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How to Engage Volunteers to Take Essential Training

How to Engage Volunteers to Take Essential Training

Whether you are trying to operate a community arts association, a botanical garden, a soup kitchen, a tele-helpline for troubled teens, or a trades association, you depend on trained volunteers. And yet, each of these projects, and thousands more like them, require specialized training.

The arts association volunteers need to know how to handle ticket sales, manage crowds effectively, handle traffic flow and parking, and even use specialized sound mixing equipment. The botanical garden volunteers need to know the history of the garden to give guided tours and a basic knowledge of the plants so they can answer questions or maintain them. Volunteers in soup kitchens must be trained in essential safe food preparation procedures while volunteers handling troubled callers need to know when a problem is so serious professional help or rescue workers must be called. Boards, directors, and committee members need to be onboarded to be aware of their roles in governance and how to carry out their responsibilities.

You get the idea.


Consistent, Specialized Training is Needed

How can your association or not-for-profit handle the kind of specialized training that is needed? What method of delivery works best and how can you engage your volunteers to stay motivated long enough to complete their training?

Traditional training for volunteers was either formal in a classroom or presentation kind of setting, or informal with one person passing on their knowledge to another. Today, when issues of public safety and organizational liability are on the line, it is too important to train with anything less than a formalized program.

Increasingly more organizations are turning to e-learning as a means of delivering consistent training that both busy young professionals and retired baby boomers can download and learn from the comfort of their own homes. These materials can be easily transformed into a printed orientation guide as well if you work with volunteers who are not computer savvy enough to be trained online.


Consider Online Learning Programs for Volunteers

In considering e-learning programs for not-for-profits, a commonly raised objection is that engaging volunteers to complete online training will be more difficult than group training in a classroom. There is no validity to this fear. In fact, the motivational techniques to get volunteers to complete their training through e-learning are no different from those used in traditional learning programs.

The issue of engaging in e-learning was the subject of a study done at New Zealand’s Massey University and Canada’s Athabasca University. Researchers discovered that whether you train people face-to-face or online makes no significant difference when compared to other key factors. The study, called Examining Motivation in Online Distance Learning Environments: Complex, Multifaceted, and Situation Dependent, was completed by Maggie Hartnett, Alison St. George, and John Dron.

They discovered that all learners are motivated in many different ways and whether they study face-to-face or online is not a determining factor in facilitating them to complete the course. In short, if a volunteer doesn’t finish their training, it generally has nothing to do with technology.

If training delivery methods don’t matter to volunteers, what does? What is it that engages them to embrace essential training and make the most of it?


Ensure that Course Materials are Relevant

The secret is relevancy. When people sign up to volunteer and are advised training is mandatory, that conversation has to include a convincing reminder of how the training is relevant to what they will be doing. When volunteers show up to give of their time for a cause, they are already making a significant donation to your not-for-profit. When you thank them but then tell them you need even more of their time for training, you have to communicate its relevancy right then.

Answer the "what’s in it for me?" question that hangs in the air. Let your volunteers know that this training will not only allow them to help the association run smoothly and help others get the most of it, but it will also enhance their personal skillset with useful knowledge. In some roles, the training may even be mandatory.

Stress that extra skills, from traffic management to botanical knowledge, are useful to carry around and might be needed in their personal or professional life in the future. In other words, give people a reason to want to learn. Just telling them they have to is not nearly as effective as taking the time to present the training as a "value-add" to the whole volunteering experience.

The next step is to ensure you set up your online course with specific modules for particular tasks so the volunteer is more connected to the content. If the volunteer will be guiding visitors through a tradeshow, for example, it may not be necessary to give them detailed training on governance policies or how to prepare news releases for the organization.

People who can select training that is personally interesting to them are much more motivated to complete it than those who are simply told to take it.


Maintain Personal Connections Through the Training Period

Remember to keep the trainee connected to the organization during the period of learning. Ensure that whether you deliver your courses online or in person that there is an open discussion line if they want to question a point or discuss an issue as it arises. Try to set up a buddy system where a new volunteer is paired with an established volunteer. Mid-way through the training period, make sure the experienced volunteer calls the newcomer to check if they are working their way through the training material successfully and ask if they have any questions. The more frequent the communication, the better.

At the start of any volunteer training program, engage the trainees by clearly outlining the expectations for them and what success will look like at the program's completion. This is also the time to check openly and honestly with the new volunteer to make sure they have the technical skills sufficient to take the offered training. For online training, this would indicate comfort with computer technology. For personal training, ensure there are no literacy or learning barriers that could impede progress.

Finally, make sure there is a worthy reward at the end of the training program. Not only is the volunteer cleared for work, but they also are recognized in some way such as with a certificate and some tangible reward. For example, present two tickets to the performing arts centre, two free passes to enjoy the botanical garden, or an insulated soup mug for the soup kitchen or a comfort wrap for the telecare worker. These are just ideas to illustrate how the concept is to find a reward appropriate to the volunteering the person will be performing.



