Building Skills Through Service

Volunteering — especially in a leadership role — is a great way for college students to build skills that can be transferred to their future careers. You are in a good position to help SVLs get training and coaching that will help them succeed as leaders, and to encourage them to take advantage of the development opportunities that come with serving in a volunteer leadership role.


In this section we discuss how to support the development of student volunteer leaders by:

  • Training leaders to develop necessary skills
  • Providing flexibility in position descriptions
  • Coaching students
  • Delegating successfully
  • Creating “signature” projects
  • Expanding your resources
  • Formalizing the experience


Training to Develop Skill Areas

Student volunteer leaders may not have every skill necessary for planning a project and leading other students in service. You can help them identify the skills they do have and determine the skills that they need to develop. Some of the skills that student volunteer leaders can build through service include:

Skill AreaSVL Skill Applications
Volunteer Skills and Applications
Budgeting and Resource Management
  • Fundraising and solicitation
  • Creating and working within a budget
  • Corresponding with community agencies and partners
  • Communicating service goals and tasks to volunteers
Cultural Competence
  • Volunteering with people of different cultures
  • Engaging with new populations in the community
  • Identifying key project tasks
  • Determining leaders for specific tasks
Managing People
  • Managing volunteers during a service activity
  • Coordinating an event
Marketing and Recruitment
  • Marketing service opportunities throughout the campus
  • Recruiting new volunteers
Motivating Others
  • Keeping volunteers engaged in the service community
  • Helping volunteers to connect to a community issue
  • Developing a project scope of work
  • Creating a project timeline
  • Leading a volunteer orientation
  • Facilitating a service-learning and reflection activity
Problem Solving
  • Troubleshooting during a service activity
  • Developing contingency plans for projects

Once you and your student volunteers have identified the skills you would like to develop during their service experience, you can design appropriate training sessions. Training topics should include relevant skill areas, such as project development, fundraising, volunteer recruitment, and project management. Before undertaking a training series, be sure you have the time and energy to give the SVLs what they may need. Be careful not to promise more than you can deliver as a point person or organization.

Take time to carefully plan how you will train. Don’t just present information; help students connect it to other areas and determine how it will be useful or how they will apply it. Consider structuring your training around the Experiential Learning Cycle.

The Experiential Learning Cycle

  • Experience – This step sets the stage for the rest of the cycle. Offer content and activities that will produce information or understanding.
  • Describe – Encourage SVLs to share their experiences with the group. They can discuss what happened and their impressions of the experience.
  • Interpret – Provide opportunities for SVLs to express their reactions to the experience. Help them to go beyond simply observing what happened to looking for the reasons why.
  • Generalize – Ask SVLs to link the experience to the real world. Work with the group to determine if the experience was unique or if it happens in other situations.
  • Apply – Enhance learning retention by allowing space for SVLs to reflect on the lessons they have learned and to share those lessons with others.

Additionally, plan for how you can make your sessions applicable, interesting, and inclusive for all SVLs. Appreciate the diversity represented by the students. In particular, structure your sessions with a variety of teaching methods that will appeal to visual, auditory, and tactile (kinesthetic) learners.

Signature Projects and Flexible Position Descriptions

Create a "Signature Project"

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]In addition to training, another way to enrich learning experiences and professional development for SVLs is to provide the opportunity to create signature projects — something they can truly own and lead. Students may want to tackle a large project related to a community issue, or they could organize a day of service, bringing together many community agencies, students, and campuses.

You can also engage students in signature projects within your organization. Aside from average office tasks, give SVLs specific problems or topics for which they can take complete responsibility during their time with your program. For example, your volunteers could reorganize a supply closet or tool bank and find donors or partners to restock necessary supplies.

You can further the volunteer learning experience from signature projects by providing opportunities for volunteers to succeed in their service and evaluate the skills they gained as a result.

Provide Flexibility in Position Descriptions

Students will recognize that they have specific skills they need or want to strengthen. They may sign on as a student volunteer leader in order to hone a certain skill, or they may identify a skill they want to strengthen through the course of their service and training.

Work with students to determine what volunteer roles most closely align with their learning and development goals. Be flexible with their position descriptions to provide opportunities for them to develop and utilize the skills they have identified.

Be Aware of Volunteers' Different Work Styles: Position descriptions should best fit student volunteers' varied work styles. Some students work better with a tightly focused and detailed position description, while others perform better and enjoy their experience more when day-to-day tasks call for myriad skills and responsibilities. Be cognizant of each volunteer's work style and provide a flexible position description that reflects what you know about it.

