Episode #012: Training Volunteers What I Wish I’d Known

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you. 

Well, hello there, and welcome to another episode of the Volunteer Nation Podcast. Today we’re going to talk all about training volunteers. In fact, I’m going to share some of my biggest mistakes.  

You know, one of my first jobs working with volunteers was as a trainer, and I did about four to five update trainings per month. I traveled around my region in Western Washington where I lived and I trained new volunteers, but I also trained a lot of experienced volunteers who had been with our organization for literally decades. 

They knew so much more than I did, often about the topics I was training. And so, I learned a lot from the experience, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. And I thought today I would share some of my biggest pieces of wisdom from back in the day.  

I will tell you “back in the day” was a long time ago, because back then when I first started training volunteers, I was using slide transparencies. I am not kidding, slide transparencies! This was way before laptops and projectors.  

In fact, at that time, I had to remember, in terms of technology preparation had to remember to bring an extra bulb in case the bulb blew in my projector. Yeah, it was that long ago.  

And then we finally got projectors and laptops, and then the laptops wouldn’t talk to the projectors. So, I’ve been around the block a few times, but what I’m sharing today are things that are universal. Things that have not changed around how we want to train our volunteers, prepare them for service so they’re comfortable, confident and effective.  

So let’s talk a little bit about what my biggest mistakes were. Let’s start with Mistake #1. One of the biggest mistakes was assuming that training was always the answer to a performance problem or goal. Often in our organizations, when there’s an issue, we often just want to throw training at it. “Well, let’s create some training!” 

And you know, not very often do people ask, “Well, why do we need training? Is training the right answer?” And so, sometimes we would deliver training and the problem would persist.  

Training is great for skill building, for changing or upgrading people’s ability to deal with problems, sometimes for changing behavior in terms of how people approach a specific task. But training rarely works to address motivation or attitude gaps for volunteers. 

Training doesn’t really do that for you. Training does not address environmental gaps. So if there’s something blocking performance, whether it’s not having enough time or not having enough tools or the right tools, no amount of training is going to fix that.  

Or communications gaps. If the supervisor or leader is not communicating clearly with the volunteers or it’s contradictory to what they were trained on, then the training won’t work either. Or maybe the training, the people who need to be trained are the supervisors.  

So training isn’t always the answer. And back in the day, I would assume the training always was. So that’s my first mistake.  

Second mistake: not focusing on only three to four key action-based learning objectives for every hour of instruction. I remember some of my slides, I would have six different learning objectives for an hour, and I could tell you, it doesn’t work.  

You’re crammin’ too much in there! So before you open up your PowerPoint, you know, you really need to understand what you’re actually teaching. And back in the day, I really would think, you know, I want people to understand XYZ. I want them to become aware of XYZ, and those aren’t really action based learning objectives.  

And there is no way to check whether or not the volunteer has learned those things. So when I say action-based learning objectives, what I mean is that it is something, a statement about what the volunteer will be able to do either at the end of the training, or within a few weeks of the training with a little bit of extra support. 

So, it has to be something you can witness. You can see. If you were to film it, you would see it happen. But back in the day, my big mistake was that I thought learning objectives could be about awareness or knowing something, but it really isn’t about that. It’s about doing. 

So for example, I’ll give you an example. One of the common learning objectives in a volunteer orientation is I would like volunteers to know our mission, but there’s no way to know whether they know your mission, right?  

That’s not really what you want volunteers to be able to do. You want volunteers to be able to explain your mission to other people. That’s an action-based learning objective. So that was a mistake I made early on. And since then, I’ve changed my ways. Thank goodness!  

Third mistake when it comes to how I was training volunteers: I didn’t actively encourage volunteers to co-produce the content, not only co-produce the content, but also help present and lead discussions.  

Now I will say that I actually did do this. I did invite volunteers to come up and help me develop and present content, but I really didn’t prepare volunteers well enough and didn’t yield the floor enough during conversations. 

I really wasn’t a facilitator of learning. I was a presenter of learning. And I think if I would have brought that ethos into the classroom a little bit more, I think volunteers would have been more likely to step up and say, “Yeah, I’ll help present.” Because even when I would ask people, would invite them to be co-presenters, and not very many people would step up. 