Paula Morand is a leadership building, revenue-boosting, strategy expanding keynote speaker, author, and visionary. This dreaming big and being bold leadership expert and brand strategist brings her vibrant energy, humor, and wisdom to ignite individuals, organizations and communities to lead change, growth, and impact in a more bold fashion. 24 years, 27,000 clients, 34 countries, 15 books, former radio personality, 11x award-winning entrepreneur and humorous emcee. Check out Paula’s bestselling books on Amazon: "Bold Courage: How Owning Your Awesome Changes Everything", "Dreaming BIG and Being BOLD: Inspiring stories from Trailblazers, Visionaries and Change Makers" book series; and her newest release "Bold Vision: A Leader’s Playbook for Managing Growth”.

For speaking inquiries email bookings@paulamorand.com or call toll-free 1-888-502-6317.



Additional training is just a small part of doing what's best for your career, in the not-for-profit sector or otherwise. Proper, effective professional development also means career management planning. Our CAE Program has an upcoming webinar that can help in this regard, so don't miss out.



Paula Morand, Professional Development, Volunteers


Education, Guest Contributor, CAE Program



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  • What about situations where the training has absolutely NO relevance to the volunteers' jobs but is required by corporate (most likely) or state/federal laws? I work as an admin assistant to a hospital volunteer director & our biggest problem is the lack of caring by the higher-ups at corporate (several states away) about how irrelevant much of the required training is for our senior citizen volunteers. Too much is focused on clinical scenarios where volunteers are not even allowed to work, yet we are required to know this information & review it every single year. How do we keep morale up in this situation?
    3/25/2018 11:12:36 PM Reply
    • @Meredith: I can totally understand your frustration in this scenario. It is difficult to feel like you can create positive change when you are dealing with a large infrastructure. There are always many players in these types of scenarios, each having different priorities and outcomes they are tasked with achieving.. The decision makers are often focused on doing their due diligence in making sure their staff and volunteers are trained to the level of what their budget will allow.. As a consultant and strategist, I am always one to ask the question. 'With the scenario that I am dealing with what is in my control that could possibly make this situation better?" One idea could be to brainstorm if there is a way to dialogue with the decision makers to share your ideas as an individual or as a department, communicating your current frustration as a legitimate issue that needs to be discussed. Can you articulate it in such way that it makes sense and connects with the problem that the decision makers need to solve but also appeasing the end user of the training that you feel is not benefiting from it. Often times we speak in terms of what we don't like with no solutions offered and in my experience that just keeps emotions at the forefront. Secondly, with what you have in your control, when your volunteers come in to take the training can you do something to create engagement or acknowledgement that you appreciate them for taking the time to fulfill this requirement. Is there something interesting that you can do to turn the negativity into a positive because you cared enough to go the extra mile. These are just two ideas... take some time to be creative and to put everything on the table before trying something. Creating positive cultural change is possible from where you are. Best of success!
      3/27/2018 5:59:38 PM Reply
  • This article seems to be more of a why than an how. I don't think anyone would dispute the why, and as far as motivation, perhaps discounted registration or association swag would work great as carrots to get volunteers to complete the training.Online training and orientations would be a fantastic delivery system for our volunteers as they are scattered throughout our region. How would a small association go about setting up online training modules for boards, committees and various onsite event roles? No really, how???? We need this!
    2/27/2018 6:48:42 PM Reply
    • @Audrey Arisman: There are so many ways to develop affordable options to online education these days.. This is the era of the knowledge economy and people are used to getting information at their fingertips and making it convenient for them to access and consume information in a way that makes sense to them. I agree with you in that I believe this is going to be a huge growth area in the coming years. In fact statistics show that it is one of the fastest growth areas in the training and development sector. My company has offered online training options for almost 8 years and the options now would have saved me tens of thousands of dollars from the custom built site I started with . Having the right people to manage the platform and develop a communication strategy to go with it is key. From custom build options to plug and play platforms like Kajabi the options are vast and the budget requirements will vary. A few thoughts: What do you need the platform to do? What will it currently replace or is it a new solution to meet a gap in your service delivery. How will your customer relationship change by implementing this new system (and it will). What kind of experience do I want my customer (volunteer) to have when they enter this portal? What is the flow of content that the customer will need to experience once they get in the system. Is it training, credit based education, qualification or certification focused etc.. These are just a few considerations and there is so much more.. For me it is all about the customer and their experience so they leave satisfied and fulfilled with their experience and feel like they have been served well. This should also tie in with other customer touchpoint when building the model and figuring out what the customer life cycle looks like! Innovation can be exciting and fun. I recommend starting small with a pilot project if this is a new venture for you. It will build confidence, understanding and create some excitement and a possible opportunity to evolve your content to a more relevant and timely version that speaks to the customer needs right now. I hope this helps!
      3/27/2018 6:18:19 PM Reply

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