Volunteer Retention 101: 5 Keys to Success


I recently read a phenomenal blog about the “Importance of Creating a Volunteer Orientation” and was intrigued at the viewpoint from this particular volunteer. Often times, organizations do not realize the importance that volunteer orientations play in both RECRUITING and RETAINING volunteers. As odd as it may sound, volunteers have admitted that they are more prone to stay with an organization with specific policies and procedures in place because it provides a sense of much needed direction and guidance.  In this blog, we will discuss important aspects of volunteer orientation.


First, let me say that training and orientation are NOT THE SAME.  I recently had the privilege of being a part of a volunteer management conference and the conversation of training vs. orientation arose.  It was interesting to see the mass confusion between the two, among my professional colleagues.  I asked them to create a list of things that they thought was supposed to be included in an orientation.  At the completion of the list, it included enough information that could have taken up at least three days of someone’s time.  This would totally and completely overwhelm someone coming into a volunteer role and send them running away, to NEVER serve anywhere.

An orientation should get a new volunteer acquainted with the organization to which s/he has decided to dedicate their time.  It should help them gain general knowledge and understanding of who the organization is, what the organization does, and how volunteers contribute to said organization.  Training, on the other hand, provides more in-depth information on the specific role in which the volunteer has signed up to undertake.  There should be some type of initial training, which may come in different forms, as well as ongoing training that will help the volunteer continue to thrive is his or her role.

Orientations are an organization’s opportunity to provide consistent information about the organization, as well as certain policies and procedures that are to be followed by the volunteer. As volunteers enter into an organization, they may each have different perceptions about the organization, or may have heard things about the organization via other people or volunteers.  Needless to say, each new volunteer brings his or her own assumptions about what it means to be a volunteer, and more specifically, what it means to be a volunteer in whatever organization in which they have decided to dedicate their time.  Orientation is a time to get everyone on the same page, regardless of their specific volunteer role or their prior assumptions of volunteerism.

Volunteer orientations can be provided in person via small groups, large groups, or can be done online.  Whatever the delivery, remember that orientation provides an opportunity for new volunteers to ask questions about the organization, or even get clarification on information.  Always ensure that there is a way for volunteers to follow-up with someone in your organization if they happen to have questions after the completion of their volunteer orientation.


The earlier a volunteer becomes familiar with an organization, the better the chance of there being a successful relationship between the volunteer and the organization.  When volunteers don’t feel as if they have been welcomed in a genuine manner, or given the proper information needed to successfully serve their role within the organization, there is a very high potential for them to leave.  If they DO stay, their volunteer experience will be jeopardized by inadequate preparation and lack of support for volunteers to perform well.  Often, early retention problems originate because of poor orientation and training.

It is crucial for organizations that engage volunteers to think wisely about information a volunteer needs that will establish a clear relationship with the organization (e.g. its history, mission, vision, goals, operating procedures, etc.) and should point to any type of training needed to effectively carry out the work for the organization.  If you have been in the field of volunteer management, then you know that there is no “one size fits all” approach to orientation, but every organization must be clear on information needed for their particular situation.  Orientations should also be updated on a yearly basis.

“GOOD” ORIENTATIONS…Skillstodevelop

…can be accomplished in 60 minutes.  Anything more than 60 – 90 minutes will send an individual into a “fit of fidgety” and they will begin to lose interest.  Good orientations (obtained from http://www.volunteermaine.org) should:

  • Develop a feeling of belonging: This is a great time to help new volunteers begin to feel connected to the organization as they meet staff and other volunteers. Plan a fun ice-breaker or get to know you activity and plan for partner or small group interaction as part of your orientation. It is important that your new volunteers feel welcome and appreciated.
  • Clearly communicate expectations: What is it that you need your new volunteers to know? This is the time to state what is expected. Are there behavior standards? Dress code? Confidentiality issues? Time commitments? Volunteers can’t meet your expectations if they haven’t clearly been stated. Taking the time to address expectations up front can save a lot of time further down the road once the volunteer has started their assignment.
  •  Share the mission of organization: A bit of history about the organization, the mission statement and goals and objectives are helpful to a new volunteer. This helps them to see how their role as a volunteer fits in. Include a brief description of programs, and you may wish to share some impacts your organization has had on the communities it serves.
  • Review policy and procedure: Include an explanation of policy, procedures, rules and guidelines. Inform volunteers who they can contact with questions about these topics.
  • Explain where to go for additional support: Introducing key staff members and explaining their roles is important. Volunteers will want to know where/how to access additional resources to help them in their role. Explain modes of communication that are used—is there an email list, monthly newsletter, team meetings? Assure volunteers they won’t be out there on their own, and be sure they understand there is a support system for them.
  • Give a tour of the facilities: Make sure to give a short tour to point out rest rooms, volunteer offices, phones, parking, resource library and break room.
  • Discuss risk management: This will be individualized based on the type of work the volunteer will be doing with your organization, but certainly an area to cover.
  • Provide written information: Provide your volunteers with some written information that summarizes the information you covered in your orientation: a handbook, packet, brochure, or Web site. Volunteers won’t remember everything they heard you say. Give them something to reference if they have questions or want to review particular pieces of information.


