Training The New Breed of Skill Based Volunteers

Training The New Breed of Skill Based Volunteers … who perhaps think that you can’t teach them anything!

Thomas W. McKee has tackled this problem with a great book, The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer (Group Publishing). The New Breed details the new cultural shift in volunteer management and also includes valuable, applicable resources for leaders.

A new volunteer is like a new employee and training is vital. A number of retired baby-boomers come to us from professions such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, or professors. And another hot prospective volunteer today is the young, single professional, right out of college, who is eager to help us. You get the picture. But then we ask this professional to attend the agency orientation and training program. This requires a trainer who may find his audience “less than enthusiastic” about this required training.

In this day and age we find that the motivation for learning has a short window. People learn what they want to learn. If learning is forced on us, even if we master it temporarily (for example, by cramming for a driver’s test), it is soon forgotten. One study found that the half-life of knowledge learned in an MBA course was about six weeks. Many folks attend classes merely to earn an accreditation or fulfill a requirement. That is an advantage that we have as volunteer managers. Volunteers are volunteering because they have a passion about a mission to change their world and for the most part are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen-including training.

  1. What do I want the volunteer to know that he/she doesn’t already know?

Shock – not everyone needs formal training. We have a number of VITA tax preparer volunteers who obtain online training and IRS Certification prior to the start of the tax season. It would be ridiculous to say, “Before I turn you lose, I want you to attend the same type of tax preparer workshop in a classroom setting.” He will need little supervision and we’ll just need a 10 minute orientation (over doughnuts and coffee) at the tax site and I can turn him loose.

Maybe an informal one-on-one breakfasts, coffee, or lunch can cover a lot of training and information about the organization.

But on other volunteer assignments, we need to do formal training because the volunteer doesn’t know what they need to know. Topics might include:

  1. Why we do what we do
  2. How we do it the way we do it
  3. Why we do it the way we do it
  4. The very specific equipment that we use
  5. The consequences to the organization if it is not done
  6. The consequences to the organization if it is not done the way we want it done

2. Stories and peer support are great motivators for volunteers who “think they know it all”

Give them a reason to want to be part of the success story. Give them peer-support to learn “on the job”. Ask them to show up 15 minutes early for their shift where the staff can demonstrate office printers, telephone and computers. It always helps to have them work with their first volunteer assignment with a peer.

3. How long should training sessions be?

There are some rules for trainers:

  • Opening motivation talk should be no longer that 5-10 minutes.
  • Keep presentations down to five-to-ten minutes per topic.
  • Follow up the presentation with a DVD, exercise or role play demonstration

For a 90 minute training: Include at least 1 to 2 coffee/cookie breaks. (Our brain learns best when learning is interrupted by breaks of two to five minutes so it can diffuse, or process, information).

For a half-day workshop: Give 15 minute breaks every 90 minutes. Make them get up and walk to the snacks. Stay available during break for questions.

4. Who can best deliver our training?

Shock – the best volunteer worker is not the best trainer. Just because a person is a great worker doesn’t mean that he or she is a great trainer. So, choose a single person to train new volunteers (and send that person to a train- the-trainer workshop).

Create a training manual for the instructor that will guide and standardize the training of the new volunteer.

Create a test for all new volunteers on the job so you will know whether learning has actually occurred.

Bottom line: “Better to train someone and lose them, than to not train them and keep them.” (Zig Zeigler)


jeanWritten by Jean Joley,
Executive Director of Volunteer Center
for PCNRC.

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