And it’s because we hadn’t created a culture in the classroom of people co-producing the outcomes. Even though we had set curriculum, there’s certain ways you can bring volunteers in. There’s lots of ways you can bring volunteers’ expertise into even a set curriculum. And remember I was training volunteers for update trainings at four to five different sites per month.  

And then I was training, the initial trainings were 35 hours each. So this was a lot of training. It was my job to train others. So I spent a lot of time standing up in front of the room, talking when I should have been engaging my volunteers a little bit more. So that was my Mistake #3. 

Mistake #4 was not designing for interaction. And I mean real interaction. So it’s a little bit similar to my third mistake. There are so many ways to engage people, get them warmed up, sharing inspirational quotes, asking questions, asking people to share their experiences, asking people to just respond to a question or do some self-reflection.  

There’s lots of creativity and I wasn’t using it. I was following the curriculum. I wasn’t thinking outside the box in terms of getting people engaged. You got to remember that volunteers, they volunteer on their leisure time. It’s serious leisure time, but it’s still leisure time. And they really want to enjoy what they’re doing.  

If it feels boring or onerous or difficult, then they’re not going to really want to come back. So we have to make our learning fun. And one of the ways to make our learning fun is to design for real interaction. So that was my fourth mistake.  

My fifth mistake was “Death by PowerPoint.” I would put way too much text on my slides, way too much text on my slides. You know, a picture is worth a thousand words. We hear that saying, right? A picture is worth a thousand words, and pictures and photographs can be used. Whether it’s a graphic or a photograph, you can use these to explain a lot and people can understand on a deeper level.  

It doesn’t always have to be text. And I remember I would develop slides and all of my slides would look exactly the same. A title at the top, and four to five to six to seven to eight bullets below. Super small, super intense, super boring. And I’m sure people were tuning out. 

So, if you’re a former volunteer of mine that I’ve worked with or trained, you know what I’m talking about. Please forgive me! Anyway, so putting too much text on your slides. Nowadays, I really strive to switch up how the design of my slides are. I’m not using the same layout or design every single time.  

I try to use a lot of images to not only break up text, but to give people other pieces of information, more intuitive in some ways. So, it’s been a lot of fun to get better and better at my slide designs. Even as late as 10 years ago, when I started my consulting practice, I look back at those slides and I’m like, oh Lord have mercy. I cannot believe, oh I cannot believe I used to have slides that look like that.  

But you know what? We all got to evolve. So that is my fifth mistake. Let’s take a quick break. And when we come back, I’m going to share four more of my biggest mistakes when I was training volunteers.  

If you’ve enjoyed this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the Volunteer Management Fundamentals Certificate. In it, you will learn the essential what’s-working-now strategies to not only attract qualified volunteers with confidence, but how to make your organization THE place they want to return to again and again. And you do it all in just five focused weeks.  

This online course is specifically designed to help new and emerging leaders of volunteers get a running start by offering a clear, focused set of practical tactics aimed at results. If you’re interested, visit VolPro.net/begin. 

Okay, welcome back from the break. Before the break, I shared five mistakes I made and what I wish I would have done when I started training volunteers. Let’s continue with this list of the walk of shame of volunteer training.  

It’s okay. I’m okay. Being vulnerable and sharing my mistakes. We all have to learn, right?  

So let’s talk about #6, my biggest mistake. #6: not inspiring emotion. We often think that training is about information sharing, that we’re going to download information into people’s brains. They’re going to learn it and they’re going to walk out, but that’s not really how learning happens.  

Emotions have because of their nature in terms of the hormones they elicit or they produce, or hormones producing emotions. We could go chicken or egg on that, but we won’t. Anyway, emotions are associated with hormones. And so, when we have certain pleasure hormones going running around in our bodies, when we’re trying to learn, we can actually learn more easily when we’re happy.  

When we’re more relaxed, when we’re having a good time, we actually are able to synthesize information more effectively in our brains. When we’re stressed, worried, overwhelmed, our brains start to shut down and they don’t learn as well. As instructional designers and trainers of volunteers, we want to think about how we inspire emotion.  

You know, we want to give people time to reflect on what they’re learning. To share, we want to share stories of transformation with our volunteers. We want to share maybe some challenging information and then maybe share some uplifting information.  

You know, training has an emotional rhythm. If you pay attention to any training session that you’re either training others or you’re being trained, just pay attention to the emotional rhythm of it. There is a dynamic there and you can design for it.  

