A Comprehensive Guide To Volunteer Training

Lo Kidd

April 30, 2021

You spend countless hours and dollars recruiting volunteers. But what happens once they sign up? You know – before they actually start volunteering? (Hint: There is a correct answer to this one.) 

Ideally, you send them through your robust volunteer training program! That way, when your event rolls around, your volunteers have the skills and knowledge they need to click into your organization. 

👉 Trainual is the top-rated volunteer training platform for people-powered organizations! Try for free.

What is volunteer training?

Volunteer training is the process of getting volunteers the skills and knowledge they need to support your organization from the inside. And it’s a must for any nonprofit. 

That’s because volunteer training sets expectations on what volunteers will be doing, how exactly, and why. Meaning, it works like less intensive employee training – but for your volunteers. That way, they get fully aligned with your organization’s mission and aren’t left guessing how they can jump in.

Plus, when done right, volunteer training gets volunteers more engaged and empowers them to act autonomously. So, you can be confident that they’re doing their job right. And you’re not left feeling like you need to micromanage their every move (even if it’s their first time volunteering with you). 

When this is the case, more work gets done. And your volunteers are more likely to come back to volunteer again and again. This ends up being one of the biggest wins that come from volunteer training!

Because if you’re like most organizations, you only retain 65% of your volunteers without a robust volunteer training program. Meaning for every 3 volunteers you train, one will walk away. Forcing you to recruit and train their replacement.  

But by investing a little more in training your volunteers upfront, you can spend less later. Because you’ll retain more volunteers. And you won’t need to constantly recruit, retrain, or fix mistakes that come with inexperience.

Why is volunteer training so important?

Short answer: volunteer training prepares your volunteers, so they can bring their A-game. And you won’t be left wasting time, wasting resources, or fixing costly mistakes. AKA trained volunteers help your nonprofit make a much bigger impact.

Why is volunteer training so important?

Gets everyone involved

When you train your volunteers, they know what they’re supposed to be doing. And they’re more likely to do it. Meaning, even your newest volunteers will be helping out. Not just hovering around, watching your full-time employees and veteran volunteers work. 

This means if 10 volunteers show up to your event. You’re actually getting 10 people’s worth of work. And at the end of the day, you get more done! 

And your volunteers do it autonomously. Because they’re not wondering what’s expected of them. They know what they’re responsible for and how to do it. So, they get straight to it – no questions asked.

Plus, chances are good you have several different jobs that need to get done at your events, like greeting people and heavy lifting. So, when you train your volunteers, you can let them know all their options. 

That way, they can choose to do whichever job best fits their skill set and interests. So, they don’t just do the work, but they’re more engaged. Meaning they get a lot more done and do it a lot better.

Saves on resources

Untrained volunteers waste a lot of resources. It’s just a fact. And while a mistake here and a wasted minute there might be no big deal, they add up fast. 

Let’s factor just time alone. A volunteer’s time is worth roughly $26 per hour on average. So, every minute spent redoing a step, answering the same question, or looking for help is a huge waste. 

So, imagine you have 10 volunteers who volunteer for 4 hours each. And each one of them wastes an hour throughout the day. At the end of the day, you wasted 25% of your volunteer time and spent $260 with nothing to show for it. 

And that doesn’t even factor in any costs involved in fixing any mistakes. Any time your full-time employees spent helping your volunteers. Or any costs to replace the volunteers who don’t come back because they didn’t feel helpful. 

In fact, 44% of volunteers would rather go elsewhere than continue to help an organization that doesn’t use their skills. Meaning, the more engaged your volunteers are, the more likely they are to volunteer again. 

But by taking the time to train your volunteers, you can proactively avoid all of these costs. Because you keep your volunteers engaged, and they don’t need to guess. Instead, they know how your organization does things – so that’s how they do it too.
🔥 Tip: Training your volunteers with Trainual costs you less than one volunteer’s time. And you can even do it ahead of time, so your volunteers show up ready to jump in. Try for free.

Leaves a bigger impact

With a volunteer training program, you get all your volunteers involved and actually contributing. And you’re not wasting time or money in the process. And as a result, your organization makes a bigger impact. 

That’s because your volunteers spend less time figuring out how to do their job and more time, well, volunteering. And their work actually builds toward your mission. 

Meanwhile, untrained volunteers just move the pieces around until they can go home. And at the end of the day, a lot got moved. But nothing got built. Don’t think your untrained volunteers didn’t notice. 

They’ll leave feeling like they just wasted a few hours. And they likely won’t come back to volunteer again. This cuts away at your total impact.  Because the money you could’ve spent furthering your mission now needs to be spent recruiting and retraining volunteers. 

Whereas trained volunteers leave knowing they personally made an impact. And they’re more likely to come back to do it again. Each time they volunteer again, they get better at what your organization does. 

Meaning, they do it faster, safer, and more effectively. AKA they personally make a bigger impact. Get enough volunteers to come back again and again, and your impact is suddenly exponential.

Where training fits in the volunteer management process

The volunteer management process is hectic enough. You have to recruit volunteers, actually get those volunteers to your event, and get them to engage once they’re there. 

