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Volunteer Training Materials

A well-designed training is arguably the most important factor in ensuring volunteers are able to function successfully in your organization. The goal of any good training program is to help volunteers to perform their jobs well, confidently, and independently, and without having to constantly interrupt the staff to ask questions. Make sure you provide volunteers with the knowledge, training and tools required to complete tasks on their own.

The level of training needed will depend on the complexity of the positions. The more responsibility a volunteer has, the more training and supervision the individual requires. Untrained volunteers are less productive, demand more staff assistance and make more mistakes, costing you much more time in the long run. Investing in a training program provides benefits over and above productive volunteers; some organizations say that their well-trained volunteers have more experience than do newly hired staff and can serve as mentors to them. Additionally, the training you develop for volunteers can be “recycled” for staff; consider having all new staff members attend your volunteer orientation and training sessions.

Create a comprehensive Volunteer Training Program

Most shelters find it helpful to provide a general animal-handling course for all volunteers, even those you aren’t directly assigned to animal care roles. Volunteers will need to have some basic knowledge of animal behavior and handling to assist and to keep themselves, the public and the animals safe.

Volunteers should be given basic rules and expectations, and should know the boundaries of their work in the shelter, including the consequences of not respecting those rules. 

Keep these tips in mind: 

Tailor the training to the job and be specific.

Even tasks that seem easy require thorough training. Volunteers who are new to the shelter environment may not know how to read animal behavior or control the spread of disease. Volunteers with pets at home may think that since they “know cats and dogs” they don’t need additional comprehensive training; however they may never have interacted with large, stressed, and unpredictable animals who behave differently than their pets at home might. No matter what a volunteer’s previous experience, require the volunteer to attend the training(s) required for the role. Consider cross-training your volunteers so they can fill in for other jobs as needed. This also broadens the volunteer’s understanding of the organization and can increase your organization’s scheduling flexibility.

Teach volunteers all of the basics.

Volunteers must understand concepts such as disease control (hand washing, appropriate cleaning protocols, keeping animals separated), safe animal handling (how to get in and out of the cages/kennels safely) and how to interact with the public in a customer-service orientation.

Write it down.

The more written, posted procedures you can offer volunteers, the better your program will be. Volunteers often work one day per week at the most, so it will take longer for them to remember basic protocols. Step-by-step instructions help, even for some of the simplest tasks. Written protocols allow volunteers to take initiative (and not interrupt the staff every five minutes about how a task should be completed).

Set clear boundaries.

Explicitly teach and show volunteers which animals they can work with and which they cannot, such as those held on rabies quarantine, animals with severe medical or behavioral problems (such as aggression), and animals scheduled for euthanasia. Help volunteers to understand why these limitations exist and how decisions are made about animals. The staff and management of the organization, not the volunteers, should decide the disposition of animals at the shelter. Volunteers should be expected to support such decisions and keep the decisions confidential. Also let volunteers know they should expect to receive feedback from staff if there are not performing a task as it should be done.

Take charge.

It is crucial volunteers understand the hierarchy of leadership: who is in charge and who has the final say. Don’t walk on eggshells with your volunteers. While volunteer integration is important to make the program work, volunteers need to understand through training that their role is one of support, not goal setting, policy making or program direction (unless directly invited to participate in those capacities).

Be creative.

Adults learn in a variety of ways, so try to use different training techniques. These can include visual aids, role-play, and learning by doing.

Teach tools of the trade.

To be successful, volunteers need to have appropriate tools and know how to use them. Leashes, collars, cat carriers, poop scoopers, writing utensils for making notes on animals…all of these things will be necessary for volunteers. Go through each volunteer task and identify the required tools, and then assess whether they are items someone should already know how to use (but need to know where to find them), or if they might need a demonstration on how to safely use them (such as fitting a collar and leashing a dog, or assembling a cardboard cat carrier). Find an accessible area where items can be stored for easy access by volunteers.

Test their knowledge.

Just telling someone how to do something doesn’t mean the person will absorb and retain it. Build an assessment into your training so that volunteers must demonstrate their understanding of key concepts and functions of their role. Incorporate quizzes into your trainings, require volunteers demonstrate their ability to perform particular tasks, and ask them to explain their understanding of policies so you can ensure everyone is on the same page.

Keep records of who has been trained in which areas.

You’ll want to ensure each volunteer has completed his or her full training before being let loose in the shelter. This information should be indicated in each volunteer’s personnel file. Also consider creating a checklist of the training content, a checklist that the volunteer and trainer will sign off on, so you can refer to it later if/when a volunteer indicates he or she was not made aware of a specific policy or practice.

Designate a “trial period.”

To help volunteers smoothly transition into the organization, consider designating a trial period in which all new volunteers are considered to be “in training.” This gives staff and designated volunteers a chance to observe new volunteers and to freely provide guidance without offending them (though they should be prepared to receive feedback at any time). Volunteers “in training” can wear special badges to allow others to identify them and make them feel welcome. Consider having a review meeting with volunteers when they complete their “in training” period to see how the role is working out for them. Alternately, consider making the training a part of the screening process, so both parties can decide at the end of the training period whether the individual will be a good fit for your program.

Use volunteer trainers.

Once the program is up and running, consider using well-trained volunteers to teach new volunteers the ropes. Offering high-performing volunteers the opportunity to help provide training will present an opportunity for advancement as a reward for excellence. Experienced, well-trained volunteer mentors can make delivering training more manageable for the volunteer manager. A team of volunteer leaders could be helpful as well; the volunteer manager coordinates the leaders, and the leaders can be in charge of recruiting, training, and supervising the volunteers in their program. 

Sample Materials

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