volunteer handbook

If your organization relies on volunteers, even just a little, you need a volunteer handbook that spells out expectations, policies, and procedures.

A volunteer handbook gives volunteers the information they need about the organization and its mission, and answers any common questions they may have.

Without a handbook, volunteers may feel disconnected and unsure of their role and responsibilities because once training is over, there are no materials for them to reference later.

If a question arises, such as what to do in case of inclement weather or personal illness, and your volunteer cannot easily find the answer, there is a good chance the volunteer will become confused, disengage, and potentially walk away, never looking back.

A volunteer handbook is an essential piece of a successful volunteer program at a nonprofit. But, you need more than just a volunteer handbook to make sure your volunteers have a positive experience and want to continue serving. You also need a targeted recruiting process, an onboarding process, an orientation, volunteer management practices, and volunteer recognition.

The volunteer handbook is the reference guide everyone needs so they know what they need to know and can focus on what they came to do: volunteer.

What to Include in Your Volunteer Handbook

volunteer handbookYou might think you don’t need a volunteer handbook because you only have a few regular volunteers.

Or maybe you think you don’t have enough information for a volunteer handbook. 

But if you put yourself in the shoes of a new volunteer, you will be surprised how much information you can share. If YOU were volunteering at your nonprofit, what would you want to know?

You want to give volunteers the information they need to feel confident and informed, but you don’t want to overwhelm them with too much.

You also want to think about how your volunteer handbook is organized, so things are easy to find.

So, here are some topics you might cover in your volunteer handbook and in an order that makes sense.

Be sure to customize this for your nonprofit and only include what is relevant to your organization.

1. Welcome message: A letter from your Executive Director or Board Chair should welcome the volunteer to the organization and express sincere thanks for choosing your organization. This letter is the first thing the volunteer will see, so make it count!

2. About your organization: Don’t assume your first-time volunteers know much about your organization. Include your mission and vision statements, a brief history, and a summary of your programs and services. You can also include a list of staff (if any), Board members, and key partners.

3. Volunteer Program philosophy: Volunteers need to know why they are important to your operations, the value they bring, and the impact they make. Your Volunteer Program philosophy can include the scope of volunteer roles and a volunteer’s right to refuse tasks they are not comfortable performing. Your Volunteer Program philosophy is something you should hammer out with Board input and approval.

4. Location and hours: Share the nuts-and-bolts information a volunteer might need in a pinch, including the location of all program sites, hours of operation, the main phone number, your mailing address, and your website.

5. Staff: Provide an organizational chart with photos and enough information about each person’s role so volunteers can find the person they are looking for. Include email addresses of all employees and phone numbers of those who work directly with volunteers.

6. Volunteer opportunities: Describe each volunteer role, including expected time commitment, required skills, and what the volunteer will be doing. Providing this information up front will save everyone time and frustration by reducing mismatched volunteer placements. Nobody wins when a volunteer ends up in a role that requires more time than they can commit or skills they do not have.

Try to provide a range of options for volunteers, including one-shot events that don’t require a lot of time, as well as ongoing roles for volunteers with higher levels of time, commitment, and passion for the cause. Virtual volunteer opportunities are in high demand, allowing people to work from home to help your cause, so include those, too.

7. Training opportunities: At minimum, you need an orientation to go over information in the handbook. Are there other opportunities, including self-paced online programs, you could provide to educate volunteers about your organization’s issue and create pathways for your most motivated volunteers to grow into leadership roles? Are there certifications volunteers can earn?

volunteer handbook

8. Volunteer protection: Volunteers often enthusiastically leap into situations having no idea the degree of risk they are taking. Let your volunteers know about your organization’s liability coverage, what it covers and what it does not. Also share with volunteers about the Volunteer Protection Act, which protects volunteers from liability in cases of ordinary negligence. Most volunteers don’t know the law exists. You may have applicable good samaritan laws in your state.

9. Volunteer policies and procedures: It is critical that you have policies and procedures in place that minimize potential problems that could arise. Policies and procedures give volunteers the information and structure they need to feel confident in their role, especially when they are just getting started.

Work with your Board, attorney, and an HR professional to create and adopt the policies you need to ensure a safe, quality Volunteer Program. Procedures do not require Board approval but are critical for providing processes and structure to support the policies.

  • Eligibility: Spell out who can volunteer. This is an appropriate place to state that your organization does not discriminate based on race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. What is the minimum age required to volunteer with this organization? Can a child or teen volunteer with their parent’s permission? Does the parent have to accompany them? Is proof of age required?

  • Signing up: What is the procedure for signing up as a volunteer? Is there a form to fill out? Is a background check required? Is orientation required? Different roles may have different requirements, and some might require an interview. Others might simply require filling out an online form. Is there a liability release everyone must sign? Is there a media release?

  • Signing in and out: You need a procedure for volunteers to sign in and out. You can use an old-school clipboard or an app. You need a process for tracking volunteer hours, as this information is useful to funders, and you might want to build in incentives for volunteers who volunteer a certain number of hours.

