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From Theory to Action: New Ways Training Works for Volunteers

By Lisa Dewey
Illustrations by Diane Allison

Everything we do in Girl Scouting, whether we are a volunteer or a staffer in a council or at national headquarters, is about ensuring that every girl member has a positive experience, one that is filled with fun, friends, accomplishment, an increasing sense of self-worth, and rewards. Success depends on how well-prepared the adults—99% of whom are volunteers, who work with girls.

For Girl Scouts, it goes without saying that volunteer training is essential. At the top of the list of reasons is safety—making sure girls are safe from physical harm, and learning what it means to provide a safe environment where girls can take risks and grow.

The benefits of training for adults themselves are personally rewarding: opportunities to develop their leadership, organizational skills and talents; enriched interactions with girls; sharing of new program activities and best practices for implementation; forming good relationships with other adults for support; new ideas; and simply having more fun.

In other words, training is vital to the growth, health, and consistency of the Girl Scout Movement.

For today's volunteers, there's only one problem: time. Ask almost anyone in Girl Scouts and they will tell you that time—the lack of it—is the biggest hurdle they face, whether their own limited time, recruiting new volunteers to give time, or retaining leaders and mentors who are pressured with multiple time demands.

How do you balance volunteers' time constraints with often time-consuming training requirements? By changing how training is done—how it's presented, when it's presented, and what is presented.

Accessibility, versatility, and adaptability are the three keys for successful volunteer training in today's Girl Scouts. Take a look at how four councils have completely altered their traditional methods to deliver the best program to girls by acknowledging and responding to volunteers' time crunches.


Accessibility

Reta Wilcox
CEO of Girl Scouts–Illinois Crossroads Council

"You've got to begin with girls: girls who have the best leader are going to have the best Girl Scout experience. But I've seen a real slump of enthusiasm around training basically due to time and travel constraints. Training is something I feel passionate about—I began my Girl Scout career as a volunteer trainer and troop leader—so I wanted to see how we could make sure people could be better trained," said Reta.

Illinois Crossroads Council set out to completely reinvigorate their adult development curriculum to be more accessible, and hopefully more appealing, to the approximately 5,000 volunteers who go through training each year. They created a comprehensive blended learning program for age-appropriate courses that makes use of traditional classroom sessions, self-study guides, and online training. Now volunteers can choose training that best serves their schedules and their learning styles.

It required a lot of work to get there, as the council decided to start from the ground up and not just repackage their existing materials. They formed a team of external adult education specialists and teachers who wrote the initial drafts. These were thoroughly reviewed and edited by a group of experienced volunteer trainers. Then a technical team completed Web design and programming.

"It evolved into a circular process," explained Reta. "An outgrowth of what we did with self-study guides influenced how we developed the online self-studies, which in turn altered our classroom programs."

The hard work paid off. Seventeen hundred basic leader self-study guides were distributed in the first few months of publication and 394 people completed online training. Of those who logged on, 98% said the sessions were helpful, appealing, and easy to understand. Most important, the same percentage said it made them feel adequately prepared for their roles as volunteers.


Karen Zivin
A trainer for the council and a 13-year adult volunteer

The true advantage can be seen in the 24-hour availability. "I had gotten a lot of feedback from volunteers wishing for something online," said Karen. "It's just so difficult for people to give up an entire evening or Saturday morning." In tracking data to date, it was found that 12% access the training in the morning (6:00 a.m.–10:59 a.m.), 64% during the day and afternoon (11:00 a.m.–5:59 p.m.), and 24% through the night (6:00 p.m.–5:59 a.m.).

For those who want the benefit of hearing diverse experiences and the camaraderie of meeting other volunteers, classroom courses may still be the best option. But the council is exploring whether to add a chat room online to encourage a dialogue between volunteers, and service units have the option of setting up informal study groups for those who are using either the self-study guides or the online courses.


Sharyon DaSilva
A 10-year volunteer

"Service units really provide the backbone for volunteers," said Sharyon, who's held a variety of positions in the Schaumburg, Ill., area service unit including being a troop leader. "That's where great networking happens as experienced leaders are there to help newer ones, and anyone can ask questions and share ideas regardless of how they got their training or when."

As for costs, each module was developed, from start to finish, for less than $10,000. The council began setting aside money for technology improvements a couple of years before and received a gift from a donor. In fact, the council sees great opportunities to attract supporters interested in underwriting future sections in exchange for giving acknowledgments online. Plans are in the works now to add Spanish translations.


Jan Zblewski
A volunteer leader from Gurnee, Ill.

"It's fun, fast, and easy to read and comprehend. It's a new way of doing Girl Scout training—in my pajamas, on my own time, in the middle of my own world," says Jan, who recently completed the STUDIO 2BSM adviser training. "It's so accessible, I'm sure more leaders are going to get trained because of it."

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Adapted from LEADER, Summer 2005. © Girl Scouts of the United States of America.