From Interest to Reality: Use training to build volunteer skills

Once you’ve taken the steps to get a volunteer started in their service, it’s important to consider the role of volunteer training and whether or not (s)he would benefit from it.

Training is the opportunity to ensure that volunteers have the skills needed to be successful in their role. Research shows that volunteer performance, satisfaction and retention are all improved when volunteers receive training. Depending on the position and the organization, volunteers might be required to complete training prior to beginning service. Typically, this depends on the level of risk associated with that role and how specialized it is. Some volunteer programs use volunteer training and orientation as part of the screening process – which can be a helpful tool to see if there are any red flags that come up in a more informal setting than an interview.

There are three basic objectives when training volunteers: increase volunteer knowledge, build volunteer skills and modify volunteer attitudes. Let’s look at these three and the methods appropriate for each.

There are a number of training methods that may be used to increase volunteer knowledge. It is important to consider the ways people learn before planning a training program because the most effective learning results from a variety of training activities. In most programs, long ones in particular, volunteer trainers should vary the teaching method. Because different volunteers learn in different ways, providing variety is the best answer to training in order to most effectively reach a variety of learning styles.

Prior to utilizing a training method, certain concepts should be taken into consideration. The first is trainee knowledge: Wherever possible, the training design should utilize the trainee’s own wisdom. Volunteers often bring with them a wide variety of experiences, knowledge and skills that can be applied to training. Training methods that build on and use the volunteers’ experience will produce the most relevant learning experience.

Regular classroom settings are not always appropriate for adult learning, so keep learning informal and experiential by moving outside of the ordinary setting. For example, begin with a brief summary of the training session, followed by an activity. An activity is important, even if it is only asking questions about individuals’ background in the particular area.

The next thing to consider is trainee involvement: Individuals gain more from training by analyzing and assembling their collective experiences than by listening to an expert. Therefore, each session should include maximum opportunity for active involvement. This means that when a technique is used in which participants are passive (such as a lecture or a panel discussion), it should be followed with a technique in which the participants are actively involved (such as a discussion of a lecture or a role-play after a demonstration).

Finally, you should consider the length of the training. Volunteers today are involved in many important roles that often compete for their time, so limit the length of the training and accept volunteer commitments and loyalties. Plan ahead in order to use the training time as efficiently as possible. Volunteers participate in trainings to learn how to perform the tasks central to their volunteer roles. Therefore, keep the material practical and relevant to their predicted position.

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