May 23, 2024

Episode #111: New Volunteer Orientation: What to Include, What to Leave Out 

In this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast, Tobi Johnson delves into the vital topic of new volunteer orientation. Tobi offers detailed insights on what to include and what to avoid, ensuring a successful onboarding process that fosters long-term commitment.  

She emphasizes the importance of addressing both informational and emotional needs of volunteers, integrating confidence-building activities, socialization opportunities, and inspirational storytelling. Tobi also shares practical tips on avoiding common training pitfalls like information overload and stresses the importance of making confident, unapologetic asks. 

New Volunteer Orientation – Episode Highlights

  • [02:47] – Creating a Positive First Impression and Fostering Commitment 
  • [04:29] – Addressing Informational and Emotional Needs in Orientation 
  • [06:49] – Key Elements to Include in Your Volunteer Training Agenda 
  • [14:39] – What to Leave Out of Your New Volunteer Orientation 
  • [22:46] – Final Thoughts and Resources for Effective Volunteer Training

New Volunteer Orientation– Quotes from the Episode

“We often think, a volunteer signed an agreement, therefore they’re committed. People are not committed to pieces of paper. People are committed to other people. They’re committed to causes they believe in. They’re committed to their value set, their belief system.” 

“We are way too apologetic about asking people for support. People are at your volunteer orientation because they care about your cause. This is not the time to backpedal on the commitment you’re asking for.” 

About the Show

Nonprofit leadership author, trainer, consultant, and volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson shares weekly tips to help charities build, grow, and scale exceptional volunteer teams. Discover how your nonprofit can effectively coordinate volunteers who are reliable, equipped, and ready to help you bring about BIG change for the better.

If you’re ready to ditch the stress and harness the power of people to fuel your good work, you’re in exactly the right place!

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Episode #111 Transcript: New Volunteer Orientation: What to Include, What to Leave Out 

Tobi Johnson: Welcome everybody to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. I’m your host Tobi Johnson and today I get to talk about one of my favorite topics, and that is instructional design, specifically your new volunteer orientation. What should you include and what should you leave out? I feel like so many people struggle with this. We want to put everything in but the kitchen sink thinking that we are doing a service for our volunteers. 

We’re not. People get overwhelmed. They feel like they’re drinking from a fire hose. They walk away feeling grumpy. You know, that’s not what new volunteer orientation is supposed to do for our organization. And so, I want to talk about, you know, the kind of the do’s and the don’ts. Two different lists I want to share with you. 

What to include and the other list is what not to include. Okay. I mean, have you ever sat through a training that is so boring that it insults you? Have you ever felt like you’re sitting through training, and it’s distracting, meaningful time from your life? Maybe it’s a compliance training you had to sit through because of work. 

Or maybe it’s something that you had so much excitement about, but when you actually attended, it was a big flop in your mind. We don’t want our volunteers to experience that. What we as organizational staff. staff think volunteers need and what volunteers need from training are often two very different things. 

And volunteer onboarding is one of the most essential parts of the volunteer life cycle. And when I say onboarding, I mean anything from first touch of the application all the way through to placement and starting your first shift. And contributing. So, it’s so essential that that part of the volunteer life cycle that we just simply can’t afford to leave it up to chance because what happens is we become a revolving door. 

Orientation training is part of that onboarding sequence. So, I want to talk today about how your new volunteer orientation can make a very wonderful first impression and can cement commitment over the long term. Commitment is a process, not a destination. I like to say this because, you know, we think that as soon as somebody submits an application to volunteer, somebody raises their hand and says, yes, I’ll help, that somehow, they’re committed deeply. 

And it’s just not the case because they don’t know us well enough. Think about how excited you are when you first start dating someone. Well, you’re not super committed because at some point something could happen and you could walk, right? You could say, you know what? This isn’t what I thought it was going to be. 

So, I’m going to try something else. Right? So, we want our new volunteer orientation training to start to cement relationships and commitment. Commitment doesn’t come because of paperwork. We often think, you know, hey, a volunteer signed an agreement, therefore they’re committed. People are not committed to pieces of paper. 

