designate other experienced volunteers to help.

Tracking Volunteer Impact

A successful volunteer program focuses on retention. You want to keep them continuously activated and ready to serve.

One way to keep them invested in your organization is to track their impact. What’s even better? Empowering volunteers to track their own individual time. You’ll need to provide each volunteer with their own profile to log their hours and watch their impact grow. An all-in-one volunteer management software enables users to create unique profiles during registration, where volunteers can record their impact and activity.

Corporate volunteer programs especially love to demonstrate their social responsibility through employee volunteerism. Using the same system, you can provide your corporate partners with reports on collective employee volunteer time.

Support

Onboarding doesn’t end after your new volunteers’ first shift. In fact, some organizations define new volunteers by anyone who has participated in fewer than five shifts. You may be surprised how many of your volunteers are still “new.”

Your volunteers need continued support to stay engaged and perform their best. Onboarding that goes beyond the first shift will help you assess engagement and experience levels while providing a supportive environment for continued growth.

Here are a few tips for supporting your new volunteers:

Re-Connect

After the new volunteer’s first shift, follow up with an email or phone call. Thank them for their time and let them know there’s more to come. At this point, you’ll want to introduce any additional training if required. Then, feature upcoming opportunities they may be interested in with a call to action to sign-up!

Cultivate Connections

Help volunteers form supportive, meaningful connections with other volunteers and members of your organization. Volunteers who feel connected with your organization and their fellow volunteers are more likely to enjoy their experience and volunteer with your organization again. Plus, happy volunteers are more likely to make a monetary donation to your cause.

Many people choose to volunteer to socialize and meet others. You can cultivate these moments by hosting regular volunteer social events and making sure to invite new and regular volunteers along.

In addition, you may consider providing new participants with a volunteer mentor. This mentor can be a veteran volunteer who will show your recruits the ropes, answer questions, and generally support them throughout their journey.

Give Volunteers the Tools They Need To Succeed

What information do new volunteers need to succeed? New volunteers receive a lot of new information. From training materials to instructions for logging hours, you’ll need to centralize and digitize all useful information so that volunteers can access them at any time.

You may choose to create a Google Folder or dedicated page on their volunteer website with links to important PDFs and videos. A volunteer management system can store volunteer onboarding paths and resources, so volunteers know where to go for all actions related to volunteering with your program.  

Evaluate

The final stage in your volunteers’ onboarding journey is evaluation. The goal of this phase is not to evaluate your recruits’ performance, but rather to assess their engagement and happiness with your organization.

This information is key to maintaining an effective onboarding program. After all, your goal is to create an experience that educates and inspires new volunteers.

One of the best ways to gauge volunteer satisfaction is through a volunteer survey. Your volunteer engagement survey may look something like this:

How would you rate your onboarding experience? 

  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Okay
  4. Poor
  5. Very Poor

How satisfied did you feel after volunteering? 

  1. Very Satisfied
  2. Satisfied
  3. Neutral
  4. Unsatisfied
  5. Very Unsatisfied

How likely are you to recommend our volunteer opportunities to friends, coworkers, or family?

  1. Very Likely
  2. Likely
  3. Unsure
  4. Unlikely
  5. Very Unlikely

How many hours of training did you receive for your assigned volunteer role? 

  1. None
  2. Fewer than 2 hours
  3. 3-5 hours
  4. 6+ hours

How would you rate the training you received?

  1. Very Helpful
  2. Helpful
  3. Neutral
  4. Unhelpful
  5. Very Unhelpful

How valued did you feel as a member of our organization?

  1. Very Valued
  2. Valued
  3. Neutral
  4. Undervalued
  5. Very Undervalued

How likely are you to volunteer with us again? 

  1. Very Likely
  2. Likely
  3. Unsure
  4. Unlikely
  5. Very Unlikely

What more are you interested in learning about volunteering with our organization?

What could have made your volunteer onboarding experience more helpful or positive?

Please leave any additional comments and feedback below.

Volunteer Onboarding Checklist

Use these volunteer onboarding checklists to help you manage your volunteer onboarding workflow.

