Getting the most from your volunteers

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Column

Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportu­nity to work with a number of organizations and learn about their new volunteer onboarding and orientation activities.

These organizations have many good systems in place to ensure that new volunteers are pro­vided the information, resources and support they need to put their skills and talents to work as quickly as possible. But the most important thing I learned is that there’s always more to consider when working with new people. Con­tinuous improvement in onboarding and orien­tation – whether you are working with employ­ees or volunteers – will help your organization make better use of its human capital.

Set aside assumptions

Sure, your new board member has been serving on the events committee for the past two years, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he un­derstands the organization’s business model or operations. Provide an orientation that includes clear information about the nonprofit’s revenue sources, primary expenses and programs. Don’t assume that he learned the details necessary to serve as a board member in his committee work.

Your organization will be able to more effec­tively use the expertise of volunteers if they have the background information they need to do their jobs. This may mean that different groups of volunteers need specific training that goes be­yond a general orientation. It also means that as a volunteer assumes new responsibilities, they may need additional training to perform well in their new role.

Be explicit about success

Everybody in an organization – even volunteers – must understand the organizational goals and success measures, and know how these are tracked and measured. This is why having and using a strategic plan is important.

Although you should certainly provide new board members with a copy of the strategic plan, that alone isn’t enough. Provide an overview of the organization’s annual plan and how it relates to the longer-term goals in the strategic plan. Make sure new board members understand their role in moving the strategic plan forward.

For committee members, it may be more im­portant that they understand the specific goals of their particular committee. Other volunteers may benefit by understanding how their depart­ment or task area defines success. Many of the challenges that we see in organizations arise when people aren’t clear about the organiza­tion’s goals and how it measures success. Being explicit about success measures helps your vol­unteers focus on the right things.

Show them the larger picture

Volunteers may only see a small portion of the organization’s work. Helping them see how their work fits into the overall activities and mis­sion of the organization helps strengthen their connection to the organization.

Board members spend much of their time ad­dressing items that seem disconnected from the people the organization serves. Having the board chair remind her colleagues how their 20-min­ute discussion on the organization’s investment policy or strategic plan has an impact on the or­ganization’s clients makes that discussion feel less administrative and more significant.

It’s the little things

You may do a great job providing background information, clarifying goals and success indica­tors and connecting the volunteer’s work to the big picture, but can your board and committee members easily access the guest Wi-Fi network? Do your volunteers know where they can hang their coats when they arrive for their shift? Pro­viding information on these more mundane things help make a new volunteer feel comfort­able and welcome in the organization.

It takes both job-related and more general logis­tical information to make sure new volunteers feels comfortable and supported. Paying attention to both the training as well as the simple hospitable details ensures that your organization will benefit from a volunteer’s skills and talents as quickly as possible and help retain them much longer.

Regenia Bailey is the founder and owner of Bailey Leadership Initiative. Contact her through her website at