People are committed to other people. They’re committed to causes they believe in. They’re committed to their value set, their belief system. They’re not committed to pieces of paper. That’s just not, especially volunteers, that’s not how they operate. So, let’s talk about that new volunteer orientation and what we can include that can start to help cement commitment, encourage commitment, foster, cultivate commitment. 

We want to consider two types of needs that volunteers have at this point in the life cycle. One is informational needs. So, People have just simple logistical questions they have so that they can plan effectively on how to integrate volunteering into their life. Even though someone has completed an application, has received the information, they’re still often figuring out how they’re going to integrate your time commitment into their life. 

And so, that informational needs for your new volunteer orientation training early on should provide some of that information so that people can make smart choices with their calendars, they can set boundaries, and they can come and be present when they’ve committed to being present. The second area of needs for a new volunteer that you can help support in your new volunteer orientation are emotional needs. 

Consider social anxiety and how prevalent it is right now. People are asking themselves, Will I fit in? Do I belong here? Will I be able to do a good job? Will I be able to fulfill my commitment? There’s a fair amount of, I don’t think we can underestimate the anxiety, or trepidation that people might feel when they’re thinking about their new volunteer opportunity or showing up at a training or jumping online and participating in a training. 

So, I don’t think we could underestimate the power of this as a reason why me people don’t follow through sometimes. People also have excitement, anticipation, people are feeling joy about having this new opportunity in their lives. So, it’s not that it’s all anxiety ridden, but if there is anxiety around, especially social anxiety, you may have people not show up at the last minute to an in-person volunteer orientation. 

So, think about those informational and emotional needs when you’re designing your new volunteer orientation. Let’s talk about what else you might want to include on the agenda of training like this. One thing you want to be sure you’re doing is building confidence, so you want to include confidence builders. Now confidence builders can be informationally based. Confidence builders can happen through practice or skill building, or job aids or tools that you offer people that help them.  

Once they start volunteering, you are just don’t want to provide too much information and that begins to erode confidence. Whenthere’s too much information provided during training, volunteers often assume that the volunteer role, the opportunity itself will be that complicated as well. 

So, you’ve got to really prune your training. Another area that you want to include in your new volunteer orientation, time for socialization and bonding. So, people need to be able to find common interests. And this also helps people break down biases, because often there, they’re rubbing shoulders with people they wouldn’t usually rub shoulders with within the rest of their life. 

You want to give volunteers from differing backgrounds an opportunity to explore how they’re more alike than different. And you can’t do that by sitting in a room listening to someone present a PowerPoint deck can’t do that. You’ve got to leave time for socialization and bonding. Now, sometimes it’s just taking a break and providing food. 

Sometimes it’s more facilitated networking. Everyone goes around the room introducing themselves, maybe sharing something interesting. There’s lots of ways to make this happen. There’s not one size fits all, but it’s important to have that time on the agenda. A third thing you might want to include in your new volunteer orientation is inspirational storytelling. 

Now, storytelling around transformation, about things that have changed for the better, in clients, in staff, in volunteers, because of volunteerism with your organization. You might want to tell stories about impact, an impact on a single human being’s life, not an impact on thousands of people. At first blush, we may think, well, bigger the impact, the more interesting the story. 

And in fact, they have done research on this neuroscience research you. The story of one, there’s a power, a paradox of one versus many. A story of one person is much more powerful than a story of impact on many people. Hero’s journey. Hero’s journey is always a great story framework. So, it could be the journey of a client. 

It could be the journey of a new volunteer who was very nervous about joining. So, you know, Inspirational storytelling, always helpful. It gets people’s excitement and imagination going, and it starts to cement commitment because people want to become part of this story. Okay, another thing you can include in your new volunteer orientation Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQs, answers to the burning questions that most volunteers have. 

Now, you can provide these in a written form as well, but I would always call out, because people are really curious, and they want these answers. They don’t want to have to pick around and hunt around and try to find the answer. So, if you know that there’s maybe five questions that people always ask, go ahead and cover those in your training. 

Now you may have a longer list that you put in a workbook or handbook or guide, but you know, the big burning questions that everybody wants to know about, make sure you answer those in your training. Don’t make people have to go figure it out on their own. Another thing to include in your new volunteer orientation, time for Q& A, time for Q&A. 

