Creating a volunteer handbook

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Continuing in our series of "tools of our trade" articles, this month we review why and how to create a volunteer handbook for your organization.

High performance not-for-profit organizations take advantage of the talents and time available from volunteers, even those organizations fortunate to have significant staff and other resources. After all, the association belongs to the members, not the staff. Many volunteers appreciate having a volunteer handbook that explains their role, how their contributions relate to the organization's key objectives and "how do I?" answers.

Step One: What do your volunteers want and need?

The first step in developing a high-quality volunteer handbook is to find out, through research, what type and detail of information your volunteers want and need to know. These can be two different questions. Volunteers may not know that what they need is separate from what they want. Research involves asking a representative sample of volunteers about their information needs from your organization. Popular and affordable ways to get such information include focus groups, questionnaires or e-surveys, telephone interviews, or a combination of these options. Your research population should also include members who are not volunteers, as they may help you uncover performance barriers that can be overcome in order to enlist additional volunteers.

It is best to offer choices in your research questions; volunteers typically are not involved in organization management and it may not occur to them to ask for:

  1. Recruitment, retention and reward strategies and tools
  2. Volunteer interview guidelines for committees, boards/councils, etc.
  3. Orientation, training and evaluation tools
  4. Volunteer/staff roles and responsibilities outlines
  5. Effective meeting management training
  6. Volunteer succession planning
  7. Document templates for agendas, minutes, evaluations, terms of references, etc.

Step Two: What does the board expect from the volunteers?

High performance organizations require that their volunteers' activities uphold their strategic plan priorities and objectives directly. If a proposed activity does not support the key goals of an organization in some way, then why are resources being assigned? In some cases, the volunteer activity has merit and it is the goals that have to be reframed; not most cases.

Some policy boards expect volunteers to draft positions and policies and leave the implementation to staff, while other organizations expect volunteers to do the work of the committees and deliver the programs. Your volunteer handbook should clarify the roles of volunteers and staff and be explicit on what requires approval beyond volunteers deciding to move forward.

Step Three: Creating your volunteer handbook

The following is a sample index of a volunteer handbook that you can adapt to your organization's unique culture and needs. Of course, your research will give you your own long list of things volunteers need and want to know.

Section One: ABC organization and our volunteers

Here you set the stage by describing the value your organization places on its volunteers. You can describe the history of volunteerism in your organization, what your volunteers have experienced (testimonials are great), what is expected from volunteers and current issues of concern to your membership. You may even choose to address the barrier that most organizations face: lack of time. By stating upfront that you invite volunteers to contribute as much or as little time as they can commit to, you create a safe place for volunteers with a limited amount of time to contribute. High performance organizations declare upfront that "Volunteers get back more than they give".

Section Two: Planning responsibilities

In this section you can introduce your strategic plan and budget and explain how each volunteer unit is required to serve the plan's vision, mission and objectives. You can also present templates for preparing agendas, minutes, critical paths, etc. and explain "branding" requirements if this is part of your organization's culture. High performance organizations establish timeframes for how often committees should meet (in their terms of reference), how far in advance agendas and meeting materials should go out, how soon after a meeting draft minutes should be distributed, etc. This information should be included in your volunteer handbook.

Section Three: Training volunteers

High performance organizations conduct in-person orientation sessions for new volunteers and new volunteer teams (which typically include experienced volunteers). The information covered at orientations should be summarized in your volunteer handbook. An important element is to familiarize your volunteers with the key strategic objectives of your organization so that they appreciate the context in which they fit into the bigger picture. It is recommended that your strategic plan be available to all volunteers and its location on your web site noted in your volunteer handbook. The Terms of Reference for volunteer operating units should be referenced to ensure volunteers understand what is expected, what they are committing to and where to find this information. The author of this article has created a committee covenant document that can be included in your volunteer handbook (with acknowledgement please) to remind volunteers of their moral obligations.

Another important training element is to help volunteers know how to run effective meetings. There is a wealth of advice on the CharityVillage website on this topic that can be summarized with links in your volunteer handbook.

Section Four: Working as a team

It is helpful to provide an organization chart in your volunteer handbook that establishes reporting responsibilities and clearly delineates the roles of staff and volunteers so that volunteers understand what to expect from staff and what is appropriate communication with staff. It is helpful to include contact information in your volunteer handbook of people in your organization that volunteers can turn to; for example board/council contacts, committee chairs, staff, etc.

Section Five: Succession planning for volunteers

Many volunteers want to understand their promotion options and the qualifications required for different volunteer positions. By making terms of reference of all volunteer units (committees, task forces, board/council, etc.) available in your volunteer handbook, volunteers can plan their own aspirations. It is also practical to provide a reference to how long a volunteer can serve on each unit. If your organization has volunteer recognition and/or service award programs, these should be explained in the volunteer handbook.

Section Six: Appendices

This is where you should present the templates your organization uses for agenda, minutes, reports, etc. as well as your branding guidelines. You should provide your by-laws, strategic plan, Terms of Reference and other key documents. You should also include details about insurance and liability, expense reimbursement forms, and policies and procedures that volunteers are required to follow. These should be referenced in the main body of your volunteer handbook.

Keeping your volunteer handbook current

As with all key documents, your volunteer handbook should be evaluated (by volunteers) and revised on a regular basis (minimum annually). Key documents should also be easy to access and your volunteer handbook should be available on your web site (Member Section if appropriate), in addition to being provided in hard copy to your volunteers.

Questions? Happy to hear from you at or 1.877.787.7714.

Paulette Vinette, CAE, is President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on helping not-for-profit organizations.

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