May 15, 2015

Beyond the Thank You Card: Meaningful volunteer appreciation

Effective recognition is a big deal when it comes to ensuring volunteers feel like they’re a part of your nonprofit or organization. When I say “recognition,” I’m not just talking about thanking volunteers, although that’s essential, too. What I mean by recognition is the act of being acknowledged or appreciated or even seen.

Consider the following example. Volunteer Canada and Investors Group conducted a study where they asked a large group of volunteers about the type of recognition they liked most from the nonprofits where they volunteer. They also asked the organizations about the type of recognition they were providing to volunteers. Luckily, both parties ranked high on the “thank you” front. There were a few differences elsewhere, however. Organizations were more likely to provide a banquet or formal gathering, whereas volunteers were not as keen for that type of activity. On the flipside, volunteers wanted to know the impact of their work, but it wasn’t as common for organizations to provide that information to volunteers. This example brings me to a basic question: How can volunteers and nonprofits get on the same page?

Getting on the Same Page

My organization, Multnomah County Library, is a public library system with 19 different locations in and around Portland, Oregon. Our volunteer program includes 1,900 volunteers annually, doing a variety of things, including shelving and checking in materials, assisting with computer classes and programs, and providing various outreach services. With so many engaged community members, each volunteer is not going to want or need the same things to feel appreciated. We do our best to create a recognition program that has aspects that appeal to different preferences. But how do we know what volunteers want? To answer that question, we started surveying our volunteers to learn more about how they like to be recognized for their time and dedication.

In the most recent survey from February 2015, we contacted 556 of our current volunteers who had given at least 24 hours of time to the library. We included that 24-hour baseline to make sure we were surveying volunteers who had been around at least a little while so they had a chance to experience our recognition efforts. The survey was created with Zoomerang, and 309 volunteers participated.

We asked several questions, including length of service, the location or program in which they volunteer, what type of recognition they would like, and what they have enjoyed in the past. We were especially interested in the various forms of recognition that volunteers said they would appreciate most.

Survey Says…

The preferred form of recognition—year after year—is a “thank you” card or note from the staff that volunteers work with. It may sound simple, but it’s a great chance for staff to express gratitude.

Other forms that ranked highly include:

  1. Notifications about new library programs and services
  2. Special, volunteer-only events
  3. Regular updates about how my volunteer service is making a difference to the library

We also include a section in the survey where volunteers can suggest things we haven’t considered. In the results of one of our surveys, we learned that a specific group of volunteers wanted a more comfortable chair to sit in during their volunteer shifts. So what did we do? We got them a chair.

A Little Less Conversation, a Little More Action Please

After each annual survey is complete, the Volunteer Services workgroup gets together to discuss the responses and make a plan for our recognition efforts for the next year. We then divvy up the work based on interest and expertise of individual staff members.

To notify volunteers of new programs and services, we created a Google Site to serve as an intranet of sorts. Recent updates have included information about the Summer Reading program and teen art contest. The Summer Reading program is the library’s largest youth engagement program with nearly 800 volunteers—85% of whom are under the age of 18—so we want to make sure our volunteers in other areas of the library are kept in the loop if they want to be. Whenever the Google Site is updated, we email volunteers to let them know there’s new content.

Something that gets posted on both the Google Site and the library’s public website is the Volunteer Spotlight. The monthly article is written by a volunteer, about a volunteer. This allows us to highlight individual volunteers as well as share information about programs or services they’re involved in. We encourage volunteers and paid staff to nominate volunteers for the spotlight throughout the year.

We also plan volunteer-only events such as a tour of the John Wilson Special Collections at Central Library, which houses rare books and other special items. This twice-yearly event is so popular that registration (capped at 20 due to space) usually fills within a day. At the start of the tour we either provide a short presentation on how volunteers positively impact the library, or have a librarian give a presentation on a service such as My Librarian. Another event we hosted last year was a board game night for volunteers (and a guest if they wanted to bring someone along). We look forward to planning more events to connect volunteers in the future.

The More You Know

A person who doesn’t feel recognized, or “seen,” likely won’t stick around your organization for long. So how can you make sure that volunteers feel acknowledged and included? Ask them. You might be surprised by what you learn.


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Liza Dyer
Liza J Dyer, CVA, has worked in the nonprofit and public sectors for over 10 years and is currently a Program Coordinator in Volunteer Services at Multnomah County Library. Outside of work, Liza holds leadership positions with Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Portland, and the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration.
  • Liza J Dyer

    Before the transition to NTEN’s lovely new website, there were some comments here, including one regarding events for remote volunteers. I posed the question to the Virtual Volunteering group on LinkedIn and got a few responses. Jayne Cravens mentioned that there are tons of ideas in chapter 10 of “The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook” by Jayne and Susan J. Ellis (of Energize, Inc.). Susan added a few ideas too, that I wanted to share here:

    “Most often, by definition almost, online volunteers are not prone to coming onsite physically (although they should still be invited to any physical location event, of course!). Jayne is right that we have suggested lots of things in Chapter 10 of the book, but here are simply a few ideas:

    * Yes, live stream or videotape and then post activities happening at an onsite event

    * Hold an online “party” at a scheduled time in a chat room

    * Award virtual “certificates” such as graphics saying “Incredible Volunteer with ABC Org” which the volunteers can place on their own social media pages (linking to you and possibly recruiting even more volunteers!).

    In truth, what makes something feel like appreciation is not coming to an event, it’s being INCLUDED in the thank yous in just about any way.”

    • Steph Routh

      Thank you so much for carrying the comments forward, Liza! You are the cat’s pajamas.

      • Liza J Dyer

        Greatest compliment! Thanks, Steph. =)