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Learn how to teach new volunteers the skills they need to function effectively as part of your organization by creating a training plan.


Happy volunteers stacking hands together


Many volunteers are charged with complicated tasks that take a lot of understanding and knowledge to do properly. Sometimes, your organization will get lucky and someone with perfect training will show up and be ready to offer their talents for just what you need: an accountant offers his services to help with payroll; a social worker offers to talk with people who have just lost their homes in a terrible flood.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case, nor is it even often the case. Many times, well-meaning people will offer to help your organization, but are lacking many of the skills you need most. A man comes in to be a "big brother," but has no experience with young people. Women sign up to help and support women who have been raped after a "Take Back the Night," march, but have little idea of what that entails. In situations like these, when you need many people with the same skills, your group might want to have some sort of formal training program. Because, while enthusiasm for your cause is fantastic, it needs to be gathered and focused to truly meet your organization 's objectives.

Does this mean you will always need to have training programs when you use volunteers? Absolutely not! There is a lot of good work that can be done with minimal or no training. Selling drinks at a concession stand, running the nursery at the annual meeting, and helping to clean up the church grounds after the annual bazaar are times when volunteer help can be used with very little training required.

This section, then, isn't really geared towards those types of volunteer efforts. While such volunteers probably will need some type of orientation, as discussed in the last section, formal training isn't really going to be necessary for their purposes.

This section has been written for organizations in which at least some of the volunteers do work that requires more extensive training. Examples of these kinds of volunteers include peer and crisis counselors, volunteer health workers and teachers. If your group has volunteers like these, let's continue.

In this section, we will discuss the advantages of a formal training session, decide who should conduct the training, and explore different ways to train volunteers. We'll also include a discussion of the principles of adult learning, to help ensure that people are really getting what you hoped out of the training sessions.

Why should your organization have training programs for volunteers?

Sometimes your organization doesn't really have a choice; volunteer training is an absolute necessity. To be a lifeguard, for example, a volunteer will have to be trained in CPR.

But, for many groups, the decision whether or not to have a training program is not so clear-cut.

Some of the issues to consider when deciding whether or not to have a training program include:

  • Training helps new volunteers get to know the people, the program, and the job quickly and efficiently.
  • Training your volunteers establishes that there is a minimum competency that all volunteers are expected to obtain.
  • Many volunteers see training as a benefit of being part of an organization. Training teaches them skills that may be helpful to them elsewhere, and may even help them get a paying job.
  • Training publicly acknowledges a necessary level of proficiency. By training your volunteers, you are making the statement that the organization is professional and capable of doing important work and doing it well.
  • Some organizations use training as a "weeding out" technique, making sure that volunteers who have signed up will be likely to live up to their commitments.

Who should train new volunteers?

Once your organization has decided that it wants an official training program for volunteers, you should next decide who should run it. Of course, this will depend greatly on your situation: how many volunteers need to be trained, how much training they need, and the resources you are able to put towards training, to mention just a few of the variables. So it will be up to you, or another member of your organization, to decide what makes the most sense.

Some organizations have a director of training as a member of the staff. This makes particular sense for organizations that do trainings year round for moderate-sized or large groups of people. An organization may also have someone on staff for whom one of their duties is to coordinate new volunteer trainings.

If your organization has a volunteer coordinator or director, he or she will almost always play a role in training sessions, and may take charge of the trainings in smaller organizations.

Other volunteers are often an integral part of training, although they rarely run the programs. In smaller organizations, the entire training might take place by one volunteer shadowing another for a few days; for larger, more formal trainings, volunteers can give trainees an important perspective on "what it's really like."

Incorporating volunteers into training programs has benefits for the volunteer trainers as well as for the organization and trainees. As training director Lisa Rasor puts it, "We encourage experienced volunteers to be trainers because that's one way for them to refresh their skills and to feel more connected to the agency -- to have more of a stake in what's going on."

If no one in the group excels at the task for which you are training volunteers, you might even want to go outside of the group to find someone to run the training. This could be someone you hire on an ad hoc basis -- or would he be willing to offer his services for free?

How do you develop training programs?

As with any other plan you will develop, there are certain steps to developing a training program.

Decide what you want to teach volunteers

Why are you training volunteers? When new volunteers finish training, what should they know? And just as importantly, what do they want to know? Both the trainer and the trainees will have goals for the training program; it's important that the trainer develop a training program that focuses on both of these. It might even help the person doing the training to write these goals down. If the trainer doesn't have clear ideas of what volunteers should leave knowing, chances are the volunteers will leave the training session pretty confused.

