8 step onboarding process for communities

An 8 Step Onboarding Process

One of the hardest thing in growing any community is not finding new volunteers (though this can be difficult), the hardest thing is encouraging those new volunteers through the initial process of contributing and continuing those contributions over time.

The Concept of Onboarding

This process of bringing in new volunteers and welcoming them into a community is labeled as onboarding. Onboarding is not a difficult concept and every single role in every single business undergoes some form of this process in the beginning. This is the process by which the new individual “learns the ropes”, understands the job description, identifies the work to be done, and determines a way to accomplish that work.

Corporate Backgrounds

Many jobs have specific processes to accomplish this onboarding task and most companies outline them clearly in their manuals and job training programs (usually run by HR). Unfortunately while in corporate environments this is regularly seen as a necessary part of the process it is far too often neglected in open source communities and volunteer organizations.

I’ve seen this firsthand when communities encourage new volunteers to join, they beg for new helpers, and then they strand them. Oh, they don’t mean to strand them but they inevitably do. They leave them behind to fend for themselves. There’s many reasons for this and these organizations never mean to intentionally abandon their new volunteers but it happens; and it happens far too much.

Identifying A Process That Works

So if we can recognize there is a problem then we can formulate a solution! I propose the following 8 step onboarding process for community volunteers. This won’t be comprehensive and shouldn’t be applied blindly to every organization but I believe it gives a basic outline which can be used and adapted to meet many of the current problems found.

Step 1: Immediate Engagement

The very first step in the onboarding process is the easiest and the one step that most every organization understands and does fairly well. Every onboarding process must begin with finding new volunteers and immediately engaging them. Here’s the important thing to consider at this step: The organization must have someone responsible for reaching out, engaging, motivating, and encouraging new volunteers. Again many communities understand this importance and do this remarkably well and with determination. It’s easy to encourage people to join. It’s relatively easy to smile and cheer on an initial interest from a volunteer. For the sake of this article I will assume you are this person.

Step 2: Baby-Step Accomplishment

This second step is an important one. The same person (you) who initially engaged and encouraged the volunteer should provide them with a basic “task” or “responsibility” they must complete. When the volunteer has done this first step they need to be met with praise and recognition. The encouragement to get involved turns into praise for a job well done. Remember that no accomplishment is too small and nothing is too insignificant to turn into an opportunity to encourage and praise. You want to motivate and encourage continued engagement.  Recognizing the time someone spends to accomplish a job is the perfect way to demonstrate this.

Step 3: Group Introduction

Once the volunteer has been engaged and has completed their very first minor accomplishment (and I do mean minor, this is something very easy to do!) the next step involves introducing them to a larger group of other individuals. You want to introduce them and make sure they feel welcomed by others. This is where community growth becomes a team-effort. Not only do you engage with the new contributor but you must also engage with existing team members and volunteers to ensure they are welcoming and friendly to the new person!

Step 4: Peer Connection

Of course you know that not everyone will make immediate friends with everyone else. Things like personalities, culture, regions, languages, and timezones all affect personal relationships. This makes some connections harder than others. Some relationships form naturally and immediately make lasting connections. Others just don’t. The important part is to identify one or two individuals in the group where a connection has been made and ensure they grow. You will need to connect directly with both the existing volunteers and the new volunteer. You are actively engaged in enabling and empowering these relationships.

Step 5: Second Accomplishment

The next step in this process of a successful onboarding means taking the time to observe and watch for the second accomplishment by your new volunteer. At this stage the peer connections you helped establish previously should be the primary points of contact within the group or team for the new volunteer and should take the lead in identifying tasks to be completed. They should also be the ones to encourage, support, and praise the new volunteer. Your job is not done however, you will need to watch and be ready to again recognize the work completed. You are a cheerleader and encourager.

Step 6: Engage Someone New

Here we have a turning point in the onboarding process. The new volunteer is no longer a new volunteer. At this point they are familiar with the organization, the team, the project, and the various other aspects of “how things work”. They have not yet become seasoned experts but they are highly knowledgeable. This is important, at this point they have a maximum potential impact for further growth. Think of it as the intersection between knowledge and passion. This intersection is the perfect time to have them begin engaging with new volunteers. They become actively involved with encouraging others to get involved. (The new volunteer is beginning to fulfill Step 1 above)

Step 7: Identify Opportunities

Our new volunteer is now officially considered no longer new. They are one of the key members of the team and serve in a variety of capacities. They now are available to work as a peer connection with new volunteers brought into the group. In addition, because of their tenure and involvement they are very aware of opportunities for growth within the project or community. They are active in identifying these, solving them, and delegating them. They provide these items to others who are currently at Step 5, their second accomplishment. (Remember: peer connections work to provide the tasks for that step).

Step 8: Advocate

We’ve reached the final stage of the onboarding process. I realize it feels long and exaggerated but this process is truly all part of what makes a community grow strong and for the future. This final step involves the volunteer engaging, motivating, and encouraging others. At this step the volunteer has been turned into…you. And thus the cycle completes itself and the community begins to scale.


Our goal in creating an onboarding process is to see the community flourish and grow. We all want to see viral growth and watch our volunteers thrive not only within the community but also personally. This 8 step plan for onboarding volunteers will give you the power to scale your community and increase your engagement with your contributors. Take this process, implement the specifics unique to your community and establish a system that will empower your volunteers! And of course I’d love to hear your stories of your journey!