“Thanks a Mint!”…No Thanks: Evolving Recognition Past Pins and Plaques

Guest post by Liz Murphy, American Red Cross-North Texas Region

Thanks a MintThrough my research into volunteer recognition, I’ve found a multitude of articles, blog posts, tips and tricks suggesting the best ways to recognize volunteer service. The problem is, most of these resources tell the reader to perform the same superficial actions and give the same kitschy gifts. Let’s look at some examples:

One resource suggests I award “The Golden Plunger,” literally a plunger spray painted gold, presumably saying tongue-in-cheek that they do the [blank] that no one else will. OK.

Another resource suggests giving out paper clips or glue with the note, “You’re what holds us together.” Yet another suggested a roll of LifeSavers to say…”You’re our lifesaver!” And of course, one can’t overlook the classic “Thanks a Mint,” mint. To this I say…no thanks.

If I were to work above and beyond the call of duty in extremes of weather or conditions, after giving up my time and feeling like perhaps I had done something deserving of recognition…and was then to receive a paper clip, glue, mint or God forbid a plunge…that might just be the last time I volunteered. Yes, these get a chuckle, but what they don’t get to is the heart of why I spent my time with your organization, and why I deserve proper and appropriate recognition and appreciation.

The volunteers in my care are adults. I mean this in body as well as mind. And as recognition and engagement strategies evolve and become more sophisticated, so too should the messages and gifts we send. It’s arguable that these heartfelt, albeit cutesy gifts might in fact encourage and invigorate a volunteer’s enthusiasm for your organization. That’s a decision that you should make as you get to know your volunteers one-on-one. I encourage you to think past the paperclips, “you’re our rock” pet rocks, LifeSavers and mints and examine the forms of volunteer appreciation that will make a meaningful difference in your volunteers’ experiences.

It is true that we want to give and may need to give our volunteers gifts. And if you’ve read the articles on recognition that I’ve read, you’ll also know that appreciation and recognition can and should happen regularly. So, how does one go about that?

Know Your Volunteers

The first step has to be to understand your volunteers. With thousands of organizations in a person’s local area to volunteer with, they chose yours. Identifying the characteristics that draw volunteers to your organization is key in understanding what motivates them.

Recognition and appreciation at their heart are motivators. They motivate a volunteer to continue to donate their time because they know they’re valued. They motivate volunteers because they validate the time that volunteer has spent by showing how they’ve made a difference (and every volunteer has made a difference).

Overused recognition and appreciation items which may seem too cute or tacky to you also seem that way to your volunteers. We have to recognize that if a volunteer is part of our organization, than they are motivated and inspired by some part of the mission.

For example…Let’s say our volunteer is with an organization that helps schools and children. That volunteer is going to want to see the results of their time spent. How many classrooms did they help repair? How many children will have a better learning environment in that classroom thanks to that volunteer’s donated hours? How much money have they saved the school system by donating a few hours and perhaps supplies to help rehab those classrooms? Take all of those answers and write the volunteer a letter saying thank you…BECAUSE.

Too often volunteer managers forget that “because” and take for granted the fact that since the volunteer participated in an event, cause or situation that they understand the impact they had. I would argue that most volunteers have no idea how many people, places or things they’ve improved. The altruistic nature of volunteerism just doesn’t connect mentally to what they got out of it. If they were focused on such things, they probably wouldn’t be volunteers. So take the time to understand the volunteer’s impact and tell them. Regularly.

Serious Commitment Deserves Serious Recognition

Identifying the characteristics of your volunteers will help you not only recognize them but engage them. Here is where I come to my next sticking point in the research. In articles on volunteer management, recognition seems to get three lines and engagement one and then the article is over, as though the topic has been adequately addressed.

We take for granted that volunteers will either be here or they won’t and that’s how it is. So they send a thank you note…or mint…every once in a while thinking it should work, and if it doesn’t than there’s nothing I could have done. Not true. We can’t believe that thank yous, pins and plaques are all a volunteer needs out of their experience to feel validated and engaged. These things are a PART of recognition and engagement but not ALL of it.

Volunteers each have a personal motivation for giving time to an organization, that’s where their engagement starts. This is where a pin, plaque and certainly a thank you email is key in retaining your volunteers; when they’re minimally engaged and are getting their feet wet in your organization.

But if this volunteer six months or a year later is still only getting pins and thank you emails but isn’t getting more responsibility, organizational “trade” information, diverse opportunities, recognition of the skills they bring from their outside life, just to name a few…well, then we will soon be with one less volunteer.

With any job, growth is key and is part of the answer to the question, “How do I recognize and appreciate my volunteers?” Through engagement is the rest of the answer.

To retain your volunteers you must first: understand why they chose your organization and in the same thought, understand what that says about them as a person.

Second: look at your organization’s volunteer process. Do I have to jump through hoops to even volunteer one hour with you? Look at the process from their point of view.

Third: When they do get to volunteer, are there tools and resources for supervisors to easily recognize on a daily basis without all the kitsch?

Finally: Know that to retain your volunteers, engage them and recognize them, you will have to get a little bit in everyone’s business. Because really you’re the overseer, making sure that the volunteer who is being generous enough to give you their time and compassion has been treated right. It’s a relationship not to be taken lightly. Treat it as such…and eventually, maybe, they’ll really appreciate a joke “Thanks a Mint” in their goodie bag.

(Photo from http://coffeehousepromos.com/Mints.cfm)

Liz Murphy is the Volunteer Retention Specialist for the American Red Cross-North Texas Region. Her focus is on strategy and programs designed to improve volunteer engagement and satisfaction across the 111 counties of North Texas. Visit www.redcross.org for information on becoming one of our amazing volunteers.