How to Create an Effective Volunteer Transition Plan

What do you think of when you think of the nonprofit volunteer lifecycle? For many, recruitment and engagement are the first things that come to mind. However, to ensure volunteer schedules and programs are optimized and run smoothly, it’s important to consider volunteer transitions as well.

Ideally, your organization has a written transition process for when volunteers leave their positions or the organization. This is especially important if your organization has volunteers who’ve served long tenures or hold a number of responsibilities. If your organization does not have a plan, there’s no time like the present to create one! Volunteer programs — large or small — have much to gain by creating a clear volunteer transition plan that encourages organizational learning and growth.

The value of a transition plan

What’s to gain from creating a transition plan? In a word, much. From the emotional closure that a good transition brings to the practical list of items to pass off, having a plan can prevent volunteer transitions from being haphazard and stressful. A concrete transition process can help you gain:

  • Insight. Infuse conversation into the process to learn more about the on-the-ground experiences of volunteers at your organization. Pressing issues can be addressed and high-level ideas can be slowly woven into the organization to enrich volunteer experiences.

  • Closure. When you have planned transition strategies for volunteers, you give both the organization and the volunteer a chance to wrap everything up neatly. This is the time to document the volunteer’s roles, responsibilities, and resources, and to ensure each task has been reassigned.

  • Connection. Thoughtful exits allow for thoughtful moments. Enjoy opportunities to share gratitude for all that the volunteer has done.

What to include in a transition plan

What are some core parts of a comprehensive transition plan? This will vary from organization to organization, but here are a few key steps you’ll want to consider as you create a roadmap.

  • Exit interview. Create a comfortable, but formal space to learn from the volunteer and their experiences. Have a set of questions you ask at each exit interview, but also give the volunteer time to reflect on their own unique experience. Ask open-ended questions to encourage communication. What would they change about their workload? Which expectations were clearly outlined and which weren’t? What would they change about the onboarding experience? How did their expectations align with their experience?

  • Resource and process maps. When volunteers transition out of their roles, they may leave vacuums that you may not even be aware of until they’re gone and difficult to reach. Take advantage of any time the volunteer has before they leave. Ask them to write down what they do, how they do it, and what resources they use. Do they have resources that need to be turned over? Do they have helpful links or informational pieces they refer to often? How do they complete their tasks? Creating an outline of their process and the resources they use ensures others can take over their tasks without things falling through the cracks.

  • Reassignment. Although it’s not the role of the individual leaving to choose who will take over their work, they may be willing to train their replacement. This gives the trainee a chance to ask questions and see work processes in action. Be sure not to put too many responsibilities on the departing volunteer as this could create a stressful transition, but keep the lines of communication open, and if they’re willing to teach their replacement, allow the two volunteers to work together to minimize stress when the volunteer leaves.

  • Appreciation. As already mentioned, one of the biggest advantages to creating a transition strategy is the opportunity to ensure there’s a thoughtful plan for saying “thank you.” Think ahead and plan backwards from the volunteer’s last day to make sure you have time to put together a parting token of appreciation. Also, remember to include this as an annual budget line item by averaging a typical year of departures. Be sure to increase the amount as the program grows.

Expect the unexpected

No matter how much you try to stay in touch with your volunteers, there will be some who leave with little to no warning. Unfortunately, sometimes life can steal a volunteer’s ability to give much warning. Adjust the organization’s transition plan when needed, but try to incorporate as many pieces of the full transition plan as possible, even if on a smaller scale.

Here are a few alternatives to approach the exit process when volunteers have to exit their roles in a hurry:

  • Exit interview. Instead of a full exit interview, send the volunteer an online survey. Some free options to create these are Survey Monkey and Unison. Add a free-form space in the survey for volunteers to give open-ended feedback.

  • Resource and process maps. Instead of asking volunteers to create the resource and process documents, pull the team together right away to brainstorm what the volunteer did, how they did it, and what information and resources they had. Create a resource sheet and process map for them. If the volunteer is willing and able, you can email it to them to review, which would help with accuracy without asking them for too much time.

  • Appreciation. Although the circumstances of the exit may prevent you from being able to express your gratitude in person, there’s little reason not to send a thank you card, gift, of email expressing gratitude. Find a way to let the volunteer know you appreciate whatever time and energy they were able to contribute. Even if the gesture feels small, it will likely have a deep impact on the volunteer.

While it’s important to think about volunteer recruitment, management, and scheduling, it’s also important to address the inevitable fact that even the most dedicated volunteers will one day have to say goodbye. Being prepared to give volunteers a smooth transition ensures they feel valued — even up to their last moment of service.