We were pilot testing some curriculum that we’re developing together for new volunteers. And I was, observation and, and taking notes and, you know, seeing how it was going. And I noted we didn’t really include Q and A this time around. We had a lot to cover. We didn’t want to, uh, didn’t have time to include it. 

And, but in the end, they had a little extra time to ask questions. So, I asked, does anybody have any questions? Well, the most interesting the absolute most interesting discussions happened because of these questions that folks were asking. So, you never know what’s really, you can’t read minds, so you don’t know what’s really in your audience’s minds, so why not spend a little bit of time on Q& A. 

During the training, some people who are very brave will do Q& A at the very beginning and then they will adjust their training accordingly. Now that is a pro tip. If you are an experienced trainer, you can kick off training like that, put up a flip chart or write on a whiteboard, say, what questions do you all have before we even get started? 

I want to make sure we’re going to cover everything today. Let’s write down all the questions you have. I’m going to go through my material and anything that’s left over at the end we’re going to circle back and answer. Everybody good with that? And you will have an engaged audience all the way through. 

But you can also put your Q& A at the end of each module or lesson or at the end of the training itself. And then finally, finally, for your new volunteer orientations, I really think you should include sign up time. So let’s sign up for our next shift or next event or whenever we’re going to show up again. 

Let’s do it right here, right now. A lot of folks will, you know, organizations will say thanks for coming today. We’ll be in touch, dot, dot, dot. And they lose people. And I’m like, you know what, you got to strike while the iron’s hot. When people are there and they’re interested, we want to make sure that they can act right then and there. 

So, bring an iPad or a laptop or ask everybody to open their phones and sign up for their first shift and then thank them for doing so. So, I believe that new volunteer orientation training needs to include a call to action like that. All right, I hope this is helping you think through your next new volunteer orientation. I’m going to take a quick pause for my list of what to include in your new volunteer orientation and what to leave out. We’ll be right back.  

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Okay, we’re back with my what to include in your new volunteer orientation training and what to leave out. The list is growing. Right now, I want to talk about what to leave out, what you just don’t need to include. So, we’re going to talk about this, and I’m going to slay some sacred cows right now. Because there are things we do, gang, that our volunteers just don’t care. They don’t care! And so why include it if they don’t care? Okay, so let’s get into this. 

For your new volunteer orientation, what to leave out. First and foremost, reading your organization’s mission and vision aloud. It’s usually the very first slide people go over in their orientation training. Absolutely the very first slide. Instead, put it in your volunteer handbook and share mission and action stories instead. 

It’s much more interesting. It gives people examples. Usually our mission statements are quiet, you know, convoluted and abstract and people have a hard time. It’s often filled with jargon. People don’t care. But if you share stories about how people have been impacted, that’s a whole other ballgame. 

People do want to hear about that. People want to hear about people. So, let’s do it that way going forward. Can we agree? Okay, next thing. Having too many speakers. This is not the time for your leadership to grandstand about your organization. Instead of having a laundry list of speakers, like every single person stepping up to the microphone and talking, focus on having the presenters be either. 

Volunteer leaders and our staff who are going to be supporting volunteers on a regular basis, if possible. Now, is there a place for executive leadership? Absolutely. I think at the beginning where they welcome folks and they talk about how important their work is and how they appreciate the volunteers and how much they want to make sure they create an exceptional experience for them. That’s a great way to kick off training. However, at some point, it’s the folks who are going to support volunteers going forward, if possible, have them present the training because this is an opportunity for them to bond, both paid staff and volunteers to start to bond, to start to build trust. 

Volunteers are handed off from staff to staff to staff to staff as they go through their onboarding process. They have no one to bond to, and they aren’t building trust in the organization. Okay, let’s talk about another thing to leave out, an overabundance of information. Now, I know how hard this is. 

I am guilty as charged in packing my training with way too much content. But remember that drinking from a fire hose does not build confidence or strength, it degrades confidence. And so, we need to drip our information out in doable chunks and be ruthlessly discerning about the difference between need-to-know information and nice to know information. 