Typically, a training session will try to impart four things to new volunteers:

  • What to do: What is expected of them as new volunteers? What will their responsibilities be?
  • How to do it: It's one thing to tell someone to "pour cement for the porch," but if you don't explain how to do it, things will likely be very messy indeed. Explaining how volunteers can best accomplish their tasks is the crux of training, and will probably take up the largest chunk of time.
  • What not to do: Are there certain things volunteers are not allowed to do? For example, should they not talk about clients, for the sake of confidentiality? Are there situations in which they should automatically call for staff backup? Training should make a volunteer's (and the agency's) limits very, very clear.
  • What to do in an emergency: if the volunteers had an orientation before training began, they will have already heard this information, but it's worth going over again. The location of the first aid kit (and possibly some first aid techniques as well) should be known by everyone, as well as what to do in a fire or a severe storm.

Decide how you will teach them

What kind of training program do you want to give new volunteers? Simpler possibilities are good for smaller organizations, simpler tasks, and groups that don't have the resources for a full training program. Two such possibilities are the use of the "buddy system" and shadowing. In the "buddy system," a new volunteer works with an experienced person at first, and the experienced person answers questions and makes suggestions. Shadowing is very similar, but the new volunteer is more passive, and watches more than she takes action at the beginning.

For a larger group of people, more challenging work, and groups with sufficient resources, a more extensive training plan is often more appropriate. This may take a few hours, a few months, or anywhere in between. The amount of material to be covered and the resources available should be your guide.

[Note: The following steps are specific to a larger, more formal training plan. Smaller training programs may be able to adapt them to their needs.]

Write a budget for your training

Trainings can be done fairly inexpensively, but they are rarely free. Typical expenses include equipment or room rental, trainer fees, staff time, food and beverages, and supplies.

Decide what materials you would like to use that will fit into your budget

You may find videos, workbooks, recorded material, web pages, or other materials helpful. Depending on the type of training you are doing, you should be able to find helpful materials from national clearinghouses, organizations similar to yours, or other sources.

Get the word out

Send a note out to new volunteers reminding them of the times and places of training sessions. Also, be clear about how much time training will take. If your training is particularly long, ask for written or oral confirmation that they will be able to make all (or most) of the training sessions.

Make sure all of the logistics have been worked out before each training session

That is, that the room is empty and prepared; there are enough chairs; the speakers know what time to show up, and similar details.

Pay attention to the physical comfort of trainees

This is the first thing you should do when people arrive. Is the room too cold? Too hot? Do they need something to drink? 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.

Set people at ease

When trainings begin, people may be shy about getting involved in the discussion or about asking questions. Understand this nervousness and try to find ways to reduce it. A comfortable learning environment can help put people at ease (it's hard to be really uncomfortable on a soft sofa, for example), as can icebreakers.

Start training!

Once you have completed your preparations and are certain that the participants will be relatively comfortable, it's time to get to work! Before you write up your lesson plans, however, it can be helpful to understand how adults learn best. Understanding certain ideas and techniques, sometimes called "principles of adult learning," can help in developing a highly effective training program.

Principles of adult learning

Adults must feel a need to learn. It's important that they understand the relevance of what is being taught to what they will be doing. For example, if the trainer is explaining group dynamics to a group of people who will be health educators in local clinics, she will probably have a better audience if the trainees know they will be talking to groups, and not just doing one-on-one counseling. If trainees understand that, the information automatically becomes useful, not just another lecture they need to sit through before they can get to the "real work."

Allow adults to share their previous experiences and relate them to the present situation. Everyone likes to feel that they have something to bring to the discussion; by relating past experiences to the current topic, your trainees will not only feel that they have something to add, but will also have a better understanding of the subject being discussed. It's no longer academic to them -- it's something they have experienced, something they know.

People learn better when lessons are centered around solving problems. Instead of a lecture, presenting a problem and helping trainees find the answer is a much more effective way of teaching. People like to puzzle things out and by presenting a problem, you ask people to think, not just passively accept what they are told.

Training should be interactive. You should lecture very little when training adult volunteers, and you should supplement your lectures with other methods as much as possible. Studies show that we retain only 20% of what we hear in a lecture setting, so consider incorporating discussions, observations, role-playing, demonstrations, and writing into your training program.

Balance support with challenging the learner. This is a delicate balance, which will come more naturally with experience. Try to convey to the trainee -- through words of encouragement, written policies, or other methods -- that he or she will always have the support necessary to do the job well. At the same time, however, challenge the volunteer to take on more complicated tasks as confidence and understanding grow.

