Why You Shouldn’t Give Gifts to Volunteers

There are better things to give volunteers than gifts.You’ve gotten to know Roger well over the past 6 months. Without fail, he’s shown up every week to volunteer his time at your nonprofit organization. And never once has he shown up without a cup of coffee in his hand. You know that his favorite coffee spot is just down the street from your office.

You want to show Roger that he’s a valued part of your organization. You couldn’t have as big of an impact without Roger. You’re given a small budget for volunteer recognition, so, what better way to show Roger you care than purchasing a gift card for him to the coffee shop down the street?

Actually, there are much better ways. In fact, volunteer gifts, particularly gift cards or cash, can be potentially problematic for your organization. Here’s why:

Gifts can be interpreted as compensation.

Volunteers, by definition, are not monetarily compensated for their work. This is what differentiates your volunteers from your paid employees. If Roger ends up leaving on less-than-favorable terms, if Roger gets injured while volunteering for your organization… these could trigger legal concerns if Roger claims he was compensated for his work.

What are the chances you will end up in a legal battle over a $25 coffee shop gift card? Pretty slim. But after years of volunteering, these expenses start to add up. Why take the risk at all, however small?

If you’re adamant about giving something to volunteers, your standard nonprofit’s “swag” such as t-shirts or mugs are better choices, because they can’t as easily be converted to cash. Perks such as office snacks are even better.

But, I challenge you to break away from “stuff” all together! Why?

There are much better ways to show volunteer appreciation.

While everyone likes to be recognized in different ways, there are a few appreciation strategies that are universal. Mostly, these require a shift in thinking. Volunteer appreciation shouldn’t be an “add-on”; it shouldn’t be just another task on your to-do list. The most effective volunteer appreciation strategy is inseparable from the rest of your volunteer engagement strategy.

Introducing them to staff and other volunteers.

Inviting them to your nonprofit’s events and celebrations.

Asking them what they need and want, and actually hearing their responses.

Informing them of the latest news and plans for your organization.

Challenging them to develop new skills and try out new roles.

Including them in decision-making.

Showing them the impact they’re having, and sharing that impact with others.

Telling them, and telling them often, how much you appreciate what they do.

These are the things that will keep Roger happy and coming back, more than any coffee shop gift card ever could.

8 Creative Ways to Show Volunteer Appreciation

Guest post by Chris Martin

"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it." -William Arthur WardGratitude is the most powerful thing in the world. It’s said that it’s not happy people who are thankful but rather it’s thankful people who are happy.

Yet, recent studies have painted society as losing its civility, especially in the workplace. It seems that some people have confused niceties with inefficiencies and compliments with ulterior motives. And in our nonprofit space, this will not do.

Let’s put the gratitude back into our attitude. Volunteer appreciation should be the most important mandate we have. If it isn’t, there’s no time like the present for a nice change of pace.

Want to make sure your volunteers know you’re grateful for their service? Follow these suggestions and you’re sure to make them feel like the sun shines just for them!

  1. Get involved alongside them.

Nothing says “buy in” like the Executive Director or supervisors stepping into the fray of serving food, signing up registrants, or helping to coordinate events at the ground level (roles often filled by volunteers).

Showing your volunteers that their job is so important that even the highest management member would help will say a lot about your trust in that person and the job that they do. And as a bonus, isn’t it nice to have someone lend you a helping hand when you’re working hard?

  1. Share their impact with them in a way that they can pass on.

Creating a simple image like an infographic with key metrics detailing the volunteer program and how it impacted a community is a great way of demonstrating how their time and effort helped. In turn, volunteers can share that information on their social media channels, with friends and family and say, “I helped this effort, I made a difference.” Isn’t that something we’d all like to say?

  1. Ask for their opinions – and fully listen.

Having a sit down with some volunteers during program planning stages or between shifts is a great way to explain upcoming initiatives and engage with your volunteers while getting crucial feedback. Make sure to pay attention to the second part: Listening.

If you’re going to ask for an opinion, you owe it to that person to take what they say seriously. Think for a second: who in your life always listens the best? Become that person for your volunteers. Engage with them; acknowledge their ideas; and then draft your response rather than drafting a response in your head while they’re still talking. The difference that ‘thinking after rather than during’ makes will astound you.

  1. Write a blog post or social media post dedicated entirely to them.

Did you launch a new initiative that far exceeded expectations? Don’t just say ‘thanks’ to the volunteer(s), show your supporters that you’re grateful by telling their story.

  1. Write a letter – but not to them.

Think outside the box: Write a letter to your boss telling them how grateful you are that you have such an outstanding volunteer serving your organization.

Gush to your boss about how fortunate you are that your organization has such amazing volunteers – and really drive home the accomplishments and efforts they’ve made. Then, feel free to let the volunteer know. Even better, management could print the letter off and take it to the volunteers directly to recognize how excellent they are.

Larger organizations can replicate this by writing a letter about a team that runs/ran an event and have upper management read it to volunteers at a debriefing.

  1. Place a handwritten note in a card and mail it. Yes, as in made with a pen and paper.

Nowadays, everything is done digitally. This is largely a good thing, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be digital all the time. Isn’t getting mail exciting now that it has become a total novelty? It sure would be nice to receive a mailed letter that isn’t a bill!

  1. Drop the business talk and speak to them on a personal level.

Telling them how they’ve helped your charity is amazing and essential, but don’t forget to tell them how they’ve helped you. Remind them that it’s volunteers like them who make your job a joy.

  1. Lastly, say “thank you.”

Above all else, a simple, heartfelt “thank you” can make the difference in someone’s opinion of their experience – and your organization. Additionally, if you want to get really creative, say it in different words or funny phrases.

