AFS’ comprehensive approach to volunteer development is described in the Volunteer Journey. Its first stage, Engagement, talks about how we follow-up on volunteer leads and engage new volunteers. Managing volunteers, we have always been reliant on personal contact. That is, of course, something that social distancing is not supportive of. To help partners overcome the challenges of adapting their approach to volunteer engagement, we started a webinar series. During these webinars, we bring volunteer managers together to share best practices, and to showcase materials AFS International is developing. So far, we have been discussing what can we do with existing volunteer leads these days.

When communicating with a potential volunteer, it is important to give them a clear picture of what volunteering for AFS means.

This is the time to talk about expectations, motivation, and share experiences. We suggest organizing a Basic Training for people interested in joining the organization. The Basic Training can function as a platform to discuss AFS’ mission and everyday work, as well as a space for questions. As this is a short meeting, it can be held online and offered on a national scale. After taking part in the session, attendees can make an informed decision on whether AFS volunteering is something for them.

Once having decided to join the AFS family, a new volunteer completes all the necessary paperwork and gets registered in our systems. To create a sense of belonging, we can award small tokens of membership to our new joiner: a certificate, a badge, or any kind of gadget.

Introducing our new member to their local chapter is the next step.

COVID-19 has made it harder to build new connections, therefore, it could be more beneficial than ever to have a mentor system in place. This way, our new volunteer is assigned a more experienced buddy. This person will serve as a first contact in the local chapter. They will also be the ones supporting the volunteer throughout their journey to finding their place within AFS. We can also give a handbook to volunteers that can help them reflect on their learning path.

After the initial contact from their mentor, new volunteers are invited for their first local social gathering. These days, we are not able to meet in person. However, with a pinch of creativity, we can organize meaningful and fun activities online as well. We can think of reunions or get-to-know events with host families and students. We can also organize competitions among volunteers or an ordinary activity we can do together online – such as cooking, or a movie night. Another fun way to stay connected is holding regular themed catch-ups with your team. Choose a different theme each time: ask people to wear pajamas or a costume for your meeting, or even do a random dance party.

After the social gathering, it is time for a more structured induction training on AFS operations. As we reach the final stage of the onboarding process, our new volunteer gains enough knowledge of AFS to start actively engaging. This is also the moment we can talk about how we run programs in detail. Finding a suitable career path in AFS can be challenging. Hence, the constant support of more experienced AFSers is truly important. Experiential learning allows people to try new things, push their boundaries, fail, and learn from it. Debriefing both successes and challenges gives an opportunity to evolve.

If we want to be successful in setting our new volunteers on a road to development, we need to focus not only on the knowledge we share but also on the connections we build with them.