  • Safety procedures: Do not assume volunteers know about safety precautions they should take when working with animals, planting trees, or doing other types of labor. Work with the supervisor of each volunteer activity to draw up safety guidelines and training procedures.

    Other issues to consider: How should volunteers report an accident or injury? What about working off site? What about exposure to a contagious illness? Be sure to spell these out so that volunteers know what to do in case of an accident.

  • In case of emergency: Who should the volunteer call in case of emergency? Provide names and phone numbers of the Executive Director, Board Chair, and anyone else who should be called in the event of an emergency.

  • Inclement weather: Outdoor and even some indoor events may need to be cancelled due to inclement weather. Who makes the decision to cancel an event? How is that information disseminated? How can a volunteer find out if an event is cancelled?

  • Media: If there is any possibility that volunteers will be photographed by a news outlet or by someone on your staff for use in marketing materials, have volunteers sign a media release that covers video and photos.

    Respect the wishes of volunteers who do not wish to be photographed. If a photographer or videographer will be onsite give the volunteer a name tag in a different color, and let the photographer or videographer know to avoid those people.

  • Customer service standards: If volunteers will be interacting with clients, let them know your organization’s policy for treating people with dignity. Volunteers often have different life experiences than the people they interact with through a nonprofit organization. Your policy can help to provide guidance on working with people with disabilities, mental health challenges, or limited English, and those experiencing a crisis. If the volunteer is working with donors or the public, let them know your organization’s protocol for providing positive interactions.

  • Confidentiality: Does volunteer work for your organization require confidentiality? For example, if volunteers will be working with children, they should keep anything they learn about the child’s background confidential. Depending on their work, you may need to talk to them about privacy of donor information, staff information, or other sensitive information. Explain the importance of confidentiality, and provide a form for volunteers to sign acknowledging their intent to keep sensitive information confidential.

  • Mandatory reporter: Does volunteering for your organization make the volunteer a mandatory reporter? If so, explain what this means and how to report an incident to the proper authorities.

  • Documentation: What type of reporting is required of volunteers? Go over procedures in documenting interactions. Emphasize the importance of documentation in nonprofits, including what needs to be documented, where to find the forms, and who to give them to one they’re completed.

  • Conduct: Be clear with volunteers about the organization’s rules on anti-racism, violence, alcohol and drug use, maintaining professional boundaries, volunteer-client relationships, volunteer-paid staff relationships, client relationships, conflicts of interest, accepting gifts and compensation, and other conduct issues that may arise while volunteering. Be clear on discipline measures and reasons for dismissal.

    Your volunteers represent your organization in the community, so let them know that some rules extend beyond the organization. What is the reporting process if a volunteer witnesses inappropriate conduct in another volunteer, Board member, staff member, or client?

  • Harassment: Every organization needs a harassment policy. Funders sometimes request this policy on grant applications. Share your policy in your volunteer handbook, letting your volunteers know your Board is committed to a healthy, safe work environment free from harassment of any kind.

  • Grievances and complaints: If a volunteer needs to file a grievance or a complaint, the volunteer shouldn’t have to ask an employee how to do that, as they may be intimidated to do so. The procedure should be clearly outlined in the volunteer handbook.

  • Reimbursement procedure: Volunteers may need to purchase snacks, bottled water, and other supplies in preparation for an event. Let them know the procedure to request reimbursement. Be sure to make it clear that willingness to purchase supplies is not required for service, and they are free to decline.

  • Open door policy: Let your volunteers know that they should come to you anytime they feel uncomfortable or see or experience something that doesn’t seem quite right.

  • Other policies: Organizations require different policies depending on the nature of the volunteer work. Think through every possible scenario and create policies to give volunteers guidance on any situation they may encounter.

volunteer handbook10. Feedback: It’s important to gather feedback from volunteers on their experience and how they think the Volunteer Program could be improved. What opportunities do volunteers have to give feedback on their experience? Is there a survey? A website link? Make it clear to volunteers that you welcome their input and how they can share it.

11. Giving: Volunteers may want to give to the organization where they serve, but they are less likely to give if they are never asked. So be sure to include your volunteers in your next appeal or provide an ask as part of their onboarding. Provide information on why volunteers should give, how donations are used, and how to give. Include information on pledge programs, monthly giving, and other opportunities to financially support the work they care deeply about.

12. Other resources: Include links to any parent or umbrella organization and to sites where volunteers can learn more about the issue your organization addresses. Are there movies they might want to view? Books they might want to read? Support your volunteers as they get more engaged in a cause that is important to them.

The Bottom Line

It may seem like a lot of work to create a volunteer handbook, only to have your volunteers abandon the handbook in their seat after orientation is over.

But the reality is that many volunteers will read and refer to the handbook. When a person volunteers for an organization, their interest level is high, and they are putting their passion into action.

Some volunteers may not read the handbook at the time they receive it, but they will refer to the handbook when they have a question or concern. An electronic version of the volunteer handbook on your website ensures volunteers can always access the information they need.

Creating a quality volunteer handbook will strengthen your Volunteer Program and improve volunteer retention and satisfaction. A thriving Volunteer Program means your organization can do more and change more lives.