Volunteer Onboarding Workflow

Your volunteer’s onboarding journey will probably look something like this:

  • Registration
  • Receive Initial Outreach
  • Attend Online Orientation
  • Complete Basic Training Session
  • Schedule First Shift
  • Volunteer
  • Receive Follow Up Communication
  • Sign-Up for Further Training
  • Submit Engagement Survey
  • Onboarding Complete

 

Volunteer Onboarding Checklist for Program Leaders

Here’s a volunteer onboarding checklist for volunteer leaders like you to complete before, during, and after the volunteer’s first scheduled shift with your organization:

Before First Shift:

  • Capture Volunteer Information and Pre-Requisites
  • Create New Volunteer Profiles
  • Send Initial Outreach Email
  • Distribute Volunteer Manual
  • Send Orientation Confirmation Email
  • Send Training Confirmation Email
  • Ready Arrival Plan and Check-in Stations
  • Send Shift Reminders

During First Shift:

  • Volunteer Welcome
  • Take Volunteer Attendance / Volunteer Check-In
  • Demonstrate Hours Logging
  • Distribute Welcome Materials
  • Brief Facility Tour

After First Shift:

  • Thank Volunteers
  • Share Impact
  • Send Follow-Up Email
  • Send Link to Additional Training
  • Distribute Engagement Survey
  • Review Engagement Surveys

 

Onboarding Best Practices

You’ve planned your volunteer onboarding processes. How do you level up onboarding so that you and your volunteers get the most out of the experience?

Here are a few of our volunteer onboarding best practices to guide you:

Make the Process Scalable

Onboarding is only truly useful if you can apply it to all incoming volunteers. If you’re trying to grow your program, you need to make onboarding efficient and scalable.

The best way to scale onboarding is to digitize and automate some of the steps. So whether you’re onboarding one person or one-hundred people at the same time, every volunteer is getting a streamlined, efficient experience.

Volunteer onboarding software will help you automate many of the onboarding processes, from volunteer registration, to self-scheduling, to hours tracking. Furthermore, the same system will store unique volunteer profiles, guide recruits through onboarding, and streamline vetting. 

With volunteer onboarding software, everything the volunteer needs to onboard is conveniently stored in one centralized, online platform. This not only improves the volunteer experience but also saves you hours of time and lots of money. So you can onboard thousands of volunteers for your next event with fewer resources.

Get Other Stakeholders On Board

It’s important to get upper management, other team members, stakeholders, and board members involved and “on board with onboarding.”

Knowing you have the full support of your organization can ensure you have ample resources for your onboarding program.

You may need to pitch your plan for onboarding before implementation. Communicate the benefits and the return on investment. Remember, retention is more cost-effective than recruitment. Resources spent early on preparing and welcoming volunteers actually increase your program’s ROI in the long run.

Data, Data, Data!

Data is critical to the successful operation (and longevity) of your volunteer program. Data can help you secure funding and better allocate resources. Onboarding is the best time to collect some of the most critical volunteer data you need.

Before implementing your volunteer onboarding program, determine what your organization needs to know about your volunteers.

Here are some questions you’ll need to ask your team when planning your registration and onboarding process:

  • How do our volunteers want us to communicate with them? Do we want to know their communication preferences?
  • What causes are volunteers interested in?
  • What skills and expertise can our volunteers offer?
  • What data do we need to complete background checks?
  • How did volunteers hear about our organization? What factors led them to register?
  • What demographic information do we need to collect to make key decisions about our programming?
  • What signatures do we need to collect? Will our volunteers need to sign waivers, NDAs, or other documents? How will we collect and store these signatures?
  • How will we track volunteer hours and activities?

Many nonprofits don’t have a user-friendly way to capture the data they need. A centralized system (like volunteer management software) will help you automate and manage data collection, so you know your volunteers are always prepared for their roles.  

Additional Resources:

How to Start a Volunteer Program in 4 Steps

Your Guide to Strategic Volunteer Engagement

Volunteer Recruitment: How to Get the Volunteers You Need

20 Awesome Volunteer Recruitment Ideas

How to Cultivate Happy Volunteers

 

Author: Addison Waters