Coaching and Delegating to Students

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]In addition to more formal training, provide some informal training and/or coaching for your leaders to develop the skills that will make them successful in their roles.

Key Elements for Effective Coaching

Remember these key points to effective coaching:

  • A trusting, honest, and respectful relationship between coach and coachee
  • Time for preparation and reflection
  • Clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and expectations
  • Effective listening
  • Strategic questions that promote thinking
  • Data collection and thoughtful feedback

Another way to foster skill development is to engage students in brainstorming and project planning from the very beginning. This builds interest and momentum and gives student volunteer leaders more opportunity to develop job skills. Finally, recognize students’ growth through the course of the project development and implementation. As part of your coaching, guide them in how to translate new skills to their resumes.

Delegating to Students

Through further orientation and continuing support, you are preparing student volunteer leaders to take greater responsibility and truly own their service projects. However, you must continue to work with student leaders to accomplish project goals. Effectively delegating project tasks to volunteers requires careful preparation. Consider these tips on how to delegate tasks effectively:

  • Give assignments in terms of results, not just activities or tasks. In order to accomplish something, SVLs need a sense of what they are trying to achieve. Therefore, define jobs as something to accomplish (e.g., $500 raised), rather than something to do (e.g., write a grant proposal). Explain as precisely as possible what they are to do. Explain the importance of the particular task. Show them you have confidence in their ability to carry out the task. Be more interested in results than in how it is done. Be certain that the people you choose are capable of doing the assignment and have the necessary knowledge and training to do it.
  • Define the level of control. Be clear with SVLs about how much authority they have in making decisions. Let them know at the start who will be responsible for making decisions. When appropriate, delegate authority to make decisions, along with the responsibility for carrying out the task.
  • Communicate to your SVLs any guidelines and/or parameters to be used in shaping their decisions. Be specific about deadlines. Help set priorities.
  • Make resources available to your SVLs, and offer any assistance necessary to accomplish tasks. Be aware of the types of support someone might need and the type of support you can provide. Ensure proper access to the tools and resources necessary to get the job done.
  • Determine the criteria for success, and agree on how results will be judged. To be satisfied about their work, SVLs need feedback that indicates the degree of success they are having. Before the project, determine the criteria for success and how success will be evaluated.
  • Establish reporting points for your SVLs along the way. Set specific times to check in with SVLs; this provides the opportunity to discuss progress and will help you avoid having meetings that occur only when things are not going well. Giving SVLs your undivided attention at a regular meeting also lets them know that you care about the work they’re doing and how it is accomplished.


Expanding Your Training Resources

Connecting with other nonprofits and schools in the community can increase the volunteer and leadership development opportunities for students. Consider connecting student volunteers with the following:

  • Community agencies that work around specific issues of interest to SVLs.
  • Volunteer groups at another university that may be serving in different ways, such as through alternative breaks.
  • Community leadership opportunities, such as serving on boards at local agencies.
  • Other academic departments to bridge gaps on campus and strengthen the service movement.
  • Training opportunities, such as seminars or conferences located in or near your town.
  • Professional associations (particularly nonprofit professional associations) for the opportunity to meet leaders in a field that interests them, become aware of important issues in that field, and possibly find other volunteer, internship, or job positions.

Formalize the SVL Experience

Formalizing student volunteers' leadership experience validates their roles and provides them with future growth opportunities. In addition to developing flexible volunteer position descriptions and helping students translate their service to their resumes, consider:

  • utilizing forms for class credit,
  • writing letters of recommendation, and
  • conducting formal performance evaluations for your volunteers.

If you encourage SVLs to reference your organization when applying for future programs, internships, or jobs, be sure that your organization is prepared to keep records on the student volunteer leaders. This will ensure that students receive an honest and prompt reference, even if their immediate supervisor is no longer with the organization.

NOTE: If your organization is prepared to maintain records of student volunteer leaders, be sure to establish procedures for protecting the security of student information as you would for other organization staff.

Click the following links to access templates designed to help you support student volunteer skills development:




Training and coaching SVLs increases their skill development as well as the success of their volunteer projects. Ensure they have the skills necessary to plan and implement their projects, and support them throughout the process. This section has helped you to:

  • Train leaders to develop necessary skills
  • Provide flexibility in position descriptions
  • Coach students
  • Delegate successfully
  • Create “signature” projects
  • Expand your resources
  • Formalize the experience

In the next section, we discuss ideas for retaining and recognizing student volunteer leaders.