About the author: Chris Martin is a former social worker and currently the Senior Marketing Coordinator for Charity Republic, a company specializing in promoting volunteerism and community engagement via accessible and efficient technology solutions.

3 Ways to Recognize Volunteers That Will Appeal to (Virtually) Everyone

How to Recognize Your VolunteersAn 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.

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

  1. It’s the Little Things

How to Appreciate Your VolunteersSo, 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.

The 5 Love Languages for Volunteers

Guest post by Mazarine Treyz

Show Your Volunteers You Appreciate Them with the 5 Love LanguagesWhat love language do YOU speak?

Do you wonder how to connect better with your volunteers? Do you wish you knew what would be really meaningful them?

Why not try the 5 love languages?

Have you heard about The 5 Love Languages? It’s a book by Gary Chapman.

The book’s main premise is that there are 5 languages of love (words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch) that each of us speak. And our relationship struggles occur when our love language mismatches that of our partner.

So, what does this mean? It means that certain things mean more to us than others. Let’s say you love hearing how much people appreciate you, but you could take or leave gifts. Or maybe you love it when people help you with housework, but don’t really like being touched.

For me, words mean so much. Words, physical touch, quality time are all some of my favorite love languages. How about you? And what about your volunteers? Do they fall within the 5 love languages?


So, how can you apply the 5 love languages to your volunteers?

Words of Affirmation
Keep telling your volunteers how how much they mean to your organization. Tell them, “Your volunteering has helped us do these incredible things. Thank you!” or “You really got my attention when you…” or “I just love the way you…” or “I appreciate that you…”

Hint: A volunteer who likes words of affirmation may be the one giving you a testimonial on GreatNonprofits.

Quality Time
Some of us just LOVE quality time. How do you spend quality time with a volunteer? When a volunteer gets to work, have a check in with them, sitting in an out-of-the-way place. Find a moment to ask how they are doing today, and what’s going on with their world.

Other volunteers just like going out to coffee and feeling like someone is really listening to them. And thank-a-thons work too! Calling volunteers to say thank you can make them feel so good!

How does a volunteer communicate that they like quality time to you? Maybe they stop by your office just to say hi. Or they are going above and beyond to serve on committees and seem to really enjoy the time with others.

Receiving Gifts
You know some volunteers hate it when you give them little presents. They say, “Why did you waste the nonprofit’s money on this stupid mug/pen/address label/etc?” And other volunteers really like little presents. A a t-shirt with your organization’s logo, a cup of coffee, or some Hershey’s kisses can make a volunteer feel good. The more you get to know your volunteer, the more you’ll get to know their interests and how a nominal gift can align with those interests.

How can you tell if a volunteer likes gifts? That’s tricky. You might just want to ask them if they would mind a gift in a brief survey.

Acts of Service
The fact that a volunteer is giving an act of service to your nonprofit may be the first clue that this is what they value. However, don’t assume just because they’re volunteering that they value acts of service more than other things. It’s important to present the concept of the 5 love languages to them and ask them to reflect, and think about which ones mean the most to them.

How could you show a volunteer acts of service? At a fundraising event, you could help the volunteer settle into their role, and do their job alongside them for awhile. If they’re looking for a place to sit, you could help them find their table. You could also send them an article or text them a picture you think they might enjoy.

Physical Touch
Some volunteers love to come to your events and meet your participants, meet leadership volunteers, and meet you. Some volunteers love giving hugs, handshakes, and pats on the back. And you can tell these people when you meet them. So, invite them to your open house, your annual meeting, your big gala, and even to tabling events. If they love to reach out and touch your cause, help them feel this tangible connection this way.

We assume appreciation and respect are universal, and given in the ways we like best, when actually people prefer different things. Remember, the easiest way to know which love language your volunteers prefer is to simply ask them.

I hope you’ve got some ideas of how to reach your volunteers and help them stay happy in their work with you. Let me know how it goes!

Mazarine Treyz has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 10 years, and has recruited and managed volunteers for fundraising. She is the author of 5 star rated: The Wild Woman’s Guide to Fundraising, The Wild Woman’s Guide to Social Media, and Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide. Get in touch or follow her on Twitter: @wildwomanfund.

For VolunteerMatch, #15NTC Was About Appreciation

Tessa Srebro, Adam Alley, and Marlene Feil of VolunteerMatch post for a picture at #15NTC.

VolunteerMatch staff Tessa, Adam & Marlene hanging out at #15NTC.

At the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference (#15NTC) held last week in Austin, TX, VolunteerMatch was lucky enough to have a booth in the Science Fair.

Yes, the Exhibition Hall was called the Science Fair. #15NTC attendees know how to embrace their inner nerd-ness.

And we had a blast talking to all the nonprofit nerds who stopped by our booth. Before letting anyone walk away, however, we asked them to contribute to our Volunteer #AppreciationTree, a post-it fueled tree we were growing at our booth. We asked,

#AppreciationTree Supplies

#AppreciationTree Supplies

“If you could describe how you feel about volunteers/ volunteerism in just a few words, what would those words be?”

(I realize this is a difficult question to be tasked with on the spot, especially since volunteers are such a diverse group of people. So thanks for putting up with us!)

We got some great responses, such as “Big Hearts”, “Invaluable”, “Rockstars”, and my personal favorite, “Awesome Sauce.”

We added these responses as leaves to our #AppreciationTree. The names of stand-out volunteers became the bark. And we were fortunate enough to watch the #AppreciationTree grow:

Appreciation Tree Animation

So, how would you describe volunteerism? Tweet your thoughts to @VolunteerMatch with #AppreciationTree.