And trying to fit training into your volunteer management process can just feel like another headache. But it really makes all the other steps easier. 

Here’s how (and where to fit it in):

Where volunteer training fits in the volunteer management process

1. Volunteer recruitment

Before you can train volunteers, you need to recruit them. This means passing out flyers, posting online, and asking everyone you know to get involved. 

You’ll, of course, want to talk about the organization, what the event is, and when it’s happening. But you’ll also want to mention what volunteers will actually be doing and that you’ll train them on any skills they’re missing. 

It might seem like a small or insignificant detail. But training your volunteers sets your organization apart. And it can get people who otherwise wouldn’t sign up to get involved!

2. Volunteer scheduling

Once you have people interested in volunteering with your organization, it’s time to get them to actually show up. And that starts by making concrete plans for when they’re supposed to be where. Try to do this at least 2 weeks before your event.
For example, IRONMAN has volunteers sign up for a specific time slot and specific job months in advance. Such as checking people in, working first aid, and supporting runners once they cross the finish line.

Volunteers at IRONMAN 70.3 Texas
A volunteer huddle at IRONMAN 70.3 Texas.

That way, they don’t have to train all their volunteers on everything (that would be overwhelming). Instead, they only train volunteers on what they’re actually going to be doing. And as a result, they can dive a bit deeper into the how-tos and need-to-knows. 

Plus, they can also include specific details about where volunteers should be and when. That way, coordinating thousands of volunteers is more manageable. And there’s no confusion (and no excuses for not showing up) come race day. 

🔥 Tip: IRONMAN uses Trainual, the top-rated volunteer training platform, to train thousands of volunteers to work their races. Try for free.

3. Volunteer training

A week before the event, start onboarding and training your volunteers. Meaning, send them all the information they’ll need to volunteer with you. And set expectations that this should be done before they show up. 

Admittedly, you probably have a lot to go over. So, break it into smaller sections. That’ll keep your volunteers from hitting information overload.

For example, if you’re building your training in an online training tool like Trainual (you should), break it into 3 subjects:

  1. General need-to-knows. A warm welcome, a high-level overview of your organization, and a breakdown of your mission included. 
  2. Event-specific need-to-knows. Meaning, anything your team needs to know about the specific event their volunteering at. Like where the event is happening, what it is, and when to show up. 
  3. Responsibility-specific how-tos.  AKA how exactly to do the nitty-gritty processes your volunteers are expected to do. Such as how to check people into the event.

Just make sure you’re only assigning training content that your volunteers actually need to know. You want to make sure you get volunteers aligned with your organization. But that you don’t overwhelm them. It’s a balancing act. 

The less content volunteers have, the more likely they are to actually get through it all. And the more likely they are to remember it all (so you don’t have to go over it again later).

🔥 Tip: Some volunteers will need you to sign off on their hours (usually for school). In these cases, add the hours spent training into the final number. If they need more hours later, that’ll make them more likely to clock those hours with your organization.

4. Engage your volunteers

With your volunteers arriving trained, chances are good they’ll be hyped to get started. So, all you have to do is keep them engaged! Meaning, put their new skills and knowledge to good work. And, honestly, this is the easy part! 

Often, volunteers don’t engage because they’re confused or simply don’t know how to do something. And if you let this go on long enough, they’ll quit on you (literally and figuratively). 

But by giving your volunteers the answers they need before they need them, you’ve already taken care of it. So all you have to do is show your volunteers how much you appreciate them helping your organization out and give them plenty to do!

🔥 Tip: Volunteers can put your training in their pocket with Trainual’s mobile app. And if they have any questions during the event, they can simply look up the answer in seconds – straight from their phone. Download for free from Google Play or App Store.

How to build a volunteer training program

Transitioning from a half-heard chat at the beginning of your event or one very long email to a volunteer training program is a big task. But nothing that hasn’t been tackled before. 

For example, early in 2021, IRONMAN had a 40-page document, walking through their volunteer training process. Complete with notes in the margins. 

They turned that document into a comprehensive volunteer training program that gets thousands of volunteers up to speed before each race. All thanks to Trainual, I might add.

Now, their race days run smoother. Because their volunteers show up knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. So, everyone jumps right in, and no time gets wasted. 

Here’s how you can do the same:

Step 1: Determine your method

There are a few different ways to go about volunteer training – and they’re not all created equal. So, before you actually start training anyone, you need to first know how you plan to train them. That way, you can plan accordingly. 

The 3 most common volunteer training methods are:

Determine your method for volunteer training

1. A chat right before the event

For most organizations, training consists of a chat at the beginning of the event. And while it’s more or less free, it wastes a lot of time upfront and throughout the day. 

That’s because most people won’t be listening (if they’re present at all). And even if they are listening, they won’t retain it all. It’s simply too much information at once. 

So, you’re left answering the same questions over and over throughout the day. Most of which you already answered in the initial chat. And there’s no way to hold people accountable for doing things the right way. AKA you’ll likely see a lot of mistakes throughout the day.

2. In one very long email

To save time day-of, you can also send an email out ahead of time with all the training information. But your volunteers might not open it. And even if they do, you can’t hold volunteers accountable for knowing the information. Because there’s no way to tell who read the email. 

