Ongoing Training

November 1, 2011       Susan Ellis      

Solid initial training and informative continuing education sessions for volunteers boost recruitment, maintain enthusiasm, and increase retention. But skill development for volunteers is usually separated from training provided to employees.

With a bit more vision and creativity, any organization can provide all sorts of learning opportunities agency-wide for both paid staff and volunteers.

It is not common for program managers or staff training coordinators to go to the volunteer services office when seeking professional development for the paid staff. They should, though. Why not design continuing education opportunities for both volunteers and paid staff together? For example, schedule periodic in-house group discussions of current trends and issues affecting your setting and invite anyone who’s interested. It might surprise employees to discover the level of understanding committed volunteers have about your work, particularly as volunteers will approach any topic from perspectives different from those of full-time staff. Conversely, shared discussions cannot help but develop more genuine teamwork.

Finally, if student interns are a significant part of your unpaid staff, such structured exchanges will add to their education — and keep employees abreast of the most current university teaching, too.

Short-term volunteers as educators

Form a planning team made up of both employees and volunteers to brainstorm possible topics for more in-depth training. Recruit experts from the community to volunteer one to two hours to come and speak. If you are flexible about when such sessions are scheduled (at the convenience of the speaker), there is no limit to the richness of subjects you can learn about without tuition or registration.

The beauty of involving volunteers in a staff development strategy is how well this fits into today’s reality of people wanting short-term volunteer assignments. Seeking speakers suddenly opens new ways to engage all sorts of experts and specialists in limited — but vital — volunteer work. Use your imagination and create a wish list of possible topics, from the academic to the hottest fad, and each will suggest where to look for someone able to describe it to your volunteers and employees. For example:

  • College and university faculty, even graduate students, have a wealth of research information they can explain;
  • Corporate human resources, marketing, and customer service staff deal in many of the same issues as nonprofits, but starting from a different knowledge base;
  • Radio and television stations have people who can speak about what grabs media attention;
  • Various special interest and hobby groups can provide members who know quite a bit about everything from gardening to astronomy to sports coaching; and,
  • A high school computer club might offer someone who really understands tweeting.

Note that it is flattering to be approached to share your knowledge and most people will make time to be of help, particularly if they feel good about your cause. Not everyone wants or feels able to do hands-on with-your-clients volunteer work. Inviting someone to develop staff skills is a way to improve the capacity of the entire organization to meet its mission more effectively. It’s this multiplier effect that makes your recruitment pitch appealing.

If your area has an association of volunteer program managers or any association of professionals working in different agencies, it is possible to develop a speakers and trainers directory of local experts willing to make presentations a few times a year. One way to start this directory is to ask every organization to recruit two of their present employees and/or volunteers with special skills to register with the directory. This “shares the wealth” already available in a more formal way. It also is another form of professional development for those invited to make presentations.

Some organizations might want to form a training cooperative, in which several groups develop a year-long training calendar together. All the volunteers and employees from each cooperating agency are invited to all the sessions (not all will want to come, remember), but each organization is only responsible for doing the planning for one or two sessions a year. Not only does this divide up the work equitably, but it then becomes possible to recruit even more popular speakers who might prefer a larger audience (even the mayor or a foundation head might say yes).

Professional enrichment for staff

There are other forms of staff professional development that could be facilitated through the volunteer services office.

One possible initiative is to train a volunteer or two to interview staff about their personal, professional learning objectives. These might include the chance to practice conversational Spanish, learn how to write a funding proposal, or be more effective in doing Internet research. Once such wishes are identified, recruit volunteers with those skills to be “staff development coaches.” Their role will be providing individual or small group tutoring and support over several months. Again, this offers the right volunteers a meaningful way to serve your organization’s mission by building the skills of the staff.

Another great volunteer role is on-call advisor. Recruit experts willing to be called on for, say, three hours per year (but someone needs to keep track, both to make sure the volunteer is indeed asked to help and to assure the hours are not exceeded). They do not have to come in to your office—staff will consult remotely by e-mail or phone or, if necessary, go to them. What might such advisors do? Everything from critiquing draft reports and press releases to explaining how a particular neighborhood organizes itself. The possibilities are endless!

  • Gaining experience in how to work with a specific population group (seniors, refugees, newly unemployed), perhaps in preparation for expanded services to that group;
  • Being introduced to public policy issues, political processes, and strategies for getting things done locally; and,
  • Having existing skills of employees recognized and rewarded by the chance to volunteer those talents to community groups, on behalf of your organization, thereby building bridges for future collaboration.

Be intentional in seeking the most relevant volunteer assignments and then putting in writing the organization’s hopes for the outcome. The best person in your organization to help facilitate all of this is the manager of volunteers, who should already be knowledgeable about potential volunteer placements in the community.

You can also set up a “loaned executive” program as a direct exchange with an organization with which you do a lot of work. Have key staff members spend a month at the other’s desk and see what each learns. At a minimum, alternate site visits with one person shadowing the other for a day. Do this for volunteers as well as employees, because each will learn something different.

Merging both the needs and abilities of volunteers and employees raises the quality of the entire staff while introducing a whole new circle of volunteers to your organization’s work. NPT

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia, Pa.-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. She can be reached via email at Her website is