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Learn how to develop an effective volunteer orientation to help new volunteers understand and adjust to the organization and their roles.


Happy young people volunteer t-shirts posing camera, social teamwork, help


If your group is like many others, you depend on your volunteers for many things. Their jobs may range from doing the agency taxes to taking care of children, or from licking stamps to running career fairs. Whatever jobs they do, however, one thing is almost always true: your organization needs volunteer help to function effectively.

We've discussed how to recruit new volunteers, but once you've got them in the door, your work has only just begun. Your volunteers need to be received like guests and shown around the organization. You need to carefully explain what's happening (and what might happen), because if the coast looks dark and unwelcoming, the new recruit might turn around and walk right back out that door.

To help welcome new volunteers into the organization, some groups hold orientation programs to start new volunteers on the path of becoming seasoned veterans.

What is an orientation program?

First, let's think for a moment of what we mean by orientation. Even though we might not think of it this way, orientation truly starts at our initial contact with the new volunteer.

When you speak to a prospective volunteer over the phone, or when you meet that person for an interview, orientation has already begun. You are giving your recruit a sense of what your organization is all about. More than that, you are communicating something crucial about:

  • The way your organization does business
  • Your attitudes toward the outside world
  • Your seriousness of purpose
  • Your sense of humor
  • Your general expectations about the content of the job
  • Your general expectations about the way in which the job should be performed

You communicate much of the information in this initial orientation non-verbally, and you may not even be aware that you're doing it. But this "informal" orientation is important because your recruit's first impression of you and your organization will be based on it. Scientific research exists that suggests first impressions are formed very quickly, and that once established, those impressions are hard to get rid of.

You probably wish to supplement this implicit orientation with more explicit and formal instruction in which you will systematically communicate certain general information about your organization and the job. That formal instruction is what we mean by an orientation program, and that is the focus of this section.

We will discuss why your organization should hold an orientation program, how to design and present orientations that make the most sense in your circumstances, and finally, how to evaluate what you've done.

Before we go any further, an important distinction to make is that an orientation program is not the same as a training program. A training program, as discussed in the next section, goes into great detail about how to do a specific job--information that is usually over and above what you're trying to get across in an orientation session.

For example, a program in which volunteers tutor people for literacy might have a training program with several different sessions. These sessions could explain how to best teach people to read and give an overview of phonetics and adult learning.

An orientation program, on the other hand, would take place before this training. It would tell new volunteers how long the program has been in existence, where they will be doing the tutoring, who they will be tutoring, what is expected of them, the benefits they can expect to receive, et cetera. It should not, however, teach them how to teach.

Why should you have orientation programs?

What are some of the advantages of a structured orientation program?

  • Imparting knowledge. The orientation program will help new volunteers learn about your organization and its mission and goals, and it may instruct the volunteer on policies and procedures in your organization.
  • Increasing confidence. An orientation program can make future volunteers more comfortable and confident in their work by helping the volunteer better understand what the agency does, and may help him or her see the purpose of what he or she is doing.
    • For example, Vaiju, a second grade teacher, signs up to help collect donations for a local community task force a bit hesitantly, as she is not used to asking for donations. However, after the orientation session, she understands that the donations she will be collecting will help make sure some local children will have enough clothes to keep them warm in the winter months ahead. After understanding the goal and her part in it, she sets aside some of her usual reserve, and becomes an excellent champion for the cause.
  • Increasing enthusiasm. Volunteer orientation is an important part of maintaining the motivation and enthusiasm that caused people to want to help to begin with. A positive orientation session affirms people's decisions to work for your organization. It reminds them that what they are doing is worthwhile, and shows them that your organization is the place to help.
  • Avoiding future problems. By explaining important information from the start, you save time and energy that would be spent on questions, misunderstandings, and misconceptions.

What kind of orientation should you give?

Orientation programs, as defined above, vary widely in terms of length, structure, method of delivery, and amount of detail. They can range from one-on-one casual conversation in the corridor, to highly structured classroom sessions in large groups lasting several days. So which to choose? Some criteria in making decisions about your orientation program:

  • The number of people who need to be oriented right now
  • The number of people available to do the orienting (and their available time and expertise)
  • The complexity of the job to be performed
  • The prior experience of the new volunteer in performing that job or a similar one
  • The presence (or absence) of an orientation program that someone else may already have established

Larger organizations, or those that have many volunteers, will generally have a more formal orientation program. This might take place over an hour or two and is often a requirement for becoming a volunteer. It might take place during the recruitment phase of your volunteer program, or on the volunteer's first day on the job.

Smaller groups who employ volunteers on one-time assignments, such as helping cook at the annual fundraising chili feed, may orient new volunteers individually. In these cases, the volunteer director or another member of the organization may simply show the new volunteer around, and (for simpler tasks) show him what he'll be doing.

