Building skills in volunteers

Volunteers are the heart of many non-profit organizations. How can you ensure they have the skills needed to succeed?

Most organizations recognize the need to continually invest in staff development to build skills and keep up with current research. In non-profit organizations, it is equally important to invest in the development of volunteers to ensure they have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed. Of course, training takes time and that is something many volunteer coordinators have very little of. How can you make the most of your training time?

Michigan State University Extension has the following tips to guide you when developing a training program.

  • Recognize the difference between training and orientation. Orientation is the process of helping a new volunteer understand the organization and the position. It includes things like reviewing policies and procedures, sharing required forms and giving a tour. Training, on the other hand, helps build skills in key areas that directly connect to the work that will be done. Volunteers typically need orientation and training.
  • There is no need to recreate the wheel. Use evidence-based curriculum like MSU Extension’s Ready to Go: A Mentor Training Toolkit or another curriculum that has undergone peer review and significant piloting. Teaching is an art and creating engaging training activities takes a significant amount of time; let someone else do that part and focus on selecting hands-on activities that teach the skills your volunteers need.
  • Determine which skills are needed on day one and which can be built over time. Develop a schedule that makes sense and share dates early and often. Start with a pre-service training to cover the basics. Consider monthly or quarterly in-services to further develop skill sets over time.
  • Some training is focused on knowledge transfer. If you are looking to share information that does not require practice or discussion, consider online options. This can include webinars, video conferencing, videos and blogs. Online training should not take the place of skill building, face-to-face training, but it can complement those sessions and allow you to reduce the frequency. For example, if you currently have a three-hour training that involved an hour of lecture/PowerPoint, consider putting the lecture/Power Point on video or deliver by webinar. When the group comes together, you can focus on practicing skills and have a shorter session.
  • Do not apologize for training. Training is an added benefit for volunteers. Rarely will you teach a skill that is solely used in the volunteer setting. Building skills like cultural competency, setting boundaries or communication skills can help at home and work as well. Sell your training as a benefit. It shows that the volunteer role is important and valued.
  • Consider guest speakers. You do not need to be the expert on everything. A guest speaker can be a draw.
  • Partner with another volunteer organization for joint trainings. Planning a training can be time consuming. Share the work with another organization and take turns hosting sessions and invite all of the volunteers from both organizations. The more organizations you partner with, the fewer sessions you need to host.
  • Use training to market your program. By publicizing sessions and opening them up to the community, others will learn about your work and may become future volunteers.

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