Urge volunteers to use their creativity. Encourage suggestions, ideas, and improvements that the trainees might come up with, both to improve the training and to improve the program or organization as a whole. Since most trainees are probably new to the organization, they will certainly see things differently than people who have been there a while. Be sure to take advantage of their enthusiasm and fresh points of view!

Remember that people aren't the same. People learn in different ways, and may respond better to different approaches. The trainer should pay attention to how people are responding and try to modify the training accordingly.

Develop lesson plans

Now that you understand the principles of adult learning, it's time to write lesson plans. These are very helpful in keeping you on task, keeping an eye on the time, and making sure you cover everything you have intended to cover. A lesson plan may cover several hours of training time: if your training has been broken up into several (or many) different time slots, each one may have an individual lesson plan. A shorter training may only need one lesson plan; if your training is taking place over a large chunk of time (for example, at a weekend retreat), different ideas may be separated into different lesson plans, much like a grade school teacher might do for his different classes.

Individual lesson plans should state:

  • The learning objectives (i.e., the intended result of the lesson). For example, "At the end of this lesson, trainees will be comfortable talking about condoms in front of a small group of peers, and will know current slang terms for them."
  • The time allotted for each activity. Although there are no absolutes, this is usually fairly short -- typically under an hour. That way, trainees don't have time to get bored and are kept on their toes by constantly changing activities.
  • A detailed explanation of each activity.
  • Ways to evaluate trainee understanding. For example, a quiz at the end of the lesson, asking trainees to do something based on what they learned.
  • A list of resources needed to carry out the activities (e.g., markers, workbooks).

Evaluate trainees

Evaluation is a very important last step in your training program. By doing a simple evaluation, you will be able to learn what trainees learned and understood from the training. Some possibilities for evaluation include:

  • Field testing. Give them the chance to demonstrate what they have learned under careful supervision
  • Small group evaluation. Gather trainees to talk together about what they gained from the training
  • Pre-test/post-test score comparison. The same test is given to trainees when they enter and when they finish training. This is particularly helpful when you want trainees to get a lot of facts out of the training session, and it can also be useful when you are uncertain of the knowledge trainees originally bring to the classroom. For example, a group training to become AIDS educators might come to a training session with widely different levels of knowledge about HIV. A pre-test/post-test allows the trainer to understand what trainees already know (and modify the training program accordingly), and also how much they learn during the sessions.

Keep in mind that evaluation is a two-way street. Trainees should have the chance to give you feedback as well. At the end of the training (or possibly, at the end of specific lessons), you should give trainees the chance to give you specific and anonymous feedback. Then, you should be sure to incorporate this feedback in to future trainings, to make sure that your organization is constantly improving, that your volunteers are as well-prepared as possible, and that they will remain happy and productive at your organization. A blank form that trainees can use to give feedback can be found in the Tools at the end of this section.

Celebrate the end of training, but remember that training should be ongoing

Especially if the training has been long or very challenging, you might want to celebrate the successful completion of training. Some groups even give awards such as certificates of achievement or gift certificates to further recognize the occasion.

After the certificates have been passed out and the crumbs swept up, however, training is still not over. Training often continues for as long as the volunteers work at your organization. Annual retreats, classes, or conferences may all serve to refresh and enhance a volunteer's knowledge. Sometimes, these trainings are mandated to renew certification (as in First Aid certification). They may also be given sporadically, as new information or techniques become available.

The important point to remember is that volunteers, like paid staff, can benefit from additional training as they continue at their jobs. And, by giving additional training, you show volunteers how valuable they are to your organization. Training offers the chance to grow and change within the organization; volunteers don't need to leave the group to find new challenges.

In Summary

Teaching new volunteers the skills they need to function effectively as part of your organization can be difficult work. By creating a training plan, however, you can cut down on potential headaches while making sure volunteers have the most comprehensive, effective learning experience possible. And, in the long run, your work will pay off in the form of skillful volunteers who really are making the goals and dreams of your agency happen.

Jenette Nagy

Online Resources

Developing Accredited Training for Volunteers is from Volunteer Now in Northern Ireland and is a useful guide to developing a well-structured training for volunteers.

Independent Sector is a national leadership forum that encourages philanthropy, volunteering, not-for-profit initiative, 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 elderly, youth at risk, people with developmental and physical disabilities and chronic mental illness, and ex-offenders returning to society, among many others. Each year, more than 1.4 million people are served by Volunteers of America.

Volunteer Manual and Training Curriculum for Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Counseling/Education is from Volunteer Now.

Print Resources

Ellis, S., & Noyes, K. (1990). By the people: A history of Americans as volunteers. (Rev. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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

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

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

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