How To Onboard Volunteers

The Problem: Your volunteers are not having the positive impact on your organization that you anticipated. They are doing lower-quality work than required, showing up less-often than expected, or simply leaving more quickly than you can replace them. So you’re stuck.

The Solution: You're actually not stuck. There are strategies that you can implement during the onboarding process to maximize the impact and minimize the frustration of your volunteers.

The Strategies:

  1. Name YOUR goals. Show them that you have thought about what you need from them. When you are overworked, you will communicate frantically. Take a moment to relax and consider what specific problems you need help solving. There are volunteers who will step up and answer a frantic call for general “help,” but working relationships (even unpaid) don’t last as long when they start that way. What specific tasks do you want the volunteer to be responsible for? How long do you want them to be in your community? What do you define as “successful” completion of their work?

  2. Get THEM to name THEIR goals. Show them that you understand they deserve some sort of return on investment, even if money is not an option. Here are some examples of goals that your volunteers may have: Learn a new skill, show off an existing skill, leverage a title, meet the right people, have the right reputation. When they name their goals, make sure you can meet them and if not, refer them to a different position or a different organization.

  3. DECIDE what you are NOT going to do to them. Show them that your organization has community values. What kind of culture do you market yourself as having? What are experiences that would create cognitive dissonance for a volunteer within your organization? For example, my company culture claims to be pro-mental health. If my communications with a volunteer create undue stress or limit their ability to take care of themselves, they will feel cognitive dissonance. They will turn that feeling inward, shame themselves, and eventually leave, probably naming an alternative reason. Or they will turn that feeling outward and claim that me or my company are hypocritical. When I honor my company culture, I maintain the relationship and the reputation. Many leaders set vague goals for “treating people well.” Set specific goals for how you are NOT going to treat people, and then apologize when you break your own rules.  

  4. Provide an EXIT STRATEGY.  Show them that you don’t expect them to stay in the same role forever. They probably won’t. There is some sort of goal they have in association with volunteering for you (hopefully you asked them to name it). Ideally, you will meet that goal and then guide them to their next opportunity (inside or outside of the company). However, you might fail to meet that goal and when they realize you are failing they will transition themselves out. During your onboarding process, include a discussion on who to talk to and how to talk about ending the volunteer assignment. When people can anticipate a sense of closure, they feel more inclined to work hard during their time of commitment.

  5. Avoid VAGUE ALTRUISM. Show them that there is more to gain from volunteering with your organization than a sense of “doing the right thing” or “helping the right person.” Doing the right thing is a respectable motivation. But it’s an unsustainable motivation. If someone says they are volunteering with you because they support your vision or cause (or because of a personal connection to you), show them that you value and appreciate that motivation, but challenge them to dig in. The truth is if they aren’t growing in skill, network, or opportunity, their experience will eventually be negative. They will get off task easily, miss deadlines, and make empty promises. This will be difficult for you, but it will also create a sense of guilt and cognitive dissonance for them, because they genuinely do believe in and support your vision but they are unable to follow through. This does not make them bad volunteers. This just makes them volunteers with misplaced energy. They may be better suited for another role or another organization. But why not help them stay in yours?

Action Steps: Take ten minutes to reflect on your volunteer onboarding tools. Do your volunteers have to create their own game plan or do you give them one? Do they end up doing work that should be part of someone else’s job? Do they start out passionate and then disappear? All of these could be signs that you need to upgrade your volunteer onboarding processes with the strategies above? With a little reflection and a lot of respect, you CAN effectively onboard your volunteers and create a lasting volunteer community.

So that’s my advice. I hope it helps.

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