Many nonprofits say that volunteers are the “lifeblood” of their organization; without volunteers, advancing their mission would be nearly impossible. Still, those familiar with volunteer management know retaining volunteers is often a struggle, as volunteers often disappear after helping only a few times.  


Volunteer management experts agree that establishing a strong volunteer onboarding process is a key ingredient in boosting volunteer retention rates. Onboarding teaches volunteers the skills and knowledge necessary to perform required tasks while giving them a sense of purpose and place within the organization’s community.  In a way, it helps volunteers grow roots in the organization, making it less likely that they will leave.


Each nonprofit’s volunteer management processes will look a little different, but most onboarding should accomplish four main objectives.


Communicate Expectations

The beginning of every onboarding process should introduce volunteers to the organization and communicate overall expectations. This introduction should answer the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” questions. During this phase, proper volunteer management includes introducing the types of work they’ll do, potential obstacles they’ll face, and possible ways to overcome them. Volunteers should learn about policies and procedures, and they should meet other volunteer management staff they will interact with most often. Most importantly, volunteers should learn how they will help the organization advance its mission. Ultimately, successful volunteer management onboards volunteers with a realistic perspective of their role and future within the organization.


Provide Formal Training

Although nonprofits are commonly stretched thin, desperate for immediate manpower, formally training volunteers should not be overlooked. In fact, seasoned volunteer management professionals know putting untrained volunteers to work will only make them anxious, and they will likely not return. During onboarding, volunteers should experience a training period, where they are taught necessary skills.  This is a great point to integrate veteran volunteers into volunteer management, allowing new volunteers to shadow until they feel comfortable enough to volunteer on their own. As volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson says, this practice time boosts confidence, and, like a game of connect-the-dots, it helps volunteers gain a greater understanding of the organization as a whole.


Establish Rituals

When volunteers are onboarded, they should quickly learn the procedures and protocols specific to the organization. These “rituals” foster a predictable atmosphere for volunteers, which helps them clearly understand where to go for specific duties, how to accomplish certain tasks, and who to see for particular issues. Furthering this phase of volunteer management includes running trainings, meetings, and ceremonies according to the same formats. Doing so will simply help volunteers know what to expect, and it can also help strengthen volunteers’ sense of connection.


Foster Connections

Volunteers are more likely to continue volunteering for an organization where well thought out volunteer management processes have developed personal, emotional, or professional connections. An effective onboarding process cultivates such connections among volunteers and between volunteers and staff. During the introductory period, volunteers can begin to feel connected simply by participating in ice-breakers and informal social gatherings where they get to know other new volunteers, experienced volunteers, and volunteer management staff. In the training process, volunteers can deepen their connections by shadowing experienced volunteers and working with beneficiaries.  As they begin to see the impact of their work, nonprofits should take the opportunity to recognize this outcome, reinforcing volunteers’ connection. As volunteers grow and continue to make an impact, frequent recognition and appreciation will help deepen volunteers’ connections to the organization.


Establishing a strong onboarding program will set volunteers off on the right foot, equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and support they need to do the best job possible.  When combined with ongoing efforts to keep volunteers coming back and to keep from driving them away, volunteer onboarding will help make any volunteer program thrive.


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