Let’s now explore the steps towards creating a custom volunteer orientation; this exercise will ask you to reflect on the needs of your own organization’s volunteer program (obtained from http://www.volunteermaine.org):

Consider your ideal vision for a volunteer orientation. You’ll need to determine the logistics of volunteer orientation before your content starts to take shape. Start by asking yourself:

  • Who will provide orientation for volunteers?
  • Should volunteers be oriented individually or in a group?
  • Is additional, position specific training necessary? Is it already in place?
  • How long should be spent on orientation? What is the time commitment for volunteers?
  • How can you make orientation an interactive experience for volunteers? What do they want to learn about?
  • What technology is available to you? Try to think outside the box!

Next, you’ll need to consider what you want to accomplish through volunteer orientation. Think about where your volunteers are coming from and what kind of service they will provide.

  • Are your volunteers individuals who serve on a consistent, ongoing basis?
  • Do you have occasional or one-time volunteers?
  • Do you use volunteers for special events/ projects or in large groups (such as school, religious or corporate)?
  • What kinds of things do your volunteers do? Do they complete manual labor or administrative tasks?
  • Do any of your volunteers participate in direct service activities, where they see clients or have access to confidential information?
  • What risks are associated with the service your volunteers perform? How can you prepare them for these risks?
  • Think about scenarios that you can include and discuss with volunteers to prepare them for real situations that they may encounter during their service.
  • You also need to consider the orientation and training topics that should be covered with your volunteers. Look to your staff training or orientation material and employee handbook for inspiration. What kind of information is covered for staff? How detailed is this information?


Often, if the organization has a Volunteer Manager, that person will design the overall orientation to the organization and will involve appropriate staff and volunteers in its delivery. The staff or volunteers directly supervising a volunteer’s work will be responsible for any specific orientation to their department, area, or region, and for the knowledge and skills-training to carry out the work the volunteer will be performing under their supervision.

Orientation can also be the step in which future training needs for volunteers are determined. Wilson (1979) suggests the following specific items to include in volunteer orientation:

  1. The volunteer should be familiarized with the organization’s mission, vision, values, philosophy, funding sources and staffing patterns.
  2. The volunteer should become familiar with the specific expectation and responsibilities of the volunteer job.
  3. The Volunteer Manager should plan for future training needs of the volunteer.
  4. The volunteer should become familiar with physical location, resources, record keeping and support systems.
  5. The volunteer should be oriented to the specific job description and its relationship with the mission and work of the organization.
  6. Participation guidelines for volunteers should include: supervision, time reporting, commitment, evaluation, reasons for ending service, training requirements, drug-free policy, harassment prevention, safety scenarios etc.

Developing a volunteer orientation for your organization is relatively simple and can even be done via a PowerPoint presentation. You will learn what works best for your organization.  In the meantime, please feel free to use my Volunteer Orientation Template and follow along in the video below should that will give step-by-step instructions on how to use to fit your organization’s needs:

As a reminder, volunteers who receive orientation at the start of their volunteer service will take pride in their time at the organization and will be more invested in the mission of the organization.  They will be more confident in their skills and ability to make a difference in the organization and will most certainly become a positive mouth-piece for the organization and their experience as a volunteer. Creating a volunteer orientation is only a small price to pay in developing an awesome volunteer experience, which in turn leads to a powerful delivery of service on behalf of the organization.

Wilson, M. (1979).  The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs.  Boulder, Colorado:  Volunteer Management Associates.
Volunteer Maine. http://www.volunteermaine.org.

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