The Best Way to Ensure Your Volunteers Do Not Fail

Let’s make sure our volunteers do not fail. Let’s do a better job of recruiting and retaining volunteers while helping them be more successful. Remember, when volunteers are more successful, our nonprofit organizations are more successful.

This is the second part in a series of posts about volunteers. I’m publishing this series for three reasons:

  • It’s National Volunteer Month.
  • Volunteerism is on the decline in the USA, and we can and must reverse that trend.
  • Volunteers are a valuable resource to the nonprofit sector. They serve as organization ambassadors, provide free labor, and donate generously. We need them!

In the first part of the series, we looked at how to avoid major pitfalls and manage volunteers more effectively. Now, we will consider the best way to ensure that your volunteers do not fail. The result will be a win-win relationship between your volunteers and your organization.

Once again, we’re fortunate to receive some terrific insights from Kelly Ronan on Twitter. Kelly is an Indiana State University Bayh College of Education Scholars-to-Teachers Program Scholar and a candidate for the Certified Nonprofit Professional credential offered through the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance.

Kelly believes that a robust orientation program for volunteers, as part of a training effort, will help them avoid failure and, instead, meet with success. So, before tossing your volunteers into the proverbial deep-end of the pool, make sure they first receive a solid orientation consisting of the eight key elements Kelly suggests:


An effective orientation will provide an overview for a volunteer that is new to your organization, and a refresher for a returning volunteer. It will provide a general understanding of who the organization is, what the organization does, and how volunteers play a key role.

The following eight elements will make your volunteer orientation great, and will help ensure that your volunteers have a meaningful experience as they help your organization.

1.  Make volunteers feel like they belong!

The “belonging” atmosphere should begin the moment you make contact with the new volunteer, whether that is speaking on the phone or through emails. Be sure to reach out to a new volunteer while the excitement of volunteering is still fresh on their mind. Hosting an orientation is a powerful way to engage volunteers and help them get off to a good start.

Once they reach orientation, it is time to make them feel like your organization is the right fit for them. Have your volunteers get connected with staff and other volunteers. Consider planning a fun ice-breaker activity or planning for partner/small group interaction as part of your orientation. It is important that your new volunteers feel welcome and appreciated.

2.  Effective, meaningful communication is key!

No one likes to feel lost. Orientation is the time to state, in appropriate detail, what is expected of volunteers. This includes things like behavior standards, dress codes, confidentiality, time commitments, and more. Taking the time to address expectations up front can save a lot of time further down the road once the volunteer has started their assignment. Remember that you can’t expect your volunteers to meet expectations that you haven’t clearly defined.

3.  Share the mission of organization!

Just like staff members, volunteers should know your organization’s mission. They need to know what they are putting their time and talent towards. Sharing a bit of history about the organization, the mission statement and goals and objectives are helpful to a new volunteer. This also helps them to see how their role as a volunteer fits into the organization’s plan. Additionally, you can include a brief description of programs, and you may want to share some impacts your organization has had on the communities it serves.

4.  Review policies and procedures!

In your orientation, it’s a good idea to include an explanation of policies, procedures, rules, and guidelines. You can conduct the orientation using a PowerPoint presentation, a video, or another technological method. However, even in the age of electronics, tangible handouts can still valuable when it comes to creating a great orientation program.

Consider emailing a copy of all materials ahead of orientation for volunteers to keep in their records. This way, your organization can be sustainable, yet still offer volunteers the opportunity to have a tangible copy to refer to as needed. This will provide a sense of comfort to many volunteers.

Verified Volunteers offers an expansive list of topics to cover in a volunteer manual, including:

  • general rules and procedures
  • staff and volunteer directory
  • a copy of the nonprofit’s mission statement
  • check-in procedures
  • how to track volunteer hours
  • dress code
  • reimbursement policy for things like gasoline
  • termination policy

Make sure to also inform volunteers who they can contact, and how, with questions.

5.  Offer support!

Introduce key staff members to volunteers and explain the roles of each in the organization. Additionally, it is likely that volunteers will want to know where/how to access additional resources to help them in their role. Explain modes of communication that are used: email, monthly newsletter, team meetings, etc. Be sure to comfort volunteers and let them know they won’t be out there alone that they can always ask questions.

A support system is another key element in making volunteers feel welcome and comfortable with an organization. A well-trained, well-supported volunteer will be a more comfortable, confident volunteer. A more comfortable, confident volunteer will be a more effective volunteer.

6.  Give them a grand tour!

Take your volunteers on a tour of your facilities and/or service sites. Make sure to point out things like restrooms, volunteer offices, phones, parking, resources, break rooms, and supply/housekeeping closets. This way volunteers can know where all volunteer spaces and materials are prior to their volunteer experience. They’ll also have a better understanding of the entire organization and how it delivers services.

7.  Manage risk!

Be sure that all logistical risk management paperwork is filled out at the orientation. If needed by your organization, volunteers should have an updated background check, appropriate personal information, and a signed waiver. Additionally, any organization-specific risk management paperwork/activities should be completed as well.

8.  Keep volunteers engaged!

While most volunteers will have to attend a training session beyond their orientation, it is still possible to keep the orientation from feeling like lecture! VolunteerHub offers some great ideas that can be used for both orientations and trainings to keep volunteers engaged: 

  • Include games and ice breakers into your volunteers’ experience.
  • Incorporate group activities and role-playing to help volunteers learn.
  • Ask volunteers for their feedback regarding their experience.
  • Provide content that is emotionally driven.
  • Include practice exercises that are fun and create friendships.
  • Don’t forget to reinforce your organization’s mission and tell stories of change to your volunteers.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that volunteers are choosing to give their time and talents to your organization to help you meet your goals. Ensure your volunteers are informed and comfortable. Treat them like the supporters they are. Then, they’ll be best able to serve your organization.


That’s what Kelly Ronan and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

2 Comments to “The Best Way to Ensure Your Volunteers Do Not Fail”

  1. There is a lot of wisdom in this article. In your opinion, what do you think volunteers should do to best help nonprofit organizations they support? I think that would make a great piece! I have read so much about how to help volunteers, but not so much the other way around. As a volunteer, that is my perspective. Just food for thought! Thank you for the great article!

    • Omar, thank you for your kind feedback and question. For now, I’ll give you a quick answer: Determining how best to utilize volunteer resources is a discussion that will lead to different answers for different organizations. The key is for organizations to identify their staffing needs that can be met by volunteers and, then, prioritize those needs. Part of the equation will also be based on the available volunteer resources.

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