An animal shelter. An art museum. A digital library. A food bank.
These are just a few of the types of organizations I’ve volunteered for. Sometimes, I’ve felt valued and important. Other times, I’ve felt like a ghost, passing through without being seen.
I know volunteer appreciation is tough, because not all volunteers like to be thanked in the same way. For example, one organization I volunteered for asked its volunteers to individually stand up to receive a huge round of applause from staff. I felt like a genuine rockstar, but I have a feeling this was not a pleasant experience for my spotlight-shy volunteer counterparts.
Yet, there are some things that can be almost universally appreciated. From my perspective as a volunteer, these are the three most important things to remember when you want to make your volunteers feel valued.
- Pay attention.
Take a little bit of time to actually get to know your volunteers. Ask them questions, and pay attention to what they say. What are their interests and hobbies? Do they have pets at home? What’s their favorite local spot? Show them that you’re interested in who they are, and that they’re not just a pair of hands to get the job done.
Many organizations like to give small tokens of appreciation, such as a candy bar. Think about how much better these gifts would be if they were tailored to the volunteers’ interests. Instead of a candy bar, a bag of potato chips for that volunteer who’s always opting for a salty snack. Paying attention to these small, personal preferences only takes a small amount of effort, and will go a long way.
Note: If you have a lot of volunteers, or don’t have the best memory, write it down!
- Include them.
Don’t let your volunteers feel like a stranger at your organization. Yes, they know you, and they know the staff they work with directly. But what about other staff members? Walking around in a place where you belong, but no one knows who you are, can be awkward and intimidating.
A quick introduction to staff can alleviate this anxiety. In fact, at one organization I volunteered for, I was encouraged to attend weekly staff meetings. This was optional, of course. But whenever I did attend, I felt like part of the team, and I got a heck of a lot of “thank yous”!
Furthermore, include your volunteers in your organization’s triumphs. One of the biggest motivations for volunteering, and one of the best ways to feel appreciated, is to see the impact your volunteer work is having on the organization’s mission. Don’t limit those big announcements to staff meetings. Make sure your volunteers are in the loop. Because your volunteers are not a separate entity. They’re an instrumental part of your organization’s success.
- It’s the Little Things
So, your organization has a huge volunteer party, and maybe some perks, such as guest passes to your museum. Don’t get me wrong, those things are great. But they don’t mean anything if there’s not a “thank you” said as you’re leaving for the day, or a handwritten card to celebrate a service anniversary. A survey of Multnomah County Library volunteers found that their volunteers preferred a simple thank you card over any other form of recognition.
For volunteer recognition, there is no one-size-fits-all. Yet, while you may need to adapt these suggestions based on the size and format of your own volunteer program, the message remains the same. If you pay attention to your volunteers, make them feel included, and don’t forget the simple thanks (and make all of these things part of your day-to-day culture), you’ll find yourself with some pretty happy volunteers.