Thanking volunteers may not seem like a huge deal.The thought goes, volunteers are here because they care about our cause, right? Well… not necessarily. Evidence shows that volunteers, like most people, appreciate being recognized and shown gratitude for the sacrifices and contributions they make. 

Recognizing volunteers is more than the occasional pat on the back or plaque at an annual event. A posture of thankfulness is both a rhythm and culture that teams must intentionally build together.The real question is, what are the characteristics found in organizations that care for volunteers well? In their book titled Volunteer Management, authors McCurley and Lynch note seven key ways that your nonprofit should thank volunteers        

RECOGNIZE VOLUNTEERS REGULARLY 

Staff members may think they give praise and thanks to volunteers regularly, but volunteers often don’t feel the same. This discrepancy may be attributable to several factors. The most prominent is the perceived “shelf life” of recognition. While staff members assign a longer “shelf life” to each instance of recognition they give, volunteers subconsciously (or consciously) expect to receive gratitude for their free contribution more frequently.

RECOGNIZE VOLUNTEERS CONSISTENTLY

Praise and recognition should also be given consistently. If a volunteer receives thanks for completing a difficult task initially, they may become discouraged if the same gratitude is not displayed when completing the same task in the future. It is also important to cultivate praise and thanks between volunteers as well. If gratitude is shown selectively, neglected volunteers may feel that leaders have “favorites” and come to believe their contributions are less valued. 

RECOGNIZE VOLUNTEER IN A VARIETY OF WAYS

McCurley and Lynch describe four major ways in which volunteers can be recognized:

  1. From an organization director to a volunteer.  This may be the most personal as it signals that another individual has not only taken notice of specific things the volunteer has done well but gone out of their way to recognize the volunteer for that contribution.
  2. From a staff member to a volunteer. This is still personal as it is from a specific individual (and feels less generic) but involves thanking the volunteer more for their motivations than their actual job performance.
  3. From the organization to a volunteer. The advantage of this approach is found in the fact that the volunteer’s deeds are broadcasted to everyone in the organization by the organization itself. This may take the form of selecting him or her as “Volunteer of the Month” because of their actions. 
  4. From an impersonal means to a volunteer. This is the “faceless” organization thanking the volunteer through an email, text message, or some other impersonal means. However, giving this kind of gratitude requires little effort on behalf of the leadership team and can still provide a boost to morale.


RECOGNIZE VOLUNTEERS SINCERELY

We all know that supervisor that seems to heap praise upon individuals for finishing the easiest or smallest tasks. While it may seem like a courtesy the first or second time, it can eventually become patronizing or demeaning. Lavishing praise upon anyone for anything may also diminish the value of honest gratitude shown to volunteers who have gone the extra mile. Long story short, give recognition when you mean it.
 

RECOGNIZE VOLUNTEERS, NOT THEIR WORK

This is easy to overlook or misapply. As nonprofit leaders, we may celebrate the success of an event or project without intentionally recognizing those that spent hours organizing the event or going out of their way to serve our clients. Make sure those sacrifices are specifically noted and publicly celebrated by naming the volunteers and their unique contributions.


RECOGNIZE VOLUNTEERS APPROPRIATELY

You probably shouldn’t thank a volunteer that picked up trash after an event with an awards ceremony hosted by the executive director. Make sure that the intensity of the gratitude shown is reflective of the contribution made by the volunteer. 


RECOGNIZE VOLUNTEERS SWIFTLY


Psychological research shows that rewards are most effective if given immediately following the event which you want to encourage or recognize. Some volunteers may need to wait for public recognition at an event or fundraiser, but nonprofit leaders should be quick to note their sacrifice one-on-one or internally to the team on which the volunteer serves.

 
RECOGNIZE VOLUNTEERS THOUGHTFULLY

No one wants the “insert volunteer name here” kind of recognition. It signals to the volunteer that their contribution is valued little by the leadership team and may discourage them from volunteering in the future. If you plan to use a template for thanking volunteers, take the time to note specific instances in which they went above and beyond or certain ways in which their service has directly made the organization better. There are always small touches that can show thoughtfulness behind a “thank you.” 
 
While thanking volunteers may seem as simple as saying “good job” when a volunteer goes above and beyond, real harm can be done when nonprofit leaders under appreciate the power of showing genuine gratitude. Remember recognize your volunteers appropriately, frequently, and meaningfully. Most organizations would be unable to function without volunteers. Thanking and recognizing those who serve shows they are valued and helps the entire nonprofit community thrive.


Garrett Clawson
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.


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