There’s a book called “Resonate” and I’ll link to it in the show notes. And it really talks about how you design a presentation. One of the case studies in that book is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and it’s all analyzed step-by-step. And how emotion is used to engage the listener.  

You can do this with your training as well. We really do want to inspire emotion. We can’t discount the power of strong emotions in helping us support our training and our learning of our volunteers. 

Okay, Mistake #7: going over the time allotted. Yep. I used to not plan very well and often we would keep going because we weren’t done yet. And when you run over time, your audience feels like their time Isn’t respected. Now, it’s not always possible. Sometimes we run over time a little bit, but if volunteers are contributing their time we need to be really respectful of that time.  

Sometimes if you run over frequently, they also start to question your expertise and sometimes the credibility of what you’re teaching, and you don’t want to cast any doubts. If you’re trying to teach people about the proper processes or tasks there’ll be involved, you’re trying to build confidence in volunteers and going over time erodes that sense of confidence. So, you don’t want to do that.  

So don’t devalue yourself by not planning ahead. Over the years, I have found a very simple way that I track my time. And again, I don’t always, you know, in our VolunteerPro Membership trainings, sometimes I’ll go over by five minutes or three minutes.  

Sometimes 10 minutes, but I do some things to help me keep on point. And one of them is in my speaker notes. I will write down at what point on the clock I need to be at certain slides, at certain points throughout my presentation.  

So, I can kind of double-check with the clock on the wall and my presentation notes to see, am I going too fast? Am I not going fast enough? And I can make adjustments on the fly to try to the best of my ability to end on time. So, there’s things you can do to help you end on time.  

Okay, another mistake. Mistake #8: not having a simple system in place to track time. I talked about the way I track time now on my slides. The other thing I do is I estimate out in my speaker notes how much time I’m going to spend on each slide.  

Now I may or may not follow that closely. Sometimes I end up digressing on a slide a little bit longer. Sometimes another slide is shorter, but if you estimate the time you’re going to spend on each slide and you calculate them all out, you combine all those numbers together, you can get a sense of how long the presentation is.  

And often the number I come up, with the aggregate number of minutes, I realize, “Uh oh, I need to prune.” One of the final things I do when I’m developing curriculum is pruning, I’ll prune back slides because there’s no possibility in any universe – well, at least in our universe – to get this done quickly or in this time allotted. So creating these systems for your development of curriculum will help you keep on track.  

And then my last mistake. Obviously I made more mistakes than these. I’m just pulling out some of my big ones. So my final mistake I want to share today…Mistake #9 is continuing to push when people were done. 

If you have ever trained a long day of training, you know what happens at the end of the day. People’s eyes start to glaze over. They get fatigued and you’re thinking to yourself, “Look, I have to get through this content.”  

I remember saying this to myself, “Look, I have to get through this content. I scheduled this content. I need to get through this content. So I need to keep going.” The problem is, is once someone’s eyes are glazed over, once they’re checked out, once they have had cognitive overload and their brain goes into overload mode, they are no longer learning.  

And so you have to think, whose time are you taking up right now? Is it worth your time or their time to sit and present content that people just aren’t absorbing, that they’re not going to be able to act on because it’s just not getting into the brain anymore?  

It’s not even getting into the short-term memory. You know in learning, we have to get information into our short-term memory. And then we have to translate that information and store it in our long-term memory so it can be accessed. Well, once you’ve reached cognitive overload in your brain, you simply cannot compute. The brain is, you know, on shutdown. 

So at that point in time, you have to make a decision. Are you going to stop, give people a stretch break, come back, or are you going to end the training and give people homework to take a look later, or add that content or cover that content at another time?  

One of the things I will do nowadays that I didn’t do back then is I will confer with my audience. “So gang, it looks like we still have X amount of content to cover.” And I usually try to figure that out prior to, so I don’t wait till the very last minute.  

And I’m tracking my time all the way along so I know I’m running over, right? So, I’ll know well in advance that I’m running over so that I can say, “Okay, we have these pieces of content, these topics that we still have to cover. I’d like to ask you all, which do you feel are most important to you?” And I will cover those first.  

