Training does not always occur in classrooms and formal workshops. A powerful and effective tool for skill building is the humble instruction sheet. Yet the funny thing is that we often don't bother to write them or create an archive of them.
Instruction sheets are great because they let volunteers (and paid staff, of course) be independent by self-teaching. Any time you or someone else who knows what or how something should be done cannot be on the spot to explain it, an instruction sheet can be your substitute.
Everyday, Ordinary Instructions
Think about all the things that almost all volunteers will encounter in their work and write down essential information. For example:
- How a piece of equipment works (like your phone system!)
- Where supplies for that task are stored and how to put them away, reorder them, etc.
- Codes, passwords, and other information that can stop someone dead in their tracks if not known
- Who should be contacted with questions or if something goes wrong (along with a phone number or extension)
This may sound so basic that it's not necessary. It is necessary! And think how much time you'll save by not having to repeat all of this out loud endlessly.
For some common things (like the phone system), you can even post or glue down the instructions right next to the item (of course not with secret passwords visible!). Otherwise, keep a paper file or notebook - with a table of contents - in your office AND create an electronic file for online access from anywhere.
Specific and Special Uses
Instruction sheets really shine during special events or activities in which groups of people (often new to your work) volunteer together. In these cases, you start every sheet with a welcoming, "Thanks so much for your help today! We're providing these instructions to guide you in being successful." Or some message like that (and you can repeat the thank-you at the end, too).
Make the sheets consistent so that volunteers can easily compare instructions and also step into one another's roles if necessary. In other words, make a template and then you can even fill in some details by hand later. For example:
- Title of the volunteer role - be specific so that it is clear this is not one-size-fits-all and the instructions are specific to this role.
- To whom the volunteer reports and how to contact/find them (also useful to say if this is an individual role or if other volunteers are doing the same thing and where they might be found).
- In sequence,list out the tasks to be done and, for each, include information such as where, what, how.
- What to do at the end of the shift, such as how to transition to the next volunteer, where to turn materials in, etc.
You will also need a method for distributing the instruction sheets to the right people (and make sure to give any team leader all of them!).
It's Simple but Not Easy
I'm sure you can all figure out what types of information you need to give in any instruction sheet, but I caution you not to whip these out at the last minute. If you are very familiar with the task being described, ask someone who is not to read your instructions and try to follow them. That's how you will discover what you missed!
Finally, given the ease of making short videos these days, visually record any physical task as a volunteer does it properly. Post the video on line and give the link at the top of the instruction sheet! Someone with a smart phone can even watch it on site while doing the task for the first time.
At the end, be sure to ask every volunteer to let you know if something needs to be updated or further explained on his or her instruction sheet, to help the next volunteer.