Read or not, the email will undoubtedly cover a lot of information. So, chances are good that most volunteers who “read” the email will only skim it. Meaning they won’t retain most of it (if any). 

Day of the event, this brings you back to square one. You’ll spend all the time you thought you saved by crafting the email retraining your volunteers. Probably as a chat at the beginning of the event – so, why not do that in the first place? Or answering the same questions over and over again because your volunteers are missing part of their training. Either way, it’s not effective.

3. Online, ahead of time

Alternatively, you can choose a volunteer training tool to get your volunteers up to speed. That way, they can go through their training on their own time from anywhere. And they actually show up ready for your event. (Call us biased – but we love Trainual for this!)

Admittedly, training tools are the only method that comes with a clear, upfront cost. But the difference is, what you see on the price tag is all you spend. So, you don’t waste any time during the event repeating yourself. And volunteers don’t make any avoidable mistakes that end up costing you later. 

And all you have to do is assign training content directly to each volunteer – based on what they need to know. And then, track that they went through it and test that they understood it. That way, it all gets done before they show up. 

Plus, if someone is procrastinating on their volunteer training, you can even send them a reminder at the click of a button. That way, there’s no excuse for volunteers not to have completed their training.
🔥 Tip: Trainual is 50% off for qualifying nonprofits. Meaning, you can get your volunteers up to speed for as low as $50 per month. Learn more.

Step 2: Build your training content

Once you have your method, it’s time to start documenting what your volunteers need to know. That way, you can double-check that you cover everything. 

Notice that I said “document” – not write notes or jot down ideas. That’s because you want every volunteer to have the same amazing training experience. 

And that starts by getting the same information delivered the same way to every volunteer. That way, there’s a lot less room for misunderstandings or miscommunication. 

So, bare minimum, you’ll want to write down general need-to-knows, event-specific need-to-knows, and responsibility-specific how-tos.

What to include in your volunteer training

General need-to-knows

What do your volunteers need to know about your organization at a high level? Whatever you just answered, write it down.

Try to stick to tidbits that will get your volunteers hyped to be involved. Such as: 

  • Your mission
  • How you accomplish that mission
  • Your impact so far

Don’t forget to include a warm welcome and thank your volunteers in this section of your training content! Because this is what your volunteers go through first.

Event-specific need-to-knows

What do your volunteers need to know about the event? Don’t worry about diving into what your volunteers will specifically do. That will come next!

Instead, focus on what context they need around what they signed up for. Such as: 

  • The type of event
  • Who will be in attendance
  • Where it takes place
  • How long the event lasts
  • If volunteers have to be there the whole time
  • If volunteers have to bring anything

Responsibility-specific how-tos

What will your volunteers be doing? When you’re answering this question, get as specific as possible. Meaning, don’t just say you’ll be checking people in. Instead, give a standard operating procedure that breaks down how to check people in. That way, every volunteer does it the same way. 

For best practice, have volunteers sign up ahead of time for a specific role. That way, you can send them only the documentation related to that role. Not everything. 

That way, volunteers don’t have to shuffle through hours of reading to find their section. And they’re more likely to actually remember what to do and how to do it. Which, after all, is the goal of volunteer training!

Step 3: Actually train your volunteers

If you’re using a training tool (you should be – it’s the easiest and most effective), start training your volunteers at least a week before the event. This should give you plenty of time to answer any questions and make sure everyone gets it done. 

Start by assigning content directly to each volunteer within the training tool. Every volunteer should get the general need-to-knows and the event-specific need-to-knows. Then, assign the responsibility-specific how-tos that relate to whatever volunteer position the person signed up for. But only assign what they have to know. 

What volunteer training looks like in Trainual!

For example, if someone signed up to pass out food at your soup kitchen, assign the content that breaks down how exactly you pass out food. But don’t worry about sending this person documentation on tasks they won’t be doing, such as greeting people at the door or making the soup. 

Then, inside your training tool, track which volunteers went through their content. If what you do is a bit more complicated or has less room for mistakes, feel free to add a test or 2. That way, you can also check for understanding. 

Then, 3 days before the event and the day before, send volunteers who haven’t gone through their training a reminder. Make sure to include a link to the training (in case they lost it) and clear expectations that it should be done before they show up to volunteer.

Step 4: Get feedback from your volunteers

Once the event is over, ask all your volunteers for feedback on their training. The more specific the feedback, the better your volunteer training gets. 

So, try sending out a Typeform with questions like: 

  • What information were you missing?
  • Was there any information you needed clarification on? 
  • What information in your training did you not use?

Also, take into account any questions that you answered throughout the day. Especially if several people asked the same question. 

Whatever feedback you get, you’ll want to use it to update your training content. And while you’re at it, update any processes or information that is no longer up to date. 

For example, after your event, you probably have an even bigger impact to brag about! Plus, you might have found a few new best practices or updated a few outdated processes. So, add them to your training content.

That way, your next cohort of volunteers get an even better volunteer training experience. And when your volunteers are constantly leveling up, so do your events. Meaning, you’re always creating the best experience possible for everyone involved!

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