This section will talk primarily about larger, more official orientation programs. Many of the ideas that follow, however, can be easily adapted to smaller, less formal situations.

How do you run orientation programs?

Again, this will depend on your organization's needs. But here are some things to consider in coming up with a solution that meets your group's needs.

Decide what you want to accomplish with your orientation program. When new volunteers leave after you have completed the orientation, what should they know? What should they be prepared to do? It sometimes helps to write down these goals. Then, you can plan how you are going to reach them.

Decide how large and formal you want the orientation to be. Will you recruit many volunteers together, or only one or two at a time? Will new volunteers have to come at a specific time for the orientation program, or will it be a part of the their first day? How much time and how many resources do you want to devote on the program?

There are no set answers to these questions. It's up to your organization to answer them in ways that make the most sense in your circumstances.

Decide who will be responsible for the orientation of new volunteers. The responsibility for orientation may fall to the volunteer coordinator (if you have one), it can be split between two or more people, or different individuals can take on the task at different times. However, if you are planning on having a more formal orientation program, or one that will probably be repeated, it often makes sense to have one person in charge of the orientation. That way you can be sure that the orientation program is consistent and that new volunteers hear the same things. Also, it's human nature to get better at things the more we do them. Practice may not always make perfect, but it certainly helps!

Get the word out. A brilliant and well-executed plan won't do much good if you don't have an audience. Posters might help, and postcards sent out as a reminder of the orientation session can be very helpful for busy people who might have forgotten to write the date on their calendar.

Arrange the logistics of the situation, especially when you're hosting a more formal orientation session. Will the meeting room be free when you need it? Do you have enough copies of the volunteer manual for everyone who is supposed to come, plus a few extras? Enough chairs? Is the meeting area accessible for people with disabilities? The devil is in the details, so try not to get caught unaware!

Be sure you have taken care of everyone's physical comfort when they arrive. Is the room too cold? Too hot? Do they need something to drink, and do they know where the bathrooms are? If people are physically uncomfortable, they will have a hard time listening to you and participating in the discussion and activities. And when they are uncomfortable, most people become less open to new ideas, both of their own and those of other people.

Even if you can't do much, you'll probably find that there are some basic comforts everyone will find important, and you will want to take care of them before the meeting. Some possibilities include:

  • Soft lighting
  • Comfortable chairs
  • Access to restrooms
  • Making sure the temperature is comfortable for everyone
  • Taking breaks when the orientation goes on too long
  • Refreshments (at an absolute minimum, you'll want to be sure there is water available)

Set people at ease. Often, orientation sessions are made up of people who don 't know each other, and they may be a bit shy about really getting involved in the discussion or asking questions--even important questions that everyone needs to hear the answers to.

Icebreaking activities can be used to alleviate this tension, and the person in charge of the orientation program may choose to use one if the participants are uncomfortable.

Cover the information you have decided is important for the orientation session. Evaluate what you have done.

What information should you cover during an orientation session?

A lot of different things might be appropriate, depending on the size, goals, and functions of your organization.

Some of the items that are more commonly discussed include:

  • A description of your organization's programs, the community you serve, and your organization's relationships in the community.
  • The structure of your organization, including an introduction to key staff members and an explanation of their roles.
  • What is expected of the volunteers, including a general overview of the jobs they will be doing.
  • A brief history of your organization. Help them understand your organization's mission, policies and main goals, as well as how the volunteer can contribute.
  • An explanation of your organization's policies, rules, and procedures.
  • A tour of the facilities. Make sure you show the volunteer offices, phones, rest rooms, parking, et cetera.
  • The volunteer training schedule, if one exists.
  • The volunteer evaluation and performance review system.
  • Volunteer benefits. These may be tangible, such as free membership in a nearby gym or free coffee and doughnuts for breakfast. But the job also has more abstract benefits, such as personal growth or the opportunity to obtain new skills. For example, a group helping to build low-income housing may teach volunteers the basics of construction--a skill they will be able to use throughout their lives. A mentoring relationship might give the mentor the satisfaction of having helped a young person succeed in school, or having opened his protégé's eyes to new life possibilities.
  • Emergency procedures, such as where to go in case of a storm, where to find the first aid kit, and related information, should always be explained.

An orientation session should be a time to make new volunteers feel welcome and part of the group. Any orientation, formal or otherwise, should close with a sincere expression of appreciation and welcome.

Written materials for new volunteers

It is often helpful to have some orientation materials in writing. These can range from a one-page tip sheet to a full-length orientation manual. The more complex the job and orientation, the more complex the material should be. (One variation of this, in large organizations, is to include one or more instructional videos, describing the organization and how it works.)

Some organizations have orientation manuals (sometimes called personnel manuals or policy manuals) which are given to new recruits, or at least made available to them. If your organization is large or formal, such as an established agency, school,or church, you might consider developing something comparable. Such development can take place over time, with new policies or other information being added gradually, possibly in a loose-leaf binder format. Loose-leaf binders are particularly good because new information can be inserted in its proper place and outdated information removed.

