Ineffective Volunteer Training – Signs and Solutions

ineffective volunteer training

Having ineffective volunteer training can decrease your retention rates and increase errors. Good training is a crucial aspect of ensuring the success of volunteer programs. For most organizations, volunteers are the ones who actually create impact. Their effectiveness, however, often hinges on the effectiveness of the training they receive. As a leader of volunteers, it’s important to consistently improve your training.

It starts with recognizing the signs that things aren’t going well.

Some of these will show up during the training itself; others will appear later.

  1. Low participation rates – are different volunteers regularly skipping training sessions or disappearing part way through?
  2. Limited interaction – if volunteers are distracted or not participating in discussions, something is wrong.
  3. Declining retention rates – do volunteers regularly disappear shortly after, or even before, completing training? That’s a red flag.
  4. Tasks done poorly – if mistakes keep happening, it’s a sign that the training isn’t working.

There seem to be just a few main reasons for ineffective volunteer training.

The training is too extensive. It seems irrelevant to their role. It’s inconvenient. Or the training, frankly, is just boring.

Okay, now that you know what signs to watch for and what the problems might be, let’s look at how to improve your training if you have seen any of these signs.

First, let’s tackle the overly-extensive training issue.

How much training do you require volunteers to take? I get it; in certain types of organizations, some of the training is mandated. Volunteers in hospice organizations in Ontario, Canada, for example, are required to complete specific training prior to filling certain roles. Is it possible, though, that volunteers can fill other roles while they are going through that training? That will give them a sense that they are part of the organization even before they start working with patients. It also introduces them to the culture of the organization and to other volunteers and staff, so that they don’t feel like they’ve been dropped in cold.

For training that isn’t mandated, it’s a good idea to edit it carefully. Can some of it be done after the volunteer starts, or even dropped altogether? The more you can keep the training to the essentials, the more likely it is that volunteers will complete it. If some of your training is more in the area of “good to have” rather than absolutely essential, offer it as a benefit rather than a requirement. It’s amazing what a bit of reframing can do!

What if the training seems irrelevant to the volunteer?

I had a conversation with the manager of an animal shelter. He often got complaints about the training required. “Why do I have to know all that just to take a dog for a walk?” was a question he was often asked.

In some cases, it may be that the training really isn’t necessary. When possible, tailor the training to the specific roles/tasks that the volunteer is doing. They’ll be able to absorb it better because they see the need for it, and it won’t get lost amongst a bunch of detail that’s only important for a different role.

If the training is important, though, but doesn’t necessarily appear so, use storytelling. The manager I mentioned began telling the trainees about an infectious disease that killed three dogs in the shelter. A volunteer didn’t recognize the signs of infection in a dog they met while she was taking a shelter dog for a walk. Using a story to draw that direct line between the training and the role captures their attention.

Be flexible with the training schedule and location.

This is becoming less of an issue as organizations are putting more of their training online. Many have training videos that volunteers can watch at their convenience. It does still happen, though, that important training takes place at a time or location that is a barrier to many potential volunteers.

As training is usually done by staff, and staff have set hours, training is fit into those hours. Which is great if the shift will be during those hours; if a volunteer can’t make the training, they won’t be able to make the shift. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. A person who wants to volunteer on the weekend because they’re working during the week won’t be able to attend weekday training. If in-person training occurs at a location that isn’t serviced by transit, you prevent many people from participating. The more flexible you can be, the more people will attend.

And what if your training is just flat out boring?

The most ineffective volunteer training you can do is stand at the front of the room and lecture everyone for an hour. People have different learning styles. Some prefer visuals, others learn better through hands-on experiences and so on. Mix things up. Ask questions, include videos, infographics, games, and practical demonstrations. The greater the variety of training methods you are able to include, the more likely it is that you will reach everyone and keep them interested. It makes it more fun for you, too!

Good training is essential to having good volunteers.

Review the training you provide volunteers. Only include training that’s necessary to the role, use storytelling to show its importance, be flexible with timing and location, and use different elements to make it interesting. Good training isn’t difficult, but it does take thought. Good luck!

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