And then you are engaging your audience and helping make decisions about what is most relevant to them. And in the end, that is what they’re going to learn anyway. We think training is completely on our agenda as organizations. Our volunteer training, or when we’re training volunteers, that it’s all about us, but it really isn’t.  

Learners will learn whatever they feel is relevant, especially adult learners. And so, whatever they feel is relevant to them and their situation, they will learn. The rest, they will not.  

If you have made any of these mistakes, think about making some adjustments. If you train volunteers and they come back to you and they still have questions about things you’ve already trained, that doesn’t necessarily mean your training is bad.  

It may mean that it needs to be reinforced in on the job, but it is a clue that maybe you might want to review that training. And that’s not difficult to do. And we have actually a free volunteer skills and training feedback form that you can download, and check whether or not your training is working from the perspective of your volunteers.  

So you can use this free, ready-to-use form to get candid feedback from volunteers about how to improve your orientation and training courses. And as you create or update your volunteer training, make sure you pilot test and evaluate whether it’s effectively closing the skills gaps you intended.  

And that’s why we created this tool for you. So you can check it out and I’ll link to it in the show notes. You can also go to VolPro.net/freebie-volunteer-training-feedback-form. I know that’s a mouthful. So VolPro.net/freebie-volunteer-training-feedback-form. And I think if you just googled “VolunteerPro free training form,” you might find it might just come up or check it out in the show notes.  

Let’s recap what I covered today in terms of my nine biggest mistakes when I was training volunteers. 

Mistake #1 was assuming that training was always the answer to a performance problem or goal. That isn’t always the case and training won’t solve everything.  

Mistake #2 was not focusing on three to four action-based learning objectives in any hour of content. I actually think you should focus on three. Four is a stretch. But make sure they’re action-based that you understand what that behavior would look like if you were to film it. So it’s not about knowing or understanding, it’s about doing. 

#3: not actively encouraging volunteers to co-produce content and help lead discussions. You know, volunteers, they are experts in their own work, especially if you’re doing repeated training.  

Now this may not work for orientation training with new volunteers, although you can bring existing volunteers in and share their experiences. These are usually much more interesting than what you can share. I’m sorry. I hate to say it, but volunteers are the experts on what they’re doing on volunteering.  

Okay, Mistake #4: not designing for interaction. And we mean real interaction. Both cognitive interaction, so posing questions. Or actual interaction, where people are interacting with one another and sharing ideas.  

Mistake #5: putting too much text on your slides. So, we are talking Death by PowerPoint. At this point in time, gang, there are so many things that PowerPoint can do. You know, we can put gifs in PowerPoint. You can put videos in PowerPoint. PowerPoint has a smart feature where it will help you design your slide.   

There’s access to free clip art online. In fact, in the show notes, I’ll link to some of our favorite free clip art sites. So there really isn’t any reason why you can’t create slides that look good. You just got to be able and willing to prune. 

All right, Mistake #6: not inspiring emotion. So, we do need to include emotion. Think about the emotional journey that a volunteer goes through in your training. It’s a very interesting way to approach training.  

Think about it. Once you complete your draft training, think about what is this going to feel like to people? And are they going to leave inspired? And is it going to be fun? And if not make some tweaks. 

#7, my biggest mistake. #7: going over the time allotted. Really do need to stay on point there. I’m still struggling with that one a little bit, to be honest.  

Okay. #8: not having a simple system in place to track time. Again, I shared you my behind-the-scenes ways I track time. Think of things that work best for you, and make sure you’re able to know well ahead of time if you’re going to go over, and then consult with your volunteers about how you all want to deal with that issue.  

Okay, and Mistake #9: continuing to push when people are done. We need to make sure that our volunteers are learning, otherwise when they’re just sitting in a class and no one’s learning, there’s no point to doing it, right?  

Let’s make sure that we are not creating trainings that result in cognitive overload, that we are having fun. We’re taking breaks. We’re getting people involved. The more we can do this, the more effective our volunteers will be once they hit the ground running.  

So that’s it. That is our show for this week. Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Volunteer Nation. If you liked it, I hope you’ll share it with a friend or colleague who might need a little extra inspiration, too.  

I hope to see you next time for another episode of Volunteer Nation, same time, same place. Have a fantastic week ahead.  

The Volunteer Nation Podcast is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more tips and notes from each episode, check us out at TobiJohnson.com.