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How to Host a Volunteer Orientation

Before you bring in thundering hordes of helpers, make sure you have clearly identified what you want them to assist you with. Do you want them walking dogs and cuddling cats? Counseling potential adopters? Or are there less hands-on tasks you’d like help with, such as designing brochures or doing clerical work? Planning in advance will not only help you develop a great volunteer orientation, it can also head off potential tensions between staff and the volunteers you decide to take on. You’ll need to develop a volunteer manual that explains the mission and goals of the organization as well as the policies and guidelines volunteers must follow. You’ll also need to create volunteer applications to assist with recruitment.

© Susie Duckworth

1. Survey the Field

Examine your organization’s operations, and ask yourself and others where the gaps are. Then figure out which of these gaps volunteers could realistically fill, and develop job descriptions for each volunteer position to clarify roles and duties. You’ll want to have a clear idea of which tasks can be performed by beginners and longtime volunteers and which should stay the job of paid staff only.

Before you bring in the huddled masses yearning to help you, you might want to ask current volunteers and staff what they wish they’d known when they started working for your organization. Provide a written questionnaire, or just sit down with some of your volunteers and ask them: What do you wish someone had told you about volunteering here before you started? What was confusing for you? What advice would you give a new volunteer? Find out who’s been the best guide and source of information for them since they arrived at your organization; you may want to have that person speak during the orientation session. Getting feedback from current volunteers will help you create a comprehensive and helpful orientation, and it will give your volunteers the satisfaction of knowing you’re interested in their input.

2. Call Up a Chorus

© Susie Duckworth
It’s important for the audience to hear an array of voices from the shelter, so the volunteer coordinator shouldn’t be the only speaker during an orientation. Have some key staff and volunteers join you to give a brief overview of their jobs. Try to include the folks with whom volunteers will have the most interaction—such as your adoption counselor, field officer, kennel staffer, euthanasia technician, and veterinarian. Invite a seasoned volunteer to speak to the group about her experience at the organization. Make sure the folks you choose will represent your shelter well; the enthusiasm of your best people will be catching. You can even bring in voices of people you don’t know: “Power of Compassion” is a good introductory video about the world of shelter work; available to shelters at a discount through Pyramid Media, it can help give your audience a glimpse of how your organization fits into the bigger picture.

3. Show Them the Ropes

When potential volunteers arrive, have them congregate in a cheerful, relatively quiet area of the shelter, out of the way of folks who’ve come to adopt or surrender animals. Provide a good introduction to what your organization does, how you got started, and what innovative programs you’ve developed to get you where you are today. Explain the services you provide and how volunteers are critical in making those programs possible, and tell them your goals for the future and how they can help you get there.

Be sure to discuss sensitive topics such as euthanasia. Explain how euthanasia is performed and how euthanasia decisions are made. You should also discuss other stressful situations volunteers may face when working in the shelter—distraught owners looking for their lost pets; animals who have been abused; and people who are angry after being denied an adoption. Help volunteers understand how decisions are made and who makes them, and let them know they are expected to support the staff.

Make sure not to focus solely on the tough stuff, though. You can energize potential volunteers by talking about the happy side of working in the shelter: Helping create lifelong relationships and caring for animals in need are experiences you can’t get anywhere else.

4. Give Them the Grand Tour

© Susie Duckworth
Provide the group with a tour of the shelter, explaining the functions of all the areas of the facility and relating them to the larger goals and mission of your organization. Show them where volunteers store their belongings during their shifts, where they sign in, where leashes and other supplies are stored, etc. Also, show them areas that may be off-limits to volunteers, such as the euthanasia room and quarantine areas, and explain why those areas are for staff only.

Be open about what you’re proud of and what you hope to do better, and be clear and positive throughout—remember, even those people who decide not to volunteer can spread the word about your work, and the better impression they have, the better their words about you will be.

5. Send Them Home Wanting More

After the tour, allow time for questions and answer them openly and honestly; then thank them for their time. Pass out whatever information you have for them to take home and review, and you may want to get some paperwork from them, too—the end of an orientation is a great time to invite folks who are still interested in volunteering to complete an application to get the ball rolling. Make sure it’s clear to those in attendance what the next steps to volunteering are—do they need to call you or come in for an interview? Have your schedule handy so you can book times for individual interviews or training sessions for those who are ready to commit. If you plan things well, you’ll probably get a great new crew of helpers—but even if you don’t, keep in mind that a volunteer orientation is not only an opportunity to recruit volunteers. It’s also an educational experience for those who attend. Some of the people who attend may never come back, but they should come away empowered to help animals in other ways, whether it’s by adopting their next pet or sterilizing their current one. And a good orientation will give attendees a greater understanding and appreciation for the role of your organization in the community.

© Susie Duckworth


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