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Advice from the Experts: Volunteer Recognition

Polly Roach

As we get ready to celebrate volunteers in during National Volunteer Week in April (this year, April 7 – 13), many leaders of volunteers are pulling together special events, tallying volunteer hours and accomplishments, or ordering special recognition gifts. Even as we make these once-a-year plans, we are working to assure volunteers that they are valued and appreciated every week of the year, and every time they show up for us, our organizations and those we serve. This is just one of the many balancing acts that volunteer engagement leaders pull off – to help you with this particular one, we’ve collected ideas from your colleagues about handling those special days, and keeping volunteer recognition front-of-mind at all times.

Some proven ideas on recognition surfaced in MAVA’s 2018 Trends in Volunteerism survey, where volunteer engagement leaders shared strategies for success on many topics, including volunteer appreciation. These ideas were captured in Advice from the Field: 100+ Tips, Tactics and Tools for Keeping Pace with Today’s Volunteerism, available on the MAVA website in the Research and Initiatives section, with the other Shifting Environment studies. Ideas for recognizing volunteers included:

- Send handwritten thank you postcards.
- Report client satisfaction to volunteers.
- Offer a recognition program that includes lifetime membership after X amount of hours served.
- Do more frequent recognition such as lunch events or gift cards twice a year, t-shirts and personal thank yous.
- Free food.
- Centralize recognition program to replace decentralized, non-standardized recognition.
- Highlight volunteers in the local paper.
- Thank them. Thank them. Thank them!

To dig deeper into what makes for effective volunteer recognition, I talked to a few MAVA members known for creative and consistent celebration of their volunteers. Each had different approaches to recognition that fit their organization’s culture and made sense for the volunteers that serve there, but the bottom line for all of them was the same: volunteer recognition is vital for the health and sustainability of their volunteer programs, and upholds all their efforts to recruit and retain volunteers.

For Janene Riedeman, Director, Volunteer Services, St. Cloud Hospital – CentraCare Health, “making it special” is the goal, so customized recognition tactics are key to her efforts. An unexpectedly popular thank you item the Hospital provides is a yearly calendar for each volunteer with the individual’s name incorporated into pictures accompanying each month – i.e., carved into a pumpkin for October. Janene also works with hospital administration to ensure that volunteers in the top tier of hours contributed receive a personal note of thanks from the President of the Hospital – who’s also present at recognition events, and has been known to enliven photos with volunteers by working silly props into the pictures. Janene noted that a few of her most successful volunteer appreciation efforts began as cost-saving measures – the calendar replaced two yearly thank you gifts, and the annual volunteer appreciation event is now offered as a breakfast, lunch and dinner, often on the same day, so busy volunteers can choose a time that works for them, and staff can streamline their preparation efforts.

Danielle Brady, Volunteer Services Manager at the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, echoed the importance of individualized appreciation – “the more personalized, the better”. She also believes the most meaning recognition ties back to the work and the mission volunteers are supporting. At Crisis Nursery, she engages staff and clients in thanking volunteers; when staff who work with volunteers write a personal note of thanks for volunteer efforts, they do so using cards colored by children who stay at the Nursery. Danielle also involves Board Members in recognizing (other) volunteers – they all make phone calls to Nursery volunteers to thank them for their contributions. Not only does this generate the most positive feedback she gets from volunteers, she also reported that Board Members really appreciate the chance to connect with others on behalf of the organization without making an ask for money.

For Kate Errickson, Talent Resources Manager at the Minnesota Children’s Museum, staff engagement is also the driver for volunteer recognition. Her philosophy is that the Volunteer Services Department takes responsibility for formal recognition, but staff members provide informal, day-to-day recognition. She advocates that staff supervisors to get to know their volunteers, and what motivates them, to fine-tune recognition efforts, and promotes handwritten notes of thanks as a key appreciation tactic. Supervisors are also encouraged to note volunteer successes on daily attendance sheets; those notes are cut out and attached to volunteer name badges to be seen at the volunteer’s next shift to reinforce appreciation of their efforts. Supervisors can recommend volunteers, who are often high school and college students, for leadership opportunities; when volunteers are asked to take on additional roles, the fact that they have been “chosen to lead” by staff members is celebrated. Other Museum staff get involved in volunteer recognition as well – different departments sponsor the volunteer candy jar each month, and volunteers know which area is responsible for supporting their sugar fix.

Terry Straub, University of Minnesota Extension Educator and Coordinator of Hennepin County’s Master Gardener Volunteer Program, also believes that fostering development of volunteers is a critical recognition strategy. While working with a wide range of ages in his volunteer contingent, he sees many of them responding most favorably to opportunities for education on new areas or skills, and to chances to take on increased responsibility, whether through being asked to do more, getting promoted to leadership positions, or trying out new roles. In talking about material items that support volunteer appreciation efforts, he said he finds that things that carry with the most meaning for volunteers are those that are useful and reinforce the organization’s mission, such as gardening aprons the volunteers designed for themselves, or volunteer name badge lanyards that carry the program’s logo.

For more ideas from your peers on ways to recognize, support and appreciate volunteers, see the companion piece in this newsletter, Volunteer Recognition Tips and Tricks, an updated compilation of the best suggestions MAVA has gathered from leaders of Minnesota volunteers. That article is available as a handout for sharing with colleagues or training staff who supervise volunteers; email me (proach@mavanetwork.org) to get your copy. Good luck getting ready for National Volunteer Week – and all the unnamed weeks of the year that you celebrate volunteers!