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.


Liza Dyer
Liza J. Dyer, CVA, has been working and volunteering in the nonprofit and public sectors for more than 15 years. She is currently a Volunteer Services Program Coordinator at Multnomah County Library, a public library system in Portland, Oregon which engages over 2,000 community members as library volunteers each year. Liza has previously worked in museums and science centers where she taught people about science, led teams of citizen scientists, and talked about whales (almost) every day. When not at work, Liza can be found knitting, reading, exploring, and volunteering in the community. She is proud to be an AmeriCorps alum and Certified in Volunteer Administration (CVA). Find her on Twitter: @lizaface. Pronouns: she/her/hers