Volunteer Onboarding: Four Ways to Convert Joiners to Stayers

Much of the job of initiating volunteers is helping newcomers negotiate conflicting emotions – surprise, fear, ambiguity, etc. – as they work to settle into their volunteer jobs comfortably.  Unfortunately, too few organizations take a strategic and thoughtful approach to onboarding.   As a result, they become a revolving door for disappointed volunteers seeking a better fit elsewhere; and they are often left puzzling over why.

The onboarding process, arguably the most critical stage of the volunteer life cycle, is one of organizational socialization and acculturation.  As volunteers move through the process, they experience a wide array of emotions that will ultimately result in a change in perceptions about how their experience will play out and what it will mean to their life as a whole.  

Quite naturally, most volunteers start with a fantasy of what their volunteer job will entail.  When they agree to volunteer, they imagine, accurately or not, what the relationships with other volunteers and clients will involve, what they will accomplish, and how the world will change.  

As a volunteer’s tenure progresses, minor or major adjustments and internal re-negotiations take place as expectations evolve and become more realistic.  As reality replaces imagination, their new world will either be deemed acceptable, and they will chose to stay, or it will be judged as unacceptable, and they will move on. 

Stress, good or bad, is also often present as volunteers struggle to make sense of their new environment.  A well-designed volunteer onboarding process, therefore, helps volunteers both manage expectations and supports them as they negotiate uncertain and stressful waters.  Below are four ways to help volunteers with their journey.

Volunteer Onboarding Strategies that Work

1) Implement Regular Rituals — By virtue of their repetitive nature, rituals establish safety because volunteers know what to expect.  They can also be designed to reinforce connections between values of the volunteer and the organization, thus strengthening the relationship over time.

2) Encourage Relationships — As relationships between staff and volunteers grow, the obligation of volunteers also deepen.  Also, socialization and team building activities help new volunteers better understand the unwritten rules and culture of the organization they have chosen to support.

3) Offer Formal Training — Formal training programs increase self confidence and help volunteers make sense of the whole.  They also help volunteers connect disparate dots that may be readily apparent to veterans but are a mystery to those who have recently joined.

4) Demonstrate Return on Investment Early and Often — Volunteers, especially at the start, need to be convinced that the hassle and stress of socialization is worth it.  They are on the lookout for early wins and evidence that their work, and the work of the program is making a difference.  They should be invited to have an impact in a tangible way right from the start, even if they are still “in training.”