Warning: Written orientation materials should supplement, not replace, face-to-face orientation. More personalized orientation can deal with topics that printed materials do not address. It can also communicate which points in the written material are just there for the record, and those which really need to be followed to the letter. Most importantly, of course, talking with someone can answer questions and allay any fears the new volunteer might have.

Information that might be covered in a volunteer manual:

  • Copies of publications such as brochures, articles, et cetera, that have been written or produced by the organization
  • Staff and volunteer directory
  • A list of the Board of Directors
  • Record keeping forms and paperwork
  • Reimbursement policy
  • Termination procedure
  • Dress code
  • Scheduling changes
  • Insurance (if necessary)
  • Grievance procedure
  • Definitions of technical terms and jargon used by your organization
  • Information on client rights, confidentiality, legal restrictions, etc.
  • Volunteer promotion opportunities
  • Use of agency facilities, equipment, and services
  • A written copy of information discussed during the orientation

Evaluating your orientation

At the end of your orientation session, you want to know how well it went and if new volunteers learned what you hoped they would. Give yourself some credit for taking the time to orient new members--but remember that the fact that you are providing orientation does not necessarily mean it is valuable to them.

An evaluation component should normally be built into any orientation you deliver. It can be as simple as asking newly oriented members to rate the clarity and value (or other aspects) of the orientation, either right after the orientation, and/or at some time in the future. Evaluation could also involve observations of orientation sessions by other staff, or measurement of some aspect of job performance directly related to the orientation. For an example evaluation form, see the Tools at the end of this section. The next and last step once your evaluation data has been collected, is to use it in practice. Use what you've learned from orientation feedback to strengthen your orientation program, and make it the best program possible.

Orientation is ongoing

Your organization will experience the natural process of change over time, which means that volunteers will need to be kept aware of changes in the organization. The larger and more hierarchical your organization, the more this is true.

In other words, orientation is an ongoing process. It does not end with an orientation session, but rather in a real way it continues as long as a member is part of your group. How can this ongoing orientation best take place? As before, this will depend on the nature of your particular group, and especially on its size. Here are some options open to you:

Developing an orientation manual (see above), and making it someone's job to update it regularly.

Holding "general staff" meetings on a periodic basis for everyone in the organization regardless of function. Use these meetings to present new policies, procedures, developments, and to answer questions. This is also a good place to get useful feedback from your volunteers.

Distributing an organizational newsletter, which can accomplish some of these same purposes via print. Remember that none of this is in any way a substitute for clear day-to-day communication with your volunteers. But these more formal structures can be used to supplement that communication, and to provide added insurance that all your volunteers are "on the same page."

In Summary

Community organizations often depend on a constant influx of new volunteers to survive and thrive as they try to obtain their goals. To do so, however, it is important that your new volunteers understand that you really are welcoming them with open arms. By skillfully managing orientation programs, you are effectively institutionalizing that welcome and making sure that everyone who wants to help will understand what they are doing and why they do it. Ultimately, you are showing your volunteers how important their help is to the organization. Making sure they understand their positive impact on the organization is one of the best ways to make sure that the volunteers you orient today remain dedicated volunteers in the months and years to come.

Jenette Nagy
Bill Berkowitz
Eric Wadud

Online Resources

Creating an Orientation Manual for Volunteers was developed in Canada by The Volunteer Centre Society of Camrose and District.

A Guidebook for Working with Volunteers, by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, provides a step-by-step look at the mechanics of initiating and running a volunteer program. Techniques, alternatives, and samples are offered for use and adaptation.

Independent Sector is a national leadership forum, that encourages philanthropy, volunteering, not-for-profit initiatives and citizen action that help us better serve people and communities.

Volunteers of America is one of the nation's largest and most comprehensive charitable non-profit human services organizations. Founded in 1896, today Volunteers of America is active in more than 220 cities and towns in 37 states. Our community-based affiliates offer programs that serve those most in need, including abused and neglected children, homeless individuals and families, the frail elderly, youth at risk, people with developmental and physical disabilities and chronic mental illness, and ex-offenders returning to society, among many others.

Print Resources

Furano K., et al, (1993). Big Brother/Big Sister: A study of program practices. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Haines, M. (1977). Volunteers: How to find them? How to keep them! Vancouver, BC: The Vancouver Volunteer Centre.

Herman, R., & Associates. (1994). The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McCurley, S. (1986). 101 Ideas for volunteer programs. Downers Grove, IL: Heritage Arts.

Morrison, E. (1994). Leadership skills: Developing volunteers for organizational success. Tuscon, AZ: Fisher Books.

Roaf, P., et al, (1994). Big Brother/Big Sister: A study of volunteer recruitment and screening. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.