Volunteer Training a new way: Start with the person not the position

*Part 1 of a 3-part series on creating a volunteer learning journey.

Our volunteers are motivated. There’s no question there. They begin their volunteer journey enthusiastic, energized, elated to be involved in something they truly believe in. And we are happy to have them. Then somewhere along that path, they falter.

So, what happened and how can we fix it?

A comprehensive training program seems the logical answer, but it comes with one major challenge: our volunteers have limited time they can devote to us and often don’t see training as a valuable way to spend that time. The problem is compounded when they come in with the misconception that they already know what to do (I am good in the profession and therefore can do this), yet often lack the very skills and knowledge they truly need to be successful. They don’t understand their roles in the associations, how associations work, or have strong leadership skills. This means we sometimes end up with volunteers sitting on boards or managing committees who are not fully qualified or truly ready to do the job at hand, which in turn leads to frustration for the volunteer and the association. So how do we convince our volunteers to invest time in their training? Perhaps what we need is a new way of thinking about that training.

The good news is we already know what’s motivating our volunteers. What we’ve never done is design our training to capture that motivation.

All this was on the mind of Mariner Management president Peggy Hoffman when she came across a post by Kristine Metter, MS, CAE, president of Crystal Lake Partners: “Sometimes an inspiration comes from a very unusual place. I saw a post that Kristine had written about applying the ideas of member journeys to learning and I said WOW. That has never been done for volunteers.”

Tapping into this idea, Peggy and Kristine joined forces and gathered a group of great thinkers to figure out how to create a training model that would serve not just the organization, but, more importantly, serve the volunteer. Using the member journey concept as the starting point, the group developed Creating Association ROI Through Volunteer Training, a toolkit outlining a unique approach that ties volunteer training to motivations and aspirations rather than to the tasks at hand.

The toolkit guides associations through designing a training program that draws on journey mapping, volunteer personas, and a volunteer competencies matrix. What’s different about this approach is the strategy of connecting volunteer training and development to the volunteer’s motivations, in addition to their current knowledge and diverse skill levels. This allows us to better understand who the volunteer is as a learner and how to guide them towards success. And once you know where each volunteer stands in terms of experience (i.e., first time volunteer vs. experienced volunteer or leader), you can then match each with right training (needed skills, association knowledge) so they can succeed in different roles throughout the association.

For the volunteer, by focusing on their individual needs, the map offers a clear path to follow in order to achieve their aspirations, whether it be in a leadership or committee role. It outlines the competencies and prerequisites of your volunteer opportunities and helps identify areas of learning the volunteer may need to explore or re-visit as they move through different roles within the association. It takes the mystery, so to speak, out of the volunteer journey.

It also has another perk for the volunteer. As we learned from the 2017 Mutually Beneficial Volunteerism* study, volunteers often don’t feel fully recognized for their efforts. When asked in the survey what this meant, they responded that they don’t see the impact of their work or that the recognition is often superficial. In other words, they don’t see what they get out of the time they put in (there’s that time issue!). A clear training path for the volunteer to follow addresses some of these concerns: 1) helps them see what they need to do to be successful both inside and outside the association, and 2) recognizes their value by showing that you are willing to invest as much time in them as they invest in you.

“I’m training you to be a leader holistically. I’m training you to help you realize your aspirations.
I’m training you be a success in your job, your community, and within this association.”

In a nutshell, shifting the training from a transactional (about the position) to a developmental approach (about the person) helps the volunteer gain the skills needed to meet their needs and aspirations, as well as ensure the association gains volunteers who come with the leadership and team skills to help move the mission forward.

In our next post, we’ll dive deeper into the concept by explaining the 5 basic learning and development levels and how to begin developing your learning program. In the meantime, we encourage you to download the toolkit for more details and examples on building your program.  Also download our free tip sheet Coaching Volunteer Leaders: Tips for Creating A 12-month Strategy

And when you have some time, sit back and listen in on our June webinar where Peggy and Kristine first introduced the VLJ (you can get a quick recap of the webinar here) or read Sarah Garrity’s (Billhighway) 4-post series.

*Stay tuned for Part Two of our Mutually Beneficial Volunteerism report which will touch on training models that support this project.

*This project was a collaboration between Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, president of Mariner Management and Kristine Metter, MS, CAE, president of Crystal Lake Partners, along with an advisory panel of CRPs.

A special thank you to our Advisory Panel! We couldn’t have done this without you!

  • Michelle Champion, CAE, California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Lindsay Currie, CAE, Council on Undergraduate Research
  • Ann Dorough, CAE, American Institute of Architects
  • Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD, CAE, California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Becky Folger, American Mensa
  • David Jennings, CAE, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Community Associations Institute
  • Wendy Mann, CAE, CREW Network
  • Susan Mosedale, IOM, CAE, ASIS International
  • Diana Tucker, CAE, NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association