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Best Practices

How to Engage and Retain Volunteers with E-Learning

Volunteer participation skyrocketed in 2020. Effective training and engagement through eLearning is key to retaining these volunteers.
The following is a guest post from the digital education and training experts at Artisan eLearning:

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world shut down, volunteer engagement did the exact opposite. Volunteer shifts were filled at a higher rate during March through June 2020 than during those same months in 2019.

Did you have volunteers who were more eager than ever to help during the crisis? If so, are you looking for ways to keep them around for the long run?

Personally, we’d be doing everything in our power to keep them around.

There are a variety of factors that play into engaging and retaining volunteers over time. Strong volunteer management software, overwhelming gratitude, and interesting volunteer opportunities immediately come to mind. But, did you know that e-learning is another great tool to empower volunteers and strengthen their connection with your nonprofit.

If the current volunteer trend continues, your nonprofit just might have a new group of eager supporters heading into 2021. That means right now is the perfect time to improve your volunteer engagement and retention strategies. That way, you’ll be fully prepared when those passionate supporters head your way.

Let’s look at a few scenarios in which custom-developed e-learning courses can be game-changers for your volunteer engagement. 

Why are e-learning courses effective at empowering your volunteers?

We already know that effective orientation, training, and ongoing opportunities to grow are key for volunteer engagement. But, why should you use e-learning in particular?

There are a variety of benefits to using e-learning for training. For example, these courses are:

  • Scalable. You can easily meet the new needs of your volunteer program as it grows, without having to overwhelm your volunteer coordinator with a ton of new in-person training sessions.
  • Accessible. Volunteers who can’t attend in-person sessions can complete e-learning training on their own time. (And, your team doesn’t have to spend each Saturday and Sunday afternoon giving new volunteer orientations!)
  • Readily available. E-learning training can be revisited easily and regularly. If a volunteer wants to refresh their memory, they can find the course in their inbox rather than waiting for the next session. 
  • Modifiable. Over time, your team can make annual adjustments rather than attempting to build a new course. This can be more cost-efficient in many situations.

E-learning can remove some of the training pressure from your team. For example, with an e-learning course, you can remove in-person training hours from your schedule. And, you can work with an e-learning content development company to create the course itself.

How can e-learning be used to engage new volunteers?

Now, let’s look at specific scenarios that your organization might face.

Let’s start with new volunteer training. Put your volunteer cap on for a minute, and consider the following situation: If you were a new volunteer to your nonprofit, what would you seek from training?

It’s your first day “behind-the-scenes,” and maybe it’s your first time volunteering with an organization ever. There’s so much to learn, and it seems like everyone around you has already covered the basics (you know, that feeling).

This is where an e-learning training course can step in. With e-learning, your nonprofit can:

  • Provide microcourses corresponding to specific volunteer efforts. With microlearning, an outreach volunteer can experience a short, hyperfocused course about phone banking, canvassing, or another outreach activity. This is a great way to supplement longer courses that may not go into detail on each station.
  • Engage the hearts and minds of the volunteer. Avoid boring the volunteer with a droning history lesson. Instead, imagine a short game where the volunteer makes guesses about your impact over time—such as statistics about communities served or decade-by-decade comparisons of volunteer duties. An interactive overview is possible with e-learning.

In these scenarios, new volunteers are engaged and able to seek deeper training on the topics that interest them most. And, they’re able to do so without having to ask an experienced volunteer to fill them in. You know that “first day of school” feeling—no one wants to be the last person to get with the program!

Best Practices for E-Learning Volunteer Training

Providing effective e-learning training to volunteers isn’t as simple as automating a PowerPoint, adding a voiceover, and calling it a day. Trust us, your volunteers will tune out of the course (and tune in to Netflix) fast.

To create effective training courses, keep the following best practices in mind:

  • Offer an immersive experience. This should be representative of what it’s actually like volunteering at your nonprofit, so volunteers have a good idea of what they’re signing up for. Using visuals of your facilities and actual volunteers at work is a great way to start.
  • Find creative ways to share dry information. For example, we worked with the American Red Cross to translate droning training about a vital business process into an engaging course. Rather than text overload with a few bullet points, we used interesting visuals and walked through specific examples.
  • Provide reasoning along with all knowledge checks. The goal isn’t for volunteers to get a 100% on each quick quiz and scenario, but that they actually learn something from the course.

Strong courses that follow these best practices will not only create more effective volunteers, but give them a great first impression of your organization. This can go a long way toward ongoing retention, which we cover in the next section.

How can e-learning be used to retain existing volunteers?

Training new volunteers is only half of the equation. Retaining volunteers by consistently engaging them and offering opportunities that interest them is the other (and significantly more challenging) half.

So, let’s consider a similar question to before. Put your volunteer hat on, and think: If you were an existing volunteer at your organization, what would it take to keep you interested over time?

Maybe you had a great experience volunteering during your first few months. But now, life is busy. Your calendar is filling up, and showing up each weekend is starting to feel repetitive. You enjoy volunteering when you do. But just like working out early in the morning, getting out the door is the hardest part.

That’s where e-learning aimed at retaining volunteers steps in. With it, you can:

  • Improve existing training. This could mean making courses more effective and enjoyable or improving them with updated guidance. For example, you can supplement your safety training with new parameters about volunteering during a crisis.
  • Provide new opportunities. Let’s say you run a food bank. If a volunteer who has only worked in donation sorting wants to be trained in outreach-related positions, you can have the e-learning training on deck to immediately share with them.
  • Facilitate an annual refresh on past training. Rather than having volunteers repeat annual training each year, you can allow them to take a pre-test to determine if they need a refresher. That way, you’re only training those who really need it.

When it comes to ongoing volunteer management, providing additional training opportunities is a strong strategy. With e-learning, you can empower volunteers to achieve more in their roles and stay up-to-date at the same time.

Best Practices for Ongoing E-Learning Engagement

If new volunteers will tune out boring e-learning training, there’s a chance existing volunteers won’t even open the training to begin with. After all, they’ve already completed onboarding! Why take on more training?

Let’s cover a few best practices for effective e-learning aimed at retention. With these tips, existing volunteers will want to continue learning:

  • Create a personalized experience. With longer courses, consider using branching scenarios to direct long-time volunteers to the topics that would be most interesting or helpful to them. With this, they can choose their own adventure based on past experiences.
  • Use scenario-based learning. Put learners directly into a situation and challenge them to explore it themselves for a truly engaging, interesting training experience.
  • Continue to update your library. Initial onboarding shouldn’t be the only time your volunteers are trained. Aim for a dynamic e-learning library that’s updated with new and exciting courses for volunteers who want to dive in.

With these tips, volunteers are less likely to disengage from your programming. You’ll retain volunteers over time, and they’ll be better prepared to serve your organization. Two birds, one stone!


When the pandemic hit, volunteers showed up in full force to meet the growing needs of nonprofits just like yours. Effective training of new volunteers and ongoing engagement for the new supporters became even more vital than before.

E-learning is a great solution to meet both needs through preparing volunteers and keeping their interest over time. With these best practices, you’ll be off to a great start.

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