Volunteer Recognition

Knowing Why They Volunteer Helps
You Know How to Recognize Them

This spring, in both Canada and the US, April 19 – 25 is designated as National Volunteer Appreciation Week. What this means is that organizations across both countries that depend on volunteers will be spending time and money to acknowledge volunteers for their contributions.

Organizations will purchase tens of thousands of certificates, logo-emblazoned trinkets, bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolates, gift cards, and other expressions of appreciation to present to volunteers.

While the sentiment behind such acts may be genuine, the form of recognition may not be appropriate for all the recipients. While some may treasure the certificates they receive for years, others will soon deposit these tokens of appreciation in recycle bins. Just because an organization likes to see its logo everywhere doesn’t mean that volunteers want – or need – a travel mug bearing its logo.

For recognition to be most valued by recipients, it must be appropriate, and that is something that will vary from volunteer to volunteer. Understanding the different reasons why people volunteer can provide clues to how to make recognition appropriate.

Ideally, recognition should be matched to the reasons why people volunteer. Here are a few reasons for volunteering, along with implications for making assignments and suggestions for recognition:

To fill a social need. To meet others. Often, newcomers want to get involved in their new community. Assigning these people to solitary tasks would be a mistake. They should work with others. Volunteer coordinators should introduce them to others. Social events with other volunteers are a great way to thank those for whom volunteering helps fill a social need.To gain experience that will prepare them for the world of work. For parents preparing to return to the workplace after spending time away raising children, volunteering may be their first step in this transition. Education students are encouraged to augment their studies by volunteering in classrooms. What these volunteers want – and need – is a variety of experiences. One way to let them know that their contributions are valued is to write letters of reference for them that include specific examples of how they contributed.

To find out what is going on. Parents want to understand what is happening in their children’s schools. Residents want to know what is happening in their community. Demonstrate your appreciation and trust by keeping them in the communication loop. Share as much as possible without revealing confidential or proprietary information. Invite and then answer their questions.

To be seen as worthwhile people. Get to know these volunteers. What are their strengths? How can these be used so that volunteers can see that what they have to offer is important to the organization? Assign tasks from which they can experience success. Regularly let these volunteers know that what they do is valued by the organization and essential to its success. If they weren’t doing these tasks, who would be?

To learn and grow. Some lifelong learners are looking for new challenges that will add to their knowledge and skills. Assign tasks that provide them with these opportunities. Express appreciation by providing opportunities for them to attend workshops or to participate in other learning opportunities.

Whatever you do to say thank you during National Volunteer Appreciation Week, remember that it is just one week out of 52. The need of volunteers to know that they are valued will not end when the week ends. Those who work with volunteers can fulfill this ongoing need by using simple, inexpensive recognition techniques such as a few words of appreciation delivered regularly and occasional thank-you notes throughout the year.

Many years ago, when I was principal of Thickwood Heights Elementary School in Fort McMurray, our staff decided to thank our volunteers by inviting them to lunch. Nothing unusual about that. Hosting a volunteer luncheon is a common way to show appreciation.

What made it special was the teachers’ decision not to order food from a local caterer. Instead they volunteered to prepare the food themselves. We each prepared a favourite dish and treated our volunteers to a great potluck lunch.

If parents were volunteering their time to help, it seemed appropriate that we use some of our time to say thank you. Sure beat giving everyone another mug.

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