You can always put things in a workbook, in a fact sheet, tip sheet, put it online, um, share it in a tutorial video online, whatever you want to do, but it doesn’t all have to be in one spot. You know, we’re not good at separating out what volunteers need to know at moments in their journey. If you’re a Volunteer Pro member, we have a fantastic tool called the Training Tasks and Priorities Spreadsheet, it’s inside the VolPro community. So, if you’re interested in that, just log in. And what the spreadsheet does is you will list out all the, you brainstorm a large list of tasks or skills you want to train your volunteers on, and then you rate them on different levels, level of experience, level of importance, et cetera. 

And there is a formula in it in the spreadsheet and it will calculate automatically after you rate each task that rates around, I think it’s four or five domains, then it will give you a priority number and then you can start to pick and choose which are the priority items you want to include in your training. 

So, keep it tight, keep it focused, don’t give people too much information. Another thing to leave out of your new volunteer orientation, slides with too much text. Your slides are not your speaker notes. Your slides are not your speaker notes. People will not learn, they’ve done research on this, if someone is reading your slide deck, if they are reading what’s on the slide deck, they cannot hear you talking. So, people can either listen to you talking or read what’s on the slide deck. They can’t do both at the same time. Our brains cannot multitask like that. And so sometimes people miss out on what you’re saying, the subtleties of what you’re saying, because they’re trying to read the text on your slide. 

So, you want to keep it tight. You can use photos. infographics, etc. to build quick understanding of a concept rather than words. The other thing I like to do sometimes is use animation just to simply have each bullet point appear when I’m talking about it. That helps the audience focus so they’re not trying to read every single bullet point. 

You’re letting them know which bullet point you’re speaking to, so you can do that as well. Finally! Finally, the last thing that you should not include in your new volunteer orientation is to be apologetic about your requests. We are way too apologetic about asking people for support. People are at your volunteer orientation because they care about your cause. 

So, this is not the time to backpedal on the commitment you’re asking for. It’s not the time. the time to play small ball. It’s not the time to, you know, be sheepish about the commitment you’re asking for long term now, we’re not asking people for a five-year commitment. We must be realistic here, but you know, people are here at your new volunteer orientation for a reason. 

They want to back your cause and people want to back a winner. Confidence is one of the most appealing things to people. When someone is confident, we want to support them. So, if you lack confidence in your ask, number one, make sure that you believe it’s a valuable offer. And what you’re offering to people is a place to make a difference. 

And that has a lot of value, especially for people who have a belief system that is about supporting the community. You’re offering them a way to live through their belief system and enable their belief system. That’s a valuable thing. It’s not easy to find in today’s world. People look in a lot of strange places to fulfill a belief system. 

This is a positive place to fulfill that belief system. So, you’re offering something of value and you’re offering a feel good, a transformational experience for the volunteer as well. So don’t be shy about asking. Right? Now, all people can do is say no, so don’t be apologetic about what you require of volunteers or what you’re asking of volunteers. 

Now, do you need to watch your language and the way you’re communicating these things? Yes, of course. You know, when we’re very command and control and top down in our management style, people chafe at that. They don’t want that. But when we’re enlisting people, inviting people, and setting some boundaries around expectations, that’s a good thing and people want to lean into that. 

So, I hope this has been helpful, talking about new volunteer orientation, what to include and what not to include. For more on this, check out Volunteer Nation episode 61, Training for Nonprofits, How We’ve Got It All Wrong to talk a little bit more on this topic. I also have another Volunteer Nation episode, number 12 training volunteers, what I wish I’d known, where I kind of talk a little bit about my experience coming up as a trainer. You know, I started training in nonprofits right out of college. I started having, uh, responsibilities for training and I’ve had roles in nonprofits where that was my primary job. So, I’ve been doing instructional design and training from the stage and in workshops in rooms for a long, long decades. 

In that episode, I talk about what I wish I would have known on day one, that I had to learn the tough way through the school of hard knocks. So, check that one out as well. I’ll. put links in the show notes. Hopefully, it will help you as you develop your new volunteer orientations. So, thanks for joining me today. 

If you liked what you heard, I would love it if you would rate us. We like five-star ratings around here and share us with a friend. That’s how we reach more people with our message of how volunteers can help us change the world. And if you enjoyed us, I hope you’ll get us on your subscription, on your, in your podcast, on your phone, And you can be sure to see me on that feed next week, same time, same place, on the Volunteer Nation. Thanks, everybody.