How to Design Effective Volunteer Training

Based on the extensive review of volunteer retention studies over the past decade, Lowenberg-Deboer & Akdere (2018) found three common factors that keep volunteers engaged and participating: 1) motivation, 2) satisfaction, and 3) organization familiarity. The authors acknowledged that of course, these three key elements are inherently interrelated: i.e. being satisfied keeps you motivated, and so on. 

So what’s the point of identifying and understanding these interrelated elements? The point is this: by understanding what keeps volunteers coming back, nonprofit leaders are better able to design effective training programs, therefore increasing retention rates of volunteers.  

These three key factors identified by the research will help avoid volunteer flight.

#1 Role Mastery is key to volunteer retention

A volunteer will feel most successful, will build the most skills, and be most compelled to volunteer again, if they feel successful in their role.  Of all the research studies analyzed, the takeaway is clear: role mastery is key to volunteer retention.  

#2 Prepare volunteers for success

If there’s one thing the majority of nonprofit scholars agree on, it’s this: initial training is crucial for volunteer retention.

As anyone who has worked with volunteers can attest, merely relying on on-the-job and hands-on training can overwhelm trainees leaving them feeling unsupported and unprepared.  Burnout will quickly ensue if inadequate training leads to volunteers unable to complete their tasks (Zhou & Shang, 2011). 

#3 Going Beyond the Initial Training: The Value of Ongoing Training

So of course, initial training is hugely important, but as Claxton-Oldfield (2016) suggest, ongoing training and regular educational activities may be the key to preventing burnout.  As volunteers in the human sector become exposed to a variety of stressors and exposure to what may be new situations and difficult emotions, it is important to reassure volunteers that they’re not alone and remind them how much their service is improving the lives of those they’re hoping to help.

Many volunteers are motivated to serve not only by altruism alone.  Some may be eager to learn new skills to improve their own portfolio of offerings.  For this, offering ongoing volunteer training opportunities to regular volunteers may be a key motivator to avoid attrition of your long-term volunteer champions.

Speaking of motivation, research clearly reveals that understanding the motivation factors of volunteers is essential in ensuring nonprofit leaders design programs and trainings that increase volunteer retention. 

Training Design Tips

Below, we outline 3 strategies for designing new, or enhancing current, training materials and programs for your volunteers. If you’d like to dive deeper into this topic and explore all 7 of our training design tips check out our Ultimate Guide to Volunteer Retention

#1 Volunteers want to give back

The first motivator identified by all of the research studies is altruism: A volunteer’s desire to “make a difference” in their communities plays an important role in a person’s decision to donate their time. Therefore, orientation needs to recognize this motivation factor. 

Training Design Tip: Be clear about the impact of the service. In any training program, it is ESSENTIAL that the training EXPLICITLY clarifies “who will be helped, how they will be helped, and the magnitude of the work’s importance” (Lowenberg-DeBoer & Akdere, 2018, p. 26). Explaining how they fit into the organization’s larger mission and vision will undoubtedly help feed the volunteer’s desire to give back.

#2 Volunteers want to connect with new people

The second motivator is a volunteer’s desire to connect with new people. Whether it be romantic prospects, new friendships, or connecting with those in need, many volunteers sign-up to donate their time in hopes of building new relationships. This is especially evident with younger volunteers who have fewer life experiences and are often eager to meet a variety of new people.

Training Design Tip: Ensure volunteers can connect with others during training.  Orientation programs should highlight the relationship building of the service and provide plenty of opportunities for volunteers to connect with each other, staff members (where appropriate), and other community members. All forms of training, including orientation, on-the-job, cross-functional, and retraining activities, may be most effective at reducing retention if done in teams. And while possibly seen as cheesy, even including team-building and get-to-know-your-partner activities can set the tone for connectedness.

#3 Volunteers want to learn new skills

The third motivator for volunteers is to learn new skills. As mentioned earlier, many private sector companies are also motivated to send their employees to experience volunteerism in order to build upon their workforce’s skill set. It’s been found that matching volunteers to roles and mentors with similar career interests is an ingredient for success, especially for younger volunteers (Waikayi et al., 2012).  According to the research, taking into account the age and experience of the volunteer should play a role in what depth of training is expected of the volunteer. Younger volunteers may stay a shorter period of time with the organization but should have more depth of training. Older, more experienced volunteers are better positioned to stay with the organization but may benefit from shorter training opportunities spread out over time.

Training Design Tip: Ensure your trainings are skills focused. And specifically call out which skills are being built.  You could even provide a checklist and encourage your volunteers to think about which skills they feel they’ve grown/mastered during their time with your organization.

Key Takeaways:

Bottom line is this: If your organization relies on volunteers, which most of us do, it makes the most sense to retain the volunteers you’ve already spent valuable staff time on and who know how to do their volunteer duties well.  Designing and delivering quality orientation and ongoing training will not only ensure volunteers do their job well, represent your organization well, and help accomplish your organization’s mission, proper and continuous volunteer training will keep those well-trained volunteers committed to your organization, saving you money and reducing risk.

If there’s one thing you should move to the top of your never-ending to-do list, it’s this: invest in a quality volunteer training program.

If you’d like to go deeper into this topic, check out our ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Volunteer Retention. 

Courtney Baines is Content Specialist for ServeHub. She has over 10 years experience in the nonprofit world, serving as a Founder, Program Director, and Executive Director for a variety of organizations. With a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, she specializes in curriculum design, nonprofit success, science literacy, and interdisciplinary education.


Claxton-Oldfield, S. (2016). Hospice palliative care volunteers: A review of commonly encountered stressors, how they cope with them, and implications for volunteer training/management. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine, 33(2), 201- 204.

Lowenberg-DeBoer, K., & Akdere, M. (2018). Integrated review of volunteer retention and implications for training. International Journal of Volunteer Administration, XXXIII(2), 20 – 38.

Perigo, J. (2010). Volunteering and the evolution to community action learning. Industrial and Commercial Training, 42(7), 351- 359.

Waikayi, L., Fearon, C., Morris, L., & McLaughlin, H. (2012). Volunteer management: An exploratory case study within the British Red Cross. Management Decision, 50(3), 349 – 367.

Zhou, H. & Shang, X. (2011). Short-term volunteer teachers in rural China: Challenges and needs. Frontiers of Education in China, 6(4), 571 – 601.