What information should your online volunteer training cover?
In many ways, volunteer training is like any other online course. You will need to teach the material, assess the volunteer’s understanding, and provide meaningful feedback. However, volunteer training courses have some specific requirements than ordinary training courses don’t. This is especially true for non-profits, who are often serving members of their community, and who may be liable for the actions of poorly-trained volunteers.
So, if you’re a non-profit interested in creating an online training guide, where do you start?
1. Determine how much time you can spend on volunteer training.
Are you launching a nation-wide volunteer effort to pick up litter in rural communities? Your training is probably pretty straightforward. You want to give volunteers guidelines for how to collect litter, where to dispose of recycling, and how to mark their progress so that fellow volunteers know what areas have already been cleaned.
On the other hand, if you’re organizing a volunteer wildlife rescue program, you probably have a lot more to cover, including how to care for an animal that has been injured, how to handle animals safely, and who to contact if the animal appears diseased. You may be organizing volunteer professionals, in which case you will need to understand their qualifications. Or, you may have a tiered volunteer structure where members who have volunteered a certain number of hours are qualified for extra training.
Understanding the training needs of your volunteer base is key to creating an effective course, and that includes understanding how much training time you are able to invest in an individual who may only be with your organization for a few months.
2. Introduce them to your mission.
What draws volunteers to your organization? Are they high school students hoping to bulk up their college application? Civic-minded members of your community who want to help out? Or, as we touched on earlier, professionals who have expertise in a field and want to put it to good use?
While these individuals may have strong motivation to do good work, they may not understand the nuances of your organization. And if they don’t have strong motivation, introducing them to the values and objectives of your organization can inspire them.
It’s also important to tie in the work you’re on a local level to the impact you hope to have more broadly. If you’re running a non-profit to provide after-school tutoring to high school students, make the point that better educational outcomes in high school will help not only the student, but the community and even the broader economy.
3. Create specific training courses based on the task you want them to accomplish.
If your organization is large enough, it’s likely that you’ll have a variety of volunteer opportunities. While some opportunities may share parts of your training course in common, you want to avoid lumping all your training into one program. Instead, you can replicate the shared parts for each course, but then tailor them to meet the specific tasks you want your volunteers to handle for that day.
This is especially true if you have a tiered volunteer system. If someone has been with your organization for a while, and you want them to take on a more significant role, you don’t want them to have to skip through all the entry-level information to get to the parts that are relevant to their role. Every volunteer role should have its own training course.
4. Instruct them about what not to do to avoid adverse effects.
Sometimes, good intentions go awry. For example, during the British colonial rule in India, the British government tried to reduce the number of cobras in Delhi by offering a bounty for every dead cobra that was turned in. Some enterprising individuals, seeing a chance for profit, began breeding cobras in their homes so that they could turn them in and collect the bounty. When the British government realized what was going on, they abandoned the bounty, and soon thereafter, the cobra breeders abandoned their snakes by releasing them into the city streets. As a result, the cobra population in Delhi skyrocketed in what has come to be known as the Cobra Effect.
As you can probably imagine, non-profits trying to train lots of volunteer to accomplish a certain task can lead to some negative outcomes if the volunteers aren’t trained well. Because of this, including a section on some of these possibly negative effects can help volunteers understand the importance of doing their work according to procedure.
5. Explain policies, procedure, and organizational hierarchy.
The most obvious portion of your training course will be task-based, but you should also cover any possible ethical situations that may arise. This includes your code of conduct policies, as well as the possible consequences if a volunteer violates them. For instance, if someone is volunteering with a non-profit engaged in human rights work, they may be handling sensitive information that could be linked to someone who has come to the non-profit for help. The volunteer should have a clear understanding of how to handle that information so that it doesn’t end up violating anyone’s privacy rights.
Volunteers should also have a point of contact in case they need to report something to someone within the organization. For instance, if someone is volunteering for social work, and someone they’re working with asks them for money or some other form of aid, it’s important that volunteers know how to respond.
6. Include emergency training, if necessary.
For most non-profits, the possibility of an emergency is not a huge concern. However, emergency training may be necessary if the emergency is related to the volunteer work, or if the possibility of a volunteer having to handle a crisis situation is greater than usual.
For instance, if a volunteer is helping to deliver meals to the elderly but the weather is bad, what should they do? Do they try their best to make a house call to be sure the elderly person is well and prepared for the storm? Or do they notify someone within the organization so that they know the meal won’t be delivered?
If the volunteer is an untrained helper, then it’s more likely they’d phone in and stay home. But if the volunteer is a professional nurse, then they may be working with your organization specifically to address these kinds of cases. Training them in how to respond could be a matter of life or death.
Effective volunteer training improves the work and adds to the sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm.
Most volunteers join an effort from a sincere desire to advance its mission. The more effectively their time and skills are put to work, the more satisfied they are with the experience. And satisfied volunteers are ones who are likely to share their experiences and recruit others to the cause. And if you can develop resources that are thorough, repeatable, and scalable, it will free up your non-profits resources for more projects down the line.