Restore Strategies | Seven Rules for Recognizing Volunteers Well
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Seven Rules for Recognizing Volunteers Well


Thanking volunteers may not seem like a huge deal – volunteers are there because they care about the cause, right? Evidence shows, however, that volunteers (like most normal people) like to be recognized and shown gratitude for the sacrifices and contributions they make. In fact, a 1998 study by the UPS foundation found that nearly one in ten volunteers (9 percent) that stopped volunteering at their organization did so because they were not thanked for their contributions. Think about that for a minute – we could reduce our volunteer turnover by roughly ten percent if we could just figure out how to thank these individuals better. 

Recognizing volunteers is more than the occasional pat on the back or plaque at an annual event – it’s a rhythm and culture that you and your team must build together. The real question is, though, what characteristics should be found in any organization that cares for volunteers well? In their book titled Volunteer Management, authors McCurley and Lynch note seven key ways that your nonprofit should thank volunteers.


Give volunteers recognition frequently.

Staff members may feel like they give praise and thanks to volunteers regularly, but volunteers may not feel the same way. Although this discrepancy may be attributable to several things, the most prominent may be the perceived “shelf life” of recognition. While staff members may assign a longer “shelf life” to each instance of recognition they give, volunteers may subconsciously (or consciously) expect to receive gratitude for their free contribution more frequently.


Give volunteers recognition 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 critical that praise and thanks be shown consistently from volunteer to volunteer. If gratitude is shown selectively, neglected volunteers may feel that leaders have “favorites” and come to believe their service is valued less.


Give volunteers recognition in several different ways.

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

  • From a person for the work the volunteer did. 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.
  • From a person for being part of the organization. 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.
  • From the organization for work the volunteer did. 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.
  • From the organization for being part of the team. This may be the most impersonal as the “faceless” organization is thanking him/her in the exact same fashion as they would thank any other volunteer at the nonprofit. However, giving this kind of gratitude requires little effort on behalf of the leadership team and can still provide a boost to morale.
Give volunteers recognition sincerely.

We all know that supervisor that seems to heap praise upon individuals for finishing the easiest or smallest of tasks. While it may seem like a courtesy the first or second time, it may later come across as patronizing or demeaning. Lavishing praise upon ANYONE for ANYTHING may also diminish the value of honest gratitude shown to those volunteers who have gone the extra mile to give back to the organization. Long story short, give recognition when you mean it.


Give volunteers recognition, not the work they have done.

This rule is often 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 help vulnerable clients. Make sure those sacrifices are specifically noted and publicly celebrated by naming the volunteers and their unique contributions.

Give volunteers recognition in an appropriate manner.

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.


Give volunteers recognition swiftly.

Psychology literature overwhelmingly 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 works.


Give volunteers recognition in a personal, non-generic way.

No one wants the “insert volunteer name here” kinds of recognition. It signals to the serving individual that their contribution is valued little by the leadership team and may discourage them from volunteering in the future. Even if you plan to use a template for thanking volunteers, take the time to note specific instances in which he/she went above and beyond or certain ways in which their service has directly made the organization better.


While thanking volunteers may seem as simple as trying to say “good job” when you happen to see a volunteer going above and beyond, real harm can be done when nonprofit leaders underappreciate the power of showing gratitude appropriately, frequently, and meaningfully. Most of our organizations would be unable to do what they do without volunteers – thanking and recognizing them not only shows them the value they bring but helps the social sector continue to thrive.

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