Prepare: Equipping a Volunteer to Serve

By Barry Altland
From Engaging the Head, Heart and Hands of a Volunteer, Peppertree Press, 2015, pp. 81-83

Information

Sharing information with volunteers builds their organizational knowledge bank. Creating awareness of resources helps the volunteer to quickly acclimate. Information-sharing may occur prior to the volunteer's induction. Leaders may consider the possibilities for sharing resources with volunteers pre-arrival.

How is information packaged to be shared with new volunteers? Informative content may be as simple as static hard-copy or digital text. Some organizations may have means to design more sophisticated video or digital learning modules. Other creative approaches to packaging information may be explored. Content could be stored on an external site that any potential volunteer could access; an internal site that is accessible only through permissions could also be used to house volunteer information. Links to access the content could be shared with onboarding volunteers, or the content could be pushed directly to them as an attachment. Whatever method is chosen, leaders serve their volunteers and their organizations by sharing information pre-arrival.

What should be included in the information shared? Whatever helps tell the organization's story is ideal to include in orientation content. Sharing the organization's vision, mission and values is paramount. The history, the founders, the inspiration for the movement and the philosophies that guide the decision making are all important to include. Information may also contain the organizational structure, leaders' names and titles, locations, and the scope of the cause. Most important is to emphasize the way the beneficiary is touched by the work of volunteers. Reinforcing the impact of the volunteer's time and talents is critical at this initial juncture.

One advantage of volunteerism is that setting expectations for a volunteer's pre-arrival time investment brings freedom that businesses may not have. For-profit organizations struggle with asking paid professionals to commit time prior to the inception of employment – this scenario creates ethical and legal issues around compensation, especially for hourly employees. This is not so for volunteers. Leaders of volunteers can exploit pre-arrival time to optimize the initial onboarding steps.

Bear in mind that highly impassioned volunteers will consume the shared content in anticipation of their service, but do not assume that every volunteer has added the information to their knowledge bank prior to their arrival. Treat a volunteer's arrival as an opportunity to reinforce what they may already know or emphasize the information they have not yet accessed. Assessing volunteers' acquired knowledge levels can be incorporated into the opening induction interactions. Simple open-ended questions such as "What have you learned so far about our organization?" evolve quickly into a facilitated conversation that introduces or revisits need-to-know information.

Orientation is a standard information-sharing offering for volunteers as they initially engage in their partnership with the organization. Orientation is a learning event that is part of the onboarding process. The objective of orientation is to orient the volunteer, meaning point them toward a direction or goal. Orientation focuses on knowledge-building, and continued onboarding builds skills. The distinction between knowledge and skill attainment is helpful as leaders determine the content appropriate to include in orientation. Orientation reaches the head and the heart. Continued onboarding incorporates the hands.

Tight execution of orientation builds the volunteer's trust in the organization. Testing technology in advance, preparing hard-copy materials and confirming the roles of all who participate sets the stage. Prompt greeting of volunteers, using name tags or name cards, and introductions personalize the experience. Starting the session on time sends the message that punctuality is important when volunteering with the organization. Addressing required steps first, such as data gathering and completing waivers, allows the focus to shift to absorbing new information with-out task distraction. Providing a facility tour helps fresh volunteers get acquainted with their physical environment. Honoring the time of each new volunteer with precision execution of orientation will help allay the anxiety and vulnerability that naturally comes with first-time service. Running an orientation like clockwork can strengthen the volunteer's budding love affair with the cause.

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