52 Tips in 52 Weeks: Investing in Volunteer Orientation

September 25, 2020

In these unusual times, sometimes the things that we cling to the most are the activities and programs that proceed as they would in non-COVID times.  I am truly grateful for individuals who volunteer their time to support our organization’s mission. I’m especially thankful for the volunteer interns that apply to become part of my organization’s team for a semester or two while they are in the midst of their own studies and academic pursuits. I have a special affinity for our volunteer interns because I began my own career at this organization as a graduate school intern many, many years ago!

We are fortunate to have a strong group of interns working this fall. As each intern comes on board, my organization invests in their success by utilizing our comprehensive volunteer internship orientation program. For a volunteer that has agreed to work 10 to 20 hours each week for an entire semester, we do our best to ensure that each individual has the tools they need to function within their program area by being oriented by their direct supervisor.  We take that orientation a few steps further by providing orientation to the major functions of the entire organization and to the most important topics within the nonprofit sector through a series of roundtables and seminars offered by members of our expert staff team.  I’m hopeful that this investment in their training and development will be helpful for each intern, not only during their weeks as part of our team, but also for their future—in whatever field they end up pursuing.

Of course, our organization (like so many other nonprofits) depends upon a host of volunteers to serve in various capacities. We are grateful for the support of volunteer committee members, peer reviewers for our Standards for Excellence accreditation program, and volunteers that assist at major events like our annual conference. Each volunteer assignment has its own expectations and responsibilities and as such, has a unique method or plan for the volunteer’s orientation to their position. Volunteer orientation should not be a one-size fits all scenario. For instance, our association’s conference volunteers will receive a customized virtual orientation program – providing each person the tools and information they will need to for their specific role. For our program this year, conference volunteers will be oriented using a combination of methods such as: orientation videos, group zoom sessions, practice sessions, and one-on-one meetings with members of our staff in some cases. Even for volunteers that are engaged for a short period of time like a conference, the investment is purposeful in order to make the experience successful.  It is important that nonprofits are realistic when recruiting volunteers—and take great care to recruit and onboard just the right number of volunteers to ensure that each person will feel welcome, well-equipped, and comfortable in carrying out their responsibilities.

I am pleased to report that when the pandemic hit, some of our volunteer programming didn’t miss a beat as our volunteer’s training and engagement was all virtual to begin with — but other volunteer responsibilities seemed much more challenging.  We were able to pivot our volunteer training and engagement from on-site and in-person to online and virtual and to continue working with an incredible group of volunteers. For this, we are profoundly grateful.

The Standards for Excellence educational packet on Volunteer Policies provides background and resources on engaging volunteers, developing volunteer policies and creating effective volunteer orientation. It also comes with customizable companion documents such as Model Volunteer Program Policies and Procedures, a sample volunteer job description and a sample volunteer and intern agreement.

This educational resource packet and the full series of all packets  – including sample policies, tools and model procedures to help nonprofits achieve best practices in their governance and management – can be accessed by contacting a licensed Standards for Excellence replication partner, one of the over 150 Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultants, or by becoming a member of the Standards for Excellence Institute.

Amy Coates Madsen is the Director Programs for Maryland Nonprofits and the Director of the Standards for Excellence Institute, a national initiative to promote the highest standards of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations, and to facilitate adherence to standards by all organizations. The Standards for Excellence Institute is a program of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations where Amy has served for more than twenty-four years. Amy is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the association’s comprehensive ethics and accountability program and efforts to replicate the program nationally. She serves as a frequent trainer and writer in the areas of board conduct, program evaluation, program replication, fundraising ethics, and nonprofit management. She has taught courses on nonprofit ethics and accountability at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies Certificate Program on Nonprofit Management.