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.
